Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Complete Story of the November 13, 1909 Cherry, Illinois Mine Disaster that killed 259 men.

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 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).
At about 1:15 PM, 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 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 became 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 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 miners boy recalled that he had wanted to go down to help but had been admonished by his mother who was at his side says, "Don't you go over there — your father's got his hands full." He never saw his father again. 

Dr. L.D. Howe, also of Streator, a physician for the mining company, went below to help but was soon raised to the top and forced to remain there to minister to the injured.
A general view of the mouth of the shaft shows 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 were Alexander Norberg, the assistant mine manager; John Sczabrinski, a cager; 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.
After this, the cage was lowered and raised many times, but it always returned empty, and so was soon halted. Tons of water were 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 to blow out the fire, but this only ignited the fan house and the escape ladders and stairs in the secondary shaft, trapping more miners below. Late Sunday, heavy planks were thrown over the shaft opening to smother the raging flames; wet sand was dumped on the planks, and the two shafts were closed off to extinguish the fire.

The town reached the brink of a 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 14, 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, rumors circulated that thudding sounds had been heard below, and 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 the Mine disaster, November 13, 1909.
Beside the body of a young miner named Sam Howard, a recovery team found this note: "There are 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 PM on Monday: "Our lives are giving out. I think this is our last. We are getting weak."
Firefighting 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 18, 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 to many more. On November 20, rescue workers exploring a remote tunnel came upon a few enfeebled miners who led them to a small group of men who 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 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. We knew it would fill up the face and smother in there. We built a wall across the second west entry and the first west entry of dirt, and we were inside there for seven days."

Of the twenty-one rescued, one of whom later died, John Lorimer and George Stimac (or Stimez) were from Streator and Thomas White from Kangley. Another survivor, 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."

One of the 21 men who managed to survive eight dreadful days trapped, 315 feet below, in the second vain of the Cherry Mine, and who was rescued on Saturday, November 20th, was 45 year old Daniel Holofcak [born Dyonisius, son of Mary Hovanca and Petr Holovčak, of then Austro-Hungarian Empire]. Daniel was aka Dyons Holovcak, when he married his beloved Marija "Mary" Fedor, in 1888 by civil authority in Livingston County and then again in 1889, in a religious ceremony in Streator, Illinois. 

After being rescued, Daniel returned home to his loving wife and their nine children. Of which his eldest, was the newlywed Mrs. Mary Seman when he left for work with his son-in-law, [Andrew?], but had become a widow by the disaster, and left in mourning upon his return home, alone. 

Daniel, overwhelmed by what he had survived, spared from death at his age, while his 24 year old son-in-law had lost his, plus his supposed complications of Asthma, he also died at end of the following day. Having passed on Sunday, November 21, 1909 and was laid to rest in the Miners' Memorial Cemetery, in Cherry, Illinois. 

His Headstone inscribed with yet another version of his name, Deonis Holofcak... and an incorrect date of death. Presumably, his burial date, although the Slavic inscription states it as his death date. 
Comment by Nash Rodovid, August 28, 2022

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 the 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 victim's bodies were first laid.
The small shed first used to house the dead bodies was quickly replaced by a large tent set up as the Morgue.
Property found on the victims.
Among the mementos on display at the presidential library: a pocket watch that belonged to one of the dead Cherry miners, 20-year-old Joseph Yerly of Spring Valley. The watch has been passed down in his family over the generations.

The watch owner’s body was burned beyond recognition. He was identifiable only because of his distinctive timepiece, which has an image of a church engraved on the back.

The watch appears to be in good condition, but its protective crystal is gone, and no one knows exactly why.

The glass could have been shattered somehow during the commotion of the fire, or the watch might have been damaged deliberately. As trapped miners waited in the inky darkness for their hoped-for rescue, they sometimes broke the crystal on their watches so they could keep track of time by feeling where the watch hands were.
—The State Journal-Register, November 5, 2009
What mattered was that there were 630 survivors — 160 widows and 470 fatherless children — who somehow had to be provided for. Private contributions started immediately nationwide, with Streator alone contributing almost $ 5,000 by the end of November. These donations from the United Mine Workers, Red Cross, and other organizations totaled over $444,000.
Funeral of Mr. Smith, a Cherry Mine victim.
The Cherry Cemetery 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" 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; 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 that was made orphans by the Cherry Mine disaster on 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, the funeral procession of victims, Main Street, Ladd, Illinois - April 1910 
End of the funeral procession with nine hearses. Main Street, Ladd, Illinois - April 1910
Knights of Pythias funerals. Circa April 1910
Three caskets are ready for transport. Circa April 1910
Relatives view the remains of Davis at the Morgue. He had worked in the mine for only two days during the disaster. His body was taken overland to Peoria, Illinois.
Cherry School, Room 1, 22 children were made fatherless by the 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 was sold, it would go bankrupt and yield less than its worth. 

Into this tangle of legal complications and aroused public opinion stepped John E. Williams of Streator, 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," eventually, the company added $400,000 to the amount privately subscribed. The final sums allotted to surviving dependents were worked out based on 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 the big tent, used as a morgue, February 20, 1910
81 bodies were taken out of the Cherry Mine and placed in a makeshift morgue on March 4, 1910
Recovered 5 months after the accident with $200.00 on his person on April 11, 1910
Out of the tragedy came new mine safety laws, more thorough inspections, and improved mining equipment. Due to the Cherry Mine Disaster, the Illinois legislature established stronger mine safety regulations the following year. In 1911, Illinois passed a separate law, which would later develop into the Illinois Workmen's Compensation Act.

The men who died will never be forgotten, especially those who gave their lives for others. And Streator had a particular cause for pride because of its own John E. Williams. His skill, humanity, and hard work significantly prevented the Cherry Mine disaster from creating bitterness and hatred among the thousands of people affected.


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.
The long, long train 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
then the men who died in the pit.


Bureau County Record, December 22, 1909

Miners' Memorial Cemetery, Cherry, Illinois, 1909


"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 on November 14, 2009. A new monument at the Cherry Village Hall was dedicated to the miners who lost their lives in the disaster.


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 Galletti, Giovanni
Galletti, 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 Podbregar, 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. Tonelli, Emilio
Tonner, John Tosseth, Frank Turchi, Nocenti
Urban, Leynaud Waite, Charles Walcainski, (Unknown)
Welkas, Anthony White, George Wyatt, William
Yacober, Frank Yagoginski, Frank Yannis, Peter
Yerly, Joseph Yurcheck, Antone Zacherria, Giatano
Zeikel, Pat Zekuia, Joseph Zliegley, Thomas

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded silver medals to the families of the 13 heroes; Joseph Robeza, Jr. was one of the 13 who was burned in the fiery cage in the Cherry Mine Disaster. A letter dated October 7, 1999, from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission states that 620 silver medals 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.

Compiled by Dr. 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®


  1. My grandfather's first cousin's name has been corrected on the monument at Cherry. He was Giovanni Galletti, not Garletti. The complete story is in Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori, published by Atria, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Named one of the Chicago Tribune's favorite books of 2002. I only wish this story had as much traction as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, because of the historical significance of mining, labor, child labor and mine safety changes which occurred as a direct result of this horrible tragedy. Surprising that even in Illinois, this story is little known. Thank you for helping to keep alive this tragic, important piece of American history.

    1. I read the book Karen mentions here, I couldnt put it down. I still tell people that they should read it. Thank you for sharing. Please write more books, you are very talented.

  2. My Great grandfather Patrick Taggart and his son Patrick Jr., emmigrants from County Tyrone , Ireland, via Croy Scotland, were the last two men out of the mine under their own power. They had climbed up the airshaft from the second vein. After Patrick Sr. exited the mined the exit shaft was sealed. His words were "They have the fire under control now," or something to that effect.
    I have pictures of them including one of Patrick Jr. leading a litter bearing the body of a dead miner. If you are interested I can forward them to you.

    1. Please forward the photos to:

  3. The picture you have of the funeral procession traveling through Ladd is passing what today is Softail Bar and Grill on N. Main St. They traveled to Ladd because there was no Catholic cemetery in Cherry and the only "consecrated" ground was at the Cemetery in Ladd.

  4. My Great Grandfather, Emilio Tonelli, is correct on his tombstone, and in the book "Across the Ocean to the Land of Mines" by Prof Pier Giorgio Ardeni, page 360. It is wrong on the original victim list from 1909 as Emili(a) Tonelli. However, he says he left his wife and four children in Montese, Italy. They were in Cherry, Illinois. Thank you, for all of your hard work and dedication to this! :)

  5. Thank you for covering this important event. John Flood was my great uncle. He was one of the men who received the Carnegie Medal of Valor. I appreciate you keeping this history saliva. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for this article and thank you for all you do.My family were coal miners. Judy Rutkauskas


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