CHERRY - About 480 men and boys went to work in the Cherry coal mine on Nov. 13, 1909. Most were from Europe and new to America. Many lived in Streator or in towns that dotted the Illinois River. | Events feature Cherry Mine authors | A Page From Our Past
They knew the risks. Five to seven miners died on average every month in northern Illinois mines during that time.
Some of the biggest gains in mining safety came only after 259 of the Cherry miners, some as young as 10, died horribly in what ranks as America's second worst mining disaster.
Many of them burned in a fire caused when hay was left beneath a dripping kerosene torch. Flames consuming their bodies and the bodies of mules lit the terror-filled scene as their friends and relatives smothered when a shroud of dense smoke called "black damp" filled the tunnels.
"The image of that is just so horrific, I couldn't shake it. I had to write about it," said Steve Stout, 56, a school teacher and owner of Starved Rock Camera in Utica. Stout wrote the book, "Black Damp: The Story of the Cherry Mining Disaster."
"It was mass hysteria," added Karen Tintori, who authored, "Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster."
"All my hair on my head stands up thinking about it," she said.
Both authors are speaking at upcoming events, including one in the Twin Cities, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Cherry Mine Disaster.
Tintori's grandfather, John Tintori, was 22 when he arrived in New York from Italy just 18 days earlier. In that short time, he traveled to Illinois and was hired to work at the mine. He escaped death only because he was too hung over to work that day, Tintori said. His first cousin wasn't so lucky. He died in the mine, the same fate his father met during an earlier mining accident.
Men become heroes
Several men who were mere mortals that morning were heroes by afternoon. A dozen volunteered to go down the shaft to evacuate the miners. The group included mine manager John Bundy, several men who worked for him and a local grocer and clothier. They burned to death on their seventh attempt.
When crews re-entered the mine a week later, they incredibly found 20 men still alive. They had walled themselves up to escape the smoke and sat in the pitch black, drinking from a small water seep with no way to gauge time. Some wrote notes to their loved ones. George Eddy told his wife, "Well Elizabeth, if I am found dead, take me to Streator to bury me and move back."
Happily, that was unnecessary in his case. But for weeks afterward, wives and mothers wailed as they identified their husbands and sons in a nearby tent that served as a makeshift morgue.
Miners were supposed to be at least 18 years old, Stout said, and in the aftermath, the company was fined $630 for nine counts of violating child labor laws. All of the victims' families received compensation of $1,800. Many thought the sum was so insulting considering the magnitude of their loss that they tried to refuse it. They received another $1,800 from a relief fund set up to handle the private donations that arrived.
From a larger perspective, the disaster led to the first workers compensation program in the United States. Better mining safety procedures were mandated, and the U.S. Bureau of Mines was established to improve government oversight. The United Mine Workers used the incident to gain members.
Tintori insists more safety measures need to be in place today. As an example, she recalled how as she edited her book in 2002, a drama played out at Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania where miners accidentally flooded their own mine when they broke through a wall into another. They were using an inaccurate map, an investigation showed. They were trapped several days below ground before their rescue.
"People don't realize 50 percent of the electricity we use is still from coal. Someone still has to go down to get the coal out and the safety for these people is still not what it should be," she said.
Stout noted statistics he's heard indicating Illinois has enough coal reserve to fuel the world's energy needs for 300 years.
Talking about his students, he said, "These kids have no idea when they turn on their computers, when they use their PlayStation 3s, they have no comprehension we are still burning so much coal."
Steve Stout, author of "Black Damp: The Story of the Cherry Mining Disaster," will speak at 2 p.m. April 19 at the Normal Public Library as part of A Tale for Two Cities 2009, a communitywide reading program.
He and Karen Tintori, author of "Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster" also will appear at several functions later this year at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to mark 100th anniversary of the Cherry Mine Disaster.