Cherry Coal Mine Disaster

Story of Disaster by Steve Stout
Cherry Mine Disaster Story
Story of Disaster by Steve Stout
The Fatal Day
Story in a Nutshell
Mine Site photos
Description of Cherry Mine
James Cherry
page two mine pics
Page Three Mine Pics
Page four Mine photos
Page Five Mine Photos
Page Six Mine Photos
Page Seven Mine Photos
Page Eight Mine Photos
Page Nine Mine Photos
Bell Signals etc.
Page Ten Mine photos
New Mine photos
Aerial Views
Cherry Mine Artifacts
Sunday Morning Crowds
Cherry Mine Model
Model Pics Set Two
Twelve Heroes Story
John Flood: Hero
Alex Norberg (Hero)
Read about Eight-Day Men
John Thomas Brown
George Eddy
Which Story Deserves Movie?
The Memorial and More
Miners Tombstones
Cherry Depot
Soldier Trains and more
Morgue Tent
Names of Victims
Names of Victims section two
Coal Mining Words
Map Diagrams
No Respect For History
The Day the Tipple Fell
Farewell letters
Sam Howard's Letter
More on the Subject
"Oneness" Press release
TRAPPED: Karen Tintori's new book
Ray Tutaj Model Projects
Last Days of The Milwaukee Road
Milwaukee Road Car
St. Paul Coal Mine Office
Remembering the disaster.
100th Anniversary/Car Show
100th Anniversary Photos
100th Anniversary photos by Candy Brown
100th Anniversary pics from Karen Tintori
We need Your Help (1909 song)
Cherry Word Puzzle
Favorite Links
About me
Tour of Mine Site
Contact Me
100th Anniversary Documentary Available and More!
Cherry Mine Disaster Historical Society
T-Shirts, Sweatshirts etc.(100th anniv.)
Train Photo CDs Available
Train Video DVD's Available
Train -e-books NEW!
Workers Compensation
Cherry MIne Enthusiasts Remembered
How You Can Help

The Story of the Cherry Mine Disaster
by Steve Stout      

       On the morning of November 13.1909, nearly 500 men and boys went to work in the coal mine carved underneath Cherry, Illinois.  The workforce, which consisted mostly of young immigrants in their first new world job, spent long days 500 feet below the surface and miles away from the main shaft and escape shaft.  The village of Cherry was 2,000 strong and in one way or another, everyone's life was connected to the town's only industry--the St. Paul Coal Company.
Shortly after lunch, the mine manager ordered some hay taken down to the mine's underground stables in one of the returning coal cars.  Sixty mules shared work with the miners.  Once called the world's safest mine, the Cherry works was one of the first mines in the Midwest to have illumination from electrical power.  However, two weeks before that fall day, the electricity shorted out.  Without an existing union to protest the lack of safety considerations, the miners reverted back to open candles and kerosene lanterns strung through the anthill-like maze of tunnels.  It was under one of these torches that the coal car full of dry hay was left by neglectful stablehands.  Within minutes, the wooden car was totally ablaze.
The first attempts to extinguish the fire were uncoordinated and unsuccessful.  Panic slowly crawled along the black gangways as the wooden timbers shoring up the walls and ceiling started to burn. Then the coal vein itself caught fire.  Burning coal produces a thick black smoke which the miners call, black damp. The damp started spreading its fingers throughout the miles of passageways.  And because there was only man-to-man communication, the word to abandon the mine moved slower than the deadly smoke.
Sensing a major disaster, the mine manager next ordered that the fan over the escape shaft, which normally forced air into the mine, be reversed to suck up the smoke.  That action sent fresh oxygen down the main shaft.  That helped to clear the air in some tunnels which allowed many choking miners to reach the surface.  Then suddenly the fan house burst into flames, leaving only one exit, the main shaft, open.
The mine manager, realizing that he had a tremendous tragedy in the making, sounded the coal company's disaster whistle which turned every head in Cherry and the surrounding prairie.  From their fields, schools, homes and businesses, village residents raced to the company yard.  Horrified at the news, friends and family pressed close around the main shaft as the cage (the elevator) was raised, hauling up gasping men and boys.  The manager quickly organized volunteers to be dropped into the mine to rescue the missing.  They entered the mine six times saving dozens of lives.  One of rescued was Sam Haines.  Blackfaced and choking, he stumbled off the cage into his freind's arms. Catching his breath, he asked about his brother.  No, he was told, his brother was still underground.  Sam looked into freind's eyes and they both knew that he had to go back down. He joined the heroes on the cage.
Before the seventh trip into that smoking chimney, the mine manager reviewed the signals for raising and lowering the cage with the lift operator.  Follow my signals exactly,as ordered.  The engineer controlling the lift's steam engines agreed.  With mere wet rags over their faces, the 12 heroes once again were lowered through the smoke.  The terrified families of Cherry pressed close to the shaft's opening.
After several heart-pounding moments of silence, suddenly the bell next to the cage engineer rang ominously.  Oh my God, he cried to the men and women near him.  Those signals don't mean anything!
Pull 'em up, members of the crowd pleaded with the engineer.  Something is wrong...
Refusing, the scared engineer followed his last orders.  He waited for a meaningful signal as the bell clanged on and on.  Then, it stopped.  In the quiet through the smoke, the crowd stared at each other.  The engineer, realizing then that some action must be taken, shoved the levers into play and pulled the cage out of that deep hole to the surface.  The steel cables squealed as they ran through pulleys pulling up the cage.
When it appeared out the smoke, the village of Cherry died.  All of the 12 men aboard the wooden lift were on fire in front of hundreds of their relatives and neighbors. Women fainted. Men screamed. Crying children ran from the scene.  Most in the crowd also instantly realized the even more shocking truth -- the last exit from the mine was now gone.  There was no way to reach the 300 men and boys still trapped in the fire and smoke below ground.
Meanwhile, as wails of despair echoed out across the plains surrounding Cherry, trapped workers deep below struggled to survive in the dark reaches of the mine.  Some men had time to write short last thoughts to loved ones before the smoke overtook them.  As most miners choked to death in the damp, 21 of them hurried to the far end of the works and sealed themselves off from the smoke.  With lights for only the first few minutes of their entombment, the men were to sit in total darkness for eight days praying for a rescue that most thought would never come.  They ate their shoes, belts, pieces of their clothing and drank their own urine in that hell hole.  In the blackness, they waited.
Above, mine officials threw lumber and sand over the two blocked exits to deny the fire air.  This enraged the grieving villagers who thought the company was only interested in saving the coal veins instead of saving the missing men.  Threats against company employees forced the governor to send in the Illinois State Militia to maintain order in Cherry.  Even the engineer in charge of the last cageload from the mine was forced to leave town for his own safety.  Help in the form of food and supplies were rushed to the stricken village from all over the Midwest to insure that no family was left cold or hungry.  Even the Chicago Fire Department was sent by train to help combat the fire.  They poured tons of water into the shafts.
Eight days after the fire started, four of the 21 miners trapped at the end of the mine decided to make a bold attempt to reach the surface.  To wait there any longer meant certain death and so they crawled out into the main tunnel.  In total darkness, the men crawled over the bodies of their dead co-workers and mules looking for help along the miles of rocky passageways.  As they neared the main shaft, an exploration team surveying the damage discovered the four miracles. The steam whistle screamed the news to Cherry and once again, all villagers came running to the yard.
The heartbreak sat in hard as the number announced found alive was so small--only 25 out of nearly 300 men and boys missing returned to their families that day.  Each rescued worker was given emergency medical treatment and taken home on a horse and buggy to a heroe's welcome.
Except for one old rescued miner, Daniel Holafcak.  He insisted on walking home alone.  Found dead in his bed two days later, Holafcak is considered the 259th victim of the Cherry Mine Disaster.
Serious exhumations of the victims in the mine began in the spring of 1910.  Long rows of bodies were laid under white tents as they were each identified.  Horse-drawn hearses carried the caskets to the Cherry graveyard in a seemingly unending parade. 
The tragedy is credited with creation of new and stricter mine safety legislation, landmark settlements in workman compensation suits, and the rise of the mighty United Mine Workers Union.

Cherry Coal  Mine Website


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