America's Worst Mining Disasters

Image credit: Adam J/Shutterstock.com
  • The most fatal US mining accident occurred in 1907 at the Monogah Nos. 6 and 8 mine.
  • 263 people died at the Stag Canon No. 2 mining accident.
  • The third most fatal US mining accident occurred on November 13, 1909.

Mining is a big industry in the United States and around the world. It revolves around the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth, usually from things like ore bodies, lodes, veins, or seams. These objects form deposits of mineralized packages that are of particular financial interest to the miner and the companies they represent. The rocks that can be pulled up vary wildly with ores including things like metal, coal, oil shale, gemstones, clay, or even petroleum, gas, or water all for use in other processes and tasks. Typically mining needs to be done to obtain any materials that cannot be otherwise obtained through natural agricultural practices or created in artificial labs and factories. 

Mining has been around since pre-historic times and though practices have evolved steadily, there is still an inherent risk to the activity of diving deep into the ground in order to pull up valuable resources. In addition to this work safety concern, Mining also leaves a significant negative environmental impact in the areas it is practiced. But more to the point, thousands of miners die from mining accidents each year. Most of these deaths take place in developing countries where safety measures are not yet up to snuff. There are, however, a variety of mining disasters that have taken place in the United States. This list will run down the six worst.    

6. Bartley No. 1

Bartley WV Miners Memorial.

Starting off this list is the Bartley No. 1 mine explosion, located in Bartley, West Virginia. Pond Creek Pocahontas Coal Co. owned this mine and the accident occurred on January 10, 1940. It would kill 91 people. At around 2:30 p.m. there were 138 men in the mine. An explosion rocked out killing 91 of them. The west side of the mine wasn't affected and the 37 men working there were able to leave unscathed. Rescue efforts were immediately organized by officials who happened to be meeting nearby. During these efforts a second explosion would occur, 7 hours after the first, but thankfully no death or damage was caused by it. The suspected source of ignition was an electrical arc, which likely set fire to the coal dust in the air, resulting in a violent explosion.

5. Centralia No. 5

The second accident on this list is the Centralia No. 5 Mine explosion, a mine that fittingly belonged to the Centralia Coal Company. Disaster struck on March 25, 1947, killing 111 people in its wake. The disaster was first noticed at 3:26 p.m. when the assistant mine superintendent noticed that a fuse in the fan power circuit had blown out. This indicated that something had happened in the mine and he immediately went down the shaft only to find dust and smoke at the bottom. Rescue teams were sent out to find and bring back survivors of this explosion. At the time of the explosion, 142 men were in the mine, with eight rescued and 24 escaping unaided. What was assumed to have happened was that an overburdened explosive charge stemmed with coal dust ignited the dust which then led to an explosion that coated four of the six working sections in flame and debris.  

4. Orient No. 2

The Orient No. 2 accident was another mine explosion. The Chicago, Wilmington and Franklin Coal Co. owned mine was located in West Frankfort, Illinois. On the day of the accident, December 21, 1951, 119 people died. The night shift entered the mine at the number 4 shaft around 6:25 p.m., reaching the working sections about 20 to 30 minutes later. At 7:40 p.m. the explosion rocketed out, killing 118 men. Four would be rescued with one later dying from injuries and 133 escaped uninjured. On the day of, the night mine manager noticed that power had gone off inside the mine. He would investigate the shaft bottom and call company officials on the surface, kicking off rescue work. The mine was known to be filled with methane gas, which was suspected to have been ignited by electrical equipment or smoking. 

3. St. Paul No. 2

Copy of 1910 postcard showing the aftermath of the Cherry Mine Disaster.

The St. Paul No.2 Mine was owned by Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad and was located in Cherry, Illinois. On November 13, 1909, it would be the home of a fire that would end up killing 259 people. It started when a car containing six bales of hay was sent down from the surface to the third vein in order to feed the mules stabled underground. Due to electric malfunction kerosene torches were used and placed alongside the wall. When the car was pushed over to a stable area it came to rest under one of the open torches, quickly catching fire. Efforts to move the car away only spread the fire. Over time, the heat and smoke became more and more overpowering as the fire began the spread. Eventually, a signal would be given to clear out the mine, but this order proved to be too late for many.  

2. Stag Canon No. 2

The Dawson, New Mexico, located Stag Canon No. 2 Mine was the site of an October 22, 1913, explosion that killed 263 men. The company running the mine was Phelps Dodge and Company. The mine employed about 300 men and was focused on cutting coal with machinery and hand-pick mining. Explosives were occasionally used. At about 3 p.m. blasts of smoke and debris burst out of the mine openings, blowing out the explosion doors and one side of the fan house, which is a building used for ventilation. Of the 284 men in the mine at the time, 14 from an unaffected area were able to get out, and nine others would be rescued later by a crew. The explosion was estimated to have come from a dusty section where an overcharged explosive had been fired, lighting the coal dust and ultimately leading to this tragedy. 

1. Monongah Nos. 6 and 8

San Giovanni in Fiore - Monument to the Monongah Mining disaster.

The absolute deadliest United States mining disaster took place at the Monongah Mine, which the Fairmont Coal Company owned and which was located in Monongah, West Virginia. On December 6, 1907, it was home to an explosion that killed 362 people. The No. 6 and No. 8 mines were slope openings a mile or so away from each other. They were connected. On the Friday morning of the disaster, 367 men were working in the men, things proceeding as usual until 10:28 a.m when the explosion occurred and killed almost all the workers, damaging the ventilation system and various motors and cars in the process. Rescue crews were able to save only 1 person. In the days afterward hundreds of bodies would be recovered from the wreckage. The cause of the explosion was contentious, with the most commonly accepted cause to be an arc from electric wires igniting the dust clouds.

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