Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The November 13, 1909 Cherry, Illinois Mine Disaster.

The St. Paul Coal Company, which owned the Cherry, Illinois mine, opened in 1905 to supply coal for the trains of its controlling company, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad.
St. Paul Coal Company - Cherry, Illinois Mine.
On November 13, 1909, the Cherry Mine employed a total of 481 men and boys. So many of them were from the Streator area that Cherry was known as a Streator "colony." The mine at Cherry was a large one, considered clean, safe, and well run.

There were three veins, with most of the work at this time in the second, about 360 feet down. On Saturday the 13th, work proceeded as usual, with the sounds of picks, men chatting, and rumbling mule-driven cars echoing through the tunnels. Because a power line had broken a month earlier, the mine was lit by open kerosene lamps, which cast a flickering light through the underground passages.
Typical Coal Mining at the turn of the 20th Century, (circa 1910).
About 1:15 in the afternoon a coal car loaded with six bales of hay (fodder for the mules) was shoved out of the elevator at the second level and hitched to a train. Some feet farther along the hay was dropped off to await the trip down to the mule stable on the third level. 

Somehow the hay caught fire — either because of oil dripping from one of the lamps or from a fallen lamp itself. At first no one thought much of the fire, and attempts to put it out were somewhat disorganized. In minutes, however, the beams overhead had caught fire and flames licked outward at an ever-growing rate. The burning hay was then dumped down the shaft, but it become jammed there and did not fall to the third level. There was no underground alarm system in the mine, and although miners nearby soon realized that the blaze had gotten out of hand and that the only course left was to flee, men in distant tunnels worked on, unaware of what was happening. 

Some 200 men and boys made their way to the surface, some through escape shafts, some using the hoisting cage. Soon the corridors were filled with smoke, flames, crashing timbers, and men running frantically to the one escape shaft that remained open. 

Above ground, puffs of smoke rising from the shaft were the first sign of trouble. The alarm was sounded, and a crowd of anxious relatives and other townspeople soon collected.
Crowds begin to gather as the alarm sounds!

Crowds gathered around the mine.


Some miners who had already escaped returned to the mine to aid their coworkers. Mine superintendent John Bundy, of Streator, was one of the first on the scene. (In later years, one of his sons recalled that he had wanted to go too, but had been admonished by his mother, "Don't you go over there — your father's got his hands full." The boy never saw his father alive again.) Dr. L. D. Howe, also of Streator, physician for the mining company, went below to help but was soon raised to the top and forced to remain there in order to minister to the injured.
General view of the mouth of the shaft showing smoke escaping.
Bundy headed a group of twelve volunteers who made six trips back and forth on the cage to search out and bring up men trapped below. After the seventh descent, the signals to the operator on top were weak and confused and for agonizing minutes he refused to pull up the cage despite frantic pleas from bystanders.
When he finally yielded, the hushed onlookers saw to their horror only twelve blackened, twisted bodies — men who had given their lives for their friends.
Waiting for another victim to be brought to the surface.
Along with Bundy there were Alexander Norberg, the assistant mine manager; John Sczabrinski, a eager; Joseph Robeza, a driver; and Robert Clark, Andrew McLuckie, James Spiers, Harry Stewart, and Mike Suhe, all miners. The three others, who did not even work at the mine but had rushed over to help, were Dominic Dormento, a grocer; John Flood, a clothier; and Isaac Lewis, a liveryman.
CLICK DIAGRAM FOR FULL SIZE VIEW
After this, the cage was lowered and raised many times, but it always returned empty and so was soon halted. Tons of water was poured in, but fell to the third level and had little effect on the roaring inferno in the second vein.
John Passco, the lad who came up through the fire
at the Cherry mine, November 13, 1909
The large circulating fan was reversed in an attempt to blow out the fire, but this only succeeded in igniting the fan house itself as well as the escape ladders and stairs in the secondary shaft, trapping more miners below. Late Sunday heavy planks were thrown over the shaft opening in an attempt to smother the raging flames; wet sand was dumped on the planks and the two shafts were closed off to smother the fire

The town reached the brink of riot when those with relatives below realized that some men might manage to climb to the surface only to find their escape cut off.  
Wrecked Air Shaft at Cherry Mine.
Sunday November 14th crowds gather in the afternoon.


When mine officials decided to seal the shaft, with miners
still trapped below, the Illinois National Guard was
called out to control the crowds.
Sixth Illinois Infantry Company "K" from Galesburg, Illinois.

Passenger train with Sixth Illinois Infantry Company "K" boarding.
On Wednesday, when rumors circulated that sounds of thudding had been heard below, two companies of state militia were brought in to quiet the townspeople. Below, meanwhile, some men had remained alive for a while, unable to reach the shaft because of the heat and deadly gases. They clustered together in trapped and hopeless little groups.
Group of anxious women waiting to identify their Husbands who were entombed in Mine disaster, November 13, 1909
Beside the body of a young miner named Sam Howard, a recovery team found this note: "There are a good many dead mules and men. I tried to save some but came near losing myself." Other entries followed, and finally, a weak scrawl dated 12:44 p.m. on Monday: "Our lives are giving out. I think this is our last. We are getting weak."
Fire fighting resumes. Note the Newsboy without shoes.
  
Left: Oxygen Tanks for Mine Descent. -- Right: Volunteer Henry Smith of Peru, Illinois and R.Y. Williams, Director of Mine Experimental Rescue Station at Urbana, Illinois.
Chicago Fire Company who rendered assistance at the mine.
The shaft was uncovered on Thursday, November 18th, and fire fighting resumed, but those who went below returned to the surface only with the dead as mute evidence of the tragedy below. As the bodies were placed in tents to be identified by sobbing wives and children, the death toll mounted above 200. (It would finally total 259.)

One event brought relief to some and hope too many more. On November 20th, rescue workers exploring a remote tunnel came upon a few enfeebled miners who led them to a small group of men that had managed to live through a week of deprivation and despair.

The group, totaling twenty-one men, was led by George Eddy of Streator, who later described how he had been on the surface when the fire started and had gone below as soon as he saw smoke. After he and several others had notified as many men as they could, they approached the mouth of the entry, but found that they could not get out.

"We were blocked in on account of the black damp and smoke; we went back up the entry and tried to go out another road and we found the black damp was stronger there than it was where we were, so we went back into the main entry again. Then we tried two or three times to get out on Saturday and Sunday, but we couldn't get out; every time we would try it we were further away from the bottom, so we saw that we were not going to get to the cage because the black damp was pressing us in from both sections and we knew it was going to fill up the face and that we would smother in there. We went in and built a wall across the second west entry and we built across the first west entry of dirt and we were inside there seven days."

Of the twenty-one who were rescued, one of whom later died, John Lorimer and George Stimac (or Stimez) were from Streator, and Thomas White from Kangley. Another survivor, named Antoniese (or Antenore), recalled: It was strange to see how the different races acted. The English sang, the French talked, the Italians prayed and the Austrians and Lithuanians swept. Often the English and the Italians would join in singing hymns. At last John Lorimer, a Scotchman, was the leader — 'Abide With Me" was his favorite song. We all learned it.

Many of the others wrote notes to their families, and on the back of one was found this testament, signed by all twenty-one men: "We the undersigned do not blame anyone for the accident that happened to pen us in here and we believe that everybody has done all in their power to relieve us."

Although the rescue attempts continued until November 25, no more survivors were found. Since the fire could not be extinguished with water, the mine was sealed with cement. This cover was removed on February 1, 1910, and body recovery resumed; the last body was brought up on July 7. The mine then resumed work, and continued in operation for some ten years.
Men who did heroic work below at time bodies were being taken from Cherry Mine.
From the beginning, Streator had been vitally concerned with the Cherry disaster. On the first evening, November 13, a special CI&S train left the town at 11:30, carrying 200 persons nearly everyone with a friend or relative in the mine.
St. Paul Coal Company, Cherry Illinois Mine Managers.
Of the 259 dead, many had considered themselves Streator people, and their bodies were moved back to the town for burial. The Free Press in November listed some forty-six as "Streator's dead," though this number included men from Heenanville and Kangley, and the list grew longer as more bodies were recovered. Because of the mobility of the mining population and the confused records (some Slavic or Lithuanian names may have as many as five variations), it can probably never be ascertained exactly how many of the Cherry dead were from Streator.
The Morgue where the victims bodies were first laid.


The small shed that was first used to house the dead bodies was quickly replaced by a large tent set-up as the Morgue.
Property found on the victims.




What mattered was that there were 630 survivors — 160 widows and 470 fatherless children — who somehow had to be provided for. Private contributions started pouring in immediately from all over the nation, with Streator alone contributing almost $5000 by the end of November. These, together with donations from the United Mine Workers, Red Cross, and other organizations, eventually totaled over $444,000.
Funeral of Mr. Smith, a Cherry Mine victim.

The Cherry Cemetery, located on the community's southern edge, filled quickly after the disaster.
Cherry Cemetery Some Mine Disaster Victim Headstones.
Meanwhile, official bodies had gone into action. These included the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, which, for all practical purposes, owned the St. Paul Coal Company; the United Mine Workers; and the consuls and other representatives of foreign governments whose nationals were involved.
Miners houses in the background - running west from Cherry Mine. 1909


"Death Row." In this row of 30 cottages only 4 men returned from the Mine disaster.
The "Widow's Row" on Steele Street looking north. You can see a "gap" a seven houses down, which that lot was not built on because it was for a cross street, today's Cherry Avenue. Continue counting down seven more houses and where the eighth house should be is another cross street, Maple Avenue is there today. Circa 1910
Miners Homes, Cherry, Illinois. November 26, 1909
A group of children made orphans by the Cherry Mine disaster, November 13, 1909
Official records gave the following nationality breakdown of some of the men who lost their lives in the Cherry mine disaster:

American - 11 Austrian - 28
Belgian - 7 English - 8
French - 12 German - 15
Greek - 2  Irish - 3
Italian - 73 Lithuanian - 21
Polish - 8 Russian - 3
Scotch - 21 Slavish - 36
Swedish - 9 Welsh - 2

Cherry Mine Disaster, funeral procession, February 20, 1910
Funeral of Mine victims passing through Cherry, Illinois. Circa April 1910

Cherry Mine Disaster, funeral procession of victims, Main Street, Ladd, Illinois - April 1910 
End of funeral procession with nine hearses. Main Street, Ladd, Illinois - April 1910
Knights of Pythias funerals. Circa April 1910
Three caskets ready for transport. Circa April 1910
Relatives viewing remains of Davis at the Morgue. He had worked in the Mine only two days at the time of the disaster. his body was taken over land to Peoria, Illinois.
Cherry School, Room 1, 22 children made fatherless by Mine disaster. Circa 1910.
The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad, a $400,000,000 corporation, was under no legal liability for the disaster beyond the resources of the coal company, which totaled about $350,000. If the coal company were sold, it would go into bankruptcy and would probably yield less than its true worth. 

Into this tangle of legal complications and aroused public opinion stepped John E. Williams of Streator, who had been serving as vice-chairman of the Cherry Relief Commission. He volunteered his services as a disinterested mediator, spent many hours analyzing the situation, and conducted negotiations.
The Cherry Mine Office - 1909
President Albert J. Earling of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad announced: "We acknowledge a moral obligation," and eventually the company added $400,000 to the amount privately subscribed. The final sums allotted to surviving dependents were worked out on the basis of the English Workmen's Compensation Act of 1906, which Williams had studied carefully. The official report of the disaster noted that "the credit for the settlement belongs almost exclusively to Mr. Williams."
Cherry Mine Disaster, Interior of big tent, used as a morgue, February 20, 1910
81 bodies taken out of the Cherry Mine and placed in makeshift morgue, March 4, 1910
Recovered 5 months after accident with $200.00 on his person, April 11, 1910
Out of the tragedy came new mine safety laws, more thorough inspections, and improved mining equipment.  The following year, as a result of the Cherry Mine Disaster, the Illinois legislature established stronger mine safety regulations and in 1911, Illinois passed a separate law, which would later develop into the Illinois Workmen's Compensation Act.

The men who died, especially those who gave their lives for others, would never be forgotten. And Streator had special cause for pride because of its own John E. Williams. His skill, humanity, and hard work played a major role in preventing the Cherry mine disaster from creating bitterness and hatred among the thousands of persons whose lives it affected.




AFTERWARD-AT-CHERRY

When the dead have all been recovered
and silently laid away.
When men have returned to their labor,
and the children have gone back to play.

When the last reporter has vanished
and the soldiers, too, have gone.
When the long, long train on of sleepers
has crept away into the dawn.

When they awake from their nightmare of horror
and realize all they have lost.
When they understand the full disaster,
and all of its frightful costs.

Then will come days of anguish,
and nights when hearts will break.
When grief-dimmed eyes are sleepless,
and tired brains throb and ache.

Then they will need your pity,
and the help your purse will permit,
for then they will suffer a thousand times more
than the men who died in the pit.
(anonymous)

Bureau County Record, December 22, 1909




Miners' Memorial Cemetery, Cherry, Illinois, 1909


MEMORIALS

 
"To the memory of the miners who lost their lives in the Cherry Mine disaster November 13, 1909" Erected by the U.M.W. of a. District No.12, Illinois. November 13, 1911


A marker to those who lost their lives in the Cherry, Illinois Mine disaster was erected in 1986, by the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Illinois State Historical Society. The marker is located in Cherry, in Village Park on the north side of town on the west side of IL 89, at the intersection of Main and North streets.

The centennial commemoration of the Cherry Mine Disaster was held in Cherry, November 14, 2009. A new monument, located at the Cherry Village Hall, was dedicated to the miners who lost their lives in the disaster.



THE NAMES OF THOSE WHO PERISHED. 

Adakosky, M Agramanti, Foliani Alexius, Joseph
Ambusautis, J Amider, Alfio Armelani, Charles
Armelani, Paul Atalakis, Peter Atlalakis, G
Bakalar, George Barozzi, Antone Bastia, Mike
Bauer, Milce Bawman, Frank Bawman, Lewis
Bayliff,Thomas Benossif, J Bernadini, Charles
Bertolioni, Tonzothe Betot, John Bolla, Antonio
Bolla, Peter Bonesbeger, Joseph Ermakra Bordesona, Joseph
Bosviel, Adolph Boucher, Jerome Brain, Oliver
Bredenci, Peter Brown, John Brown, Thomas
Bruno, Edward Bruzis, John Buckels, Richard
Budzom, Charles Budzon, Joseph Bundy, John
Burke, Joseph Burslie, Clemento Butilla, August
Cagoskey, John Calletti, Giovanni Camilli, Frank
Canov, Canivo Casolari, Diminick Casollari, Elizio
Casserio, John Castoinelo, Chelsto Cavaglini, Charles
Chebubar, Joseph Ciocci,Peter Ciochina, Costanbin
Cioci, Canical Cipola, Mike Clark, Robert
Cohard, Henry Compasso, John Conlon, Henry
Costi, Angelo Costi, Lewis Davis, John G.
Debulka, John Deman, Anol Demesey, Fred
Denalfi, Francisco Detourney, Victor Donaldson, John
Dovin, Andrew DovIn, George Dumont, Leopold
Dunko, John Durand, Benjamin Durdan, Andrew
Elario, Miestre Elfi, Carlo Elko, George
Eloses, Peter Erickson, Charles Erickson, Eric
Erminlano, Charles Farlo, John Fayen, Peter
Filippe, Ugo Flood, John Forgach, John
Formento, Dominick Francisco, August Francisco, John
Freebirg, Ole Garabelda, John Garletti, J.
Garletti, John Geckse, Frank Giacobazzi, Antonio
Gialcolzza, Angone Gibbs, Lewis Governor, John
Grehaski, Andrew Grilj, Met Grumeth, Frank
Gugleilm, Peter Guidarini, John Gulick, Joseph
Gwaltyeri, Jalindy Hadovski, Steve Hainant, August
Halko, Mike Halofcak, Dan Harpka, Joseph
Havlick, George Hertzel, John Howard, Alfred
Howard, Samuel Hudar, John Hynds, William
Jagodzinski, Frank James, Frank Jamison, James
Janavizza, Joe Kanz, John Kenig, John
Klaeser, John Klemiar, George Klemiar, Richard
Klemiar, Thomas Kliklunas, Dominik Kometz, John
Korvonia, Antone Korvonia, Joseph Kovocivio, Frank
Krall, Alfred Krall, Henry Kroll, Alex S.
Kussner, Julius Kutz, Paul Lallie, Frank
Lanzotti, Batolomeo Leadache, Frank Leadache, James
Leadache, Jospeh Leptack, John Lewis, Issac
Leyshon, Charles Lindic, Jernel Lonzetti, Seicomo
Lonzotti, John Love, David Love, James
Love, John Love, Morrison Lukatchko, Andrew
Lurnas, Mike Maceoha, John Malinoski, Joe
Mani, Joseph Marchiona, Archie Marchiona, Frank
Marchioni, Gioanni Masenetta, Anton Matear (Mactear), William
Mayelemis, Frank Mayersky, John Mazak, John
Mazentto, John McCandless, Robert McCrudden, John
McCrudden, Peter McFadden, Andrew McGill, John Jr.
McLuckie, Andrew McMullen, George Meicora, Joseph
Mekles, Tonys Merdior, Arthur Mezzanatto, Antonio
Miller or Malner, Joseph Miller or Malner, Lewis Miller, Edward
Mills, Arthur Mills, Edward Mittle, John
Mohahan, James R. Mokos, Joseph Mumetich, Hasan
Norberg,  Alex Norberg,  August Olson, Charles P.
Ondurko, Matt Ossek, Donaty Ossek, Martin
Paco, Andrew Palmiori, Albert Papea, Charles
Pardetti, Giovanni Passenger, Joseph Pauline, Antona
Pavlick, George Pavoloski, John Pearson, Alex
Pearson, John Perbacher, Peter Perono, Dominick
Pete, Ben Pomgener, John Prich, Joseph
Prusitus, Perya Prusitus, Peter Pshak, John
Raven, Peter Raviso, Joe Repsel, Joseph
Repsel, Martin Ricca, Cegu Richards, Thomas
Rimkius, Joseph Rittel, Frank Riva, Joseph
Robeza, Joseph Rodonis, Joseph Rolland, Victor
Rossman, Robert Ruggesie, Gailamyo Ruygiesi, Frank
Sandeen, Olaf Sarbelle, Julius Sarginto, August
Scotland, William Seepe (Unknown) Seitz, Edward
Seitz, Paul Semboa (Sereba), J. Sestak, John
Settler, Harry Shemia, John Shermel, Antone
Siamon, Andrew Smith, John W. Sopko, Cantina
Speir, James Stam, Antone Stanchez, Frank
Stark, John Staszeski, Tony Steele, Peter
Stefenelli, Dominick Sterns, James H. Stewart, Harry
Sublich, Charles Suffen, John Suhe, John
Suhe, Mike Sukitus, Joseph Szarbrinski, John (John Smith)
Talioli, Eugene Tamarri, Pasquale Tamashanski, Joseph
Teszone, George Timko, Andrew Timko, Joseph, Jr.
Timko, Steve Timko, Joseph, Sr. Tonnelli, Emilia
Tonner, John Tosseth, Frank Turchi, Nocenti
Urban, Leynaud Waite, Charles Walcainski, (Unknown)
Welkas, Anthony White, George Wyatt, William
Yacober, Frank Yagoginski, Frank Yannis, Peter
Yearly, Joseph Yurcheck, Antone Zacherria, Giatano
Zeikel, Pat Zekuia, Joseph Zliegley, Thomas



The Carnagie Hero Fund Commission awarded silver medals to the families of the 13 heroes, Joseph Robeza, Jr. being one of the 13, who were burned in the fiery cage in the Cherry Mine Disaster. A letter dated October 7, 1999 from the Carnagie Hero Fund Commission states that 620 silver metals were given by the Commission; metals now are of bronze only, and 8,321 have been presented to date. Signed by Walter F. Rukowski, Executive Director.

Excerpts from the book: Biography in Black, A History of Streator, Illinois, published in 1962, in my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®
Compiled and edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


Suggested Reading:
Cherry, Illinois Mine Disaster Report, by Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, published in 1910, in my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®

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