Cherry Mine disaster history garners attention

Recent discovery brought spotlight to historic disaster, which has no link other than location

Scene at the St. Paul Coal Co. mine at Cherry, Ill., site of the nation's third worst mine disaster on Nov. 13, 1909, after word flashed through the town of fire in the tunnels. Relatives and friends rushed to the mine some 100 miles southwest of Chicago. The final toll was 259 miners and rescue workers dead.

On Nov. 13, 1909, about 500 miners walked into the Cherry Coal Mine and, eight days later, less than half of them returned home.

There is more than tragedy that lingers beyond the soot and smoke of the tragic event – there’s also the heroic acts of ordinary men determined to rescue their fellow townsmen.

More than a century later, the selfless acts and the unimaginable suffering of a small village faded into the pages of history – until June 8, when unidentified remains were discovered at the decommissioned mine set.

There is no link between last week’s discovery of human remains and the mine disaster, but it has sparked questions about the mine’s history and driven up attendance at the Cherry Mine Disaster Museum. At the museum, the story is being retold of the mine disaster’s impact on the state.

The village of Cherry in Bureau County is about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. When coal was discovered in 1904, the village hadn’t yet formed, said Sue Huss, Cherry Mine Disaster Museum curator and a Cherry native.

“There’s a couple reasons why Cherry was going to be the boom,” she said. “This mine is going to be open 365 days a year, and most mines in this area are not open year-round.”

Huss said the mine was opened by the St. Paul Coal Co., a main supplier of fuel for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway.

Year-round employment for heating and cooking was rare for miners, so in time, Cherry became a melting pot of various nationalities including Italian, German, French, Swedish, Slavic, Irish, Greek and Welsh, many of whom didn’t know English.

Huss said the mine offered other unique incentives. It was run by electricity.

“They didn’t have to have kerosene hanging on the walls as the other mines did,” she said.

That should have ensured that the mine was safer. Two weeks before the disaster happened, however, there was an electrical issue, and miners reverted back to kerosene light.

On Saturday, Nov. 13, 1909, 481 men and boys descended into the mine, preparing to begin their workday between 6:30 and 7 a.m., according to “Black Damp, The Story of the Cherry Mining Disaster” by Steve Stout.

After lunch about 12:30 p.m., a mine manager had ordered six bales of hay to be sent down to the stables, according to the book. The stables were on the second level.

“Some young men park the carts of hay above the wall, and they park the kerosene lantern above it,” Huss said. “It’s close enough [that] it drips on the hay, and the hay catches fire.”

Tragedy unintentionally had been set.

Cherry Mining Disaster survivors

According to the 1910 Bureau of Labor Statistics Report, initial efforts to extinguish the fire didn’t start until after 1 p.m. and were futile.

As per usual on a Saturday, workers on their way home at 1:30 p.m. walked past the seemingly small fire.

“One man who passed the car on his way to the surface judged the blaze would have been put out ‘easily’ with the coats of the departing miners,” Stout said in his book.

After 45 minutes, the seriousness of the fire became clear, and a call came to tell the diggers to abandon the mine.

The call came too late, as exits became blocked and the escape hatch became engulfed in flames, leaving only the main shaft.

On the surface, 12 men traveled to the flames below in the hopes of saving their peers – including mine manager John Bundy, mine boss Alexander Norberg, miner Robert Clark, miner Andrew McLuckie, miner Henry Stewart, driver Joseph Robeza Jr., James Speir, liveryman Isaac Lewis Jr, cage operator John Szabrinski, mine examiner and boss Charles Waite, merchant John Flood and grocer Dominick Formento.

They emerged from the depths six times, according to the statistics report. Each struggled to breathe and was covered in soot, but they had succeeded in bringing up some men alive – until the seventh time.

“Each time, those who ventured down encountered the smoke and came up almost asphyxiated,” according to the report. “The fire was getting nearer and nearer the main hoisting shaft.”

When the engineer brought up the men the final time, they each died as a result of the fire.

“When they were hoisted to the surface, it was a most pitiful sight,” according to the report. “The relatives of these men were there, and the scene witnessed was the most heart-rending. Strong-hearted men broke down. After all, the story of the 12 martyrs is but a phase of the great disaster.”

At 8 p.m., company officials ordered the seal be shut to smother the flames.

Rescue efforts were attempted but, even protected by oxygen helmets, the heat and smoke was overwhelming, and it was deemed too dense for rescue work.

While families, friends and loved ones on the surface agonized over those lost and the debilitating hope that the ones below may return, 21 men had barricaded themselves deep into a cavern.

Led by assistant mine manager George Eddy and mine examiner Walter Waite, the group was able to dig out a few holes with their picks to get some water.

“The suffering which they endured from hunger, suffocation and the thought of their most certain death is almost indescribable,” according to the report. “Here they dwelt in darkness and despair, writing notes to ‘their loved ones’ whom they had given up all hope of ever seeing again.”

After eight days, four miners left the barricade in hopes of finding a way out. They were discovered and brought to the surface.

No other survivors were found. The mine was sealed Nov. 25, and it was reopened Feb. 1, 1910, Stout said. The remaining bodies of miners were brought to the surface that spring.

After the closing of the mine, the compensation for the widows and children of those 259 who perished in the fire began.

An arbitration used the settlement standards set by the English Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906.

“Pensions were determined by number of dependents, amount of service and average weekly salary,” Stout said.

The amount contributed by private groups and the St. Paul Coal Co. was enough to give about $1,800 to every family whose breadwinner had been killed, Stout said.

That is about $60,000 today.

The tragedy of the Cherry Mine prompted changes in legislation implementing stricter fire and safety regulations in mines and to adopt the state’s first Workmen’s Compensation Act.

Thirteen were awarded the Carnegie Medal, given to those who risk death or serious physical injury to an extraordinary degree while saving or trying to save the lives of others.

In 1910, the St. Paul Coal Co. reopened Cherry Mine. It remained open until 1927.

The Cherry Mine Disaster Museum is open from 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. To book a tour, call 815- 488-2171. For information, visit Facebook or the museum at 100 S. Main St. in Cherry.

Have a Question about this article?