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McLean County coal mining was dirty, dangerous business

McLean County coal mining was dirty, dangerous business

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McLean County Coal Mine
The primitive conditions of the McLean County Coal Co. mine are apparent in this photograph, which dates to about 1920. The miner on the right is John Johnson. The other is unidentified. (For The Pantagraph/McLEAN COUNTY MUSEUM OF HISTORY)

"Death came to Jacob Osman, vast in fantastic horrors," began a Dec. 11, 1899, story in The Bloomington Bulletin.

Osman, an employee of the McLean County Coal Co., was in the screening tower when his jacket became entangled in a rapidly whirling power shaft. "His brains were dashed out and death was mercifully instantaneous," The Bulletin said. "His body was drawn around and around through the narrow space, perhaps a foot in width, between the shafting and the boards of the building, and several revolutions were made before the machinery was stopped."

Labor Day is a fitting time to remember the men who lost their lives working in area mines, including the McLean County Coal Co. on Bloomington's west side, and smaller operations, such as those in Chenoa and Colfax. The McLean County Museum of History holds a collection of local newspaper articles detailing some 130 workplace fatalities from the mid-1850s through the mid-1920s. This collection includes articles on more than 20 mining deaths.

Coal mining has always been a dirty and dangerous profession, and death can come in myriad forms. On Aug. 22, 1879, McLean County Coal Co. miner James O'Brien was working some 400 feet below the surface in the mine's second coal vein. Hauling dirt and slate to a shaft, the 30-year-old signaled for the elevator cage to be brought up to where he was working.

Tragically, the cage didn't stop at the second vein but instead proceeded to the surface. O'Brien, thinking he was stepping into the cage, instead plummeted down the shaft 140 feet to the bottom, where he and his load crashed through three-inch oak planking and into the sump. It took six hours to extricate O'Brien's body from the water.

For Charles Rauschka, a Polish-born miner with McLean County Coal Co., the end came on June 20, 1893, when he was buried in a two-ton avalanche of coal. It took a while to extricate the grievously wounded Rauschka.

Once free, he told his rescuers, "Get me out as quick as you can." Those were his last words; he died in a coal car that was to take him to the surface.

On Aug. 26, 1901, four Chenoa Coal and Mining Co. employees died when the cable holding their cage snapped, sending them 300 feet down the shaft. Three of the miners were Italian, including 48-year-old Joseph Barietto, who had a wife and eight children back in Italy.

It likely was the single deadliest mine accident in McLean County history. As was standard practice, the coroner's jury affixed no blame on either the company or the workers, and instead ruled the deaths as "purely accidental."

Between 1889 and 1903, there were 11 fatal accidents in the Colfax mines, eight of which were caused by falling rock. The ceilings of the coal rooms were soapstone, and cave-ins posed a constant threat.

Conditions slowly improved, prodded by an increasingly unionized workforce (McLean County Coal Co. employees joined the United Mine Workers of America in 1894). Progressive Era state legislation mandated safe zones between mine walls and coal car tracks, and created a "mothers' pension" to reduce the likelihood that widows would send their children to state or charitable homes.

In 1909, 259 miners were killed in an underground fire in Cherry, just north of LaSalle-Peru. The disaster and a rash of other coal mine fatalities led to additional state-imposed safety measures, including an overhaul of the antiquated mining code and, for the first time, serious enforcement measures. Workmen's compensation came in 1911.


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