This really has nothing to do with homes or home improvement but in the bigger scheme of things if it wasn't for this event I wouldn't be here or restoring my house. Over all this event really isn't even a blip in the annals of history but important to me and what is left of my family.
This coming Saturday is the 100th anniversary of the Cherry Mine Disaster. I know you never heard of Cherry Illinois let alone of the mine disaster and frankly you would not be alone in a conversation if I brought it up in a group of people. And sadly most people being born and raised in this area know nothing about this bit of history.
Ok here is the abridged version of the story and remember, this is mostly from memory and I might have even made some of it up!
In the early 1900's from most accounts a man named Mr. Cherry did a survey of some land in North Central Illinois, Bureau county for the St Paul railroad and mining company. St Paul RR needed allot of coal to run their engines and Cherry, or what was to become Cherry had a pretty good supply underneath the prairie. With a cheap labor pool of immigrants flooding the country at that time in our countries history, those two things made for a great combination. Cheap coal and cheap labor.
St Paul sunk a shaft into the ground and lured the workers with a fair wage and homes. Cherry swelled from nothing as a population to around 3000 by 1909.
The only real way to get to Cherry was via the St Paul RR. There were no roads per say and really just a few wagon trails along the fields heading south to Ladd Illinois where another St Paul mine was located.
In this part of Illinois, there are fairly large deposits of coal but in isolated pockets. Almost all the towns in a 50 mile radius of where I am sitting were started because of coal and the mines. All one needs to do is drive around and in an afternoon I can show you at least a dozen former mines. Cherry, Ladd, Spring Valley, Peru, Olgesby, Ottawa, Standard, Mark all still have the remnants of the old mines.
Time has pretty much removed any clues of the mines themselves and the only real tell tale signs left are the old "dumps" that are left. The "dumps" as we locals refer to them are large mountains of tailing's that were left after the coal was removed and just piled up in large mounds on the flat prairie. Another term used is "slag" or "red dog". Red dog pretty much looks like a red shale material, very brittle and not work a shit for anything. Years ago before the paving of roads, red dog was used as gravel and when it was rained on created nothing but red mud that sucked most vehicles into the ground. It also left everything covered in red.
Telegraph lines where installed later to service the railroad and pretty much no one else. The "company" as my grand mother (Gram) referred to St Paul RR as ran everything, and I mean everything. The transportation, the stores, the entertainment, and the communication's. Owed to the company store was a real truism in the day. The company brought in houses and laid out the basic streets for the town.
Cherry was billed as the safest mine in the world for the time. The mine itself had electric lights . The miners homes and business's didn't but in the mine itself did. There were still oil lamps used through out, but the majority of the mine used electric for illumination. Hence the claim. Kind of like the Titanic as being the safest ship. Those crazy Victorians sure knew how to make bold statements!
The original shaft was sunk to around 300 ft or so and mined out quickly. The second level was sunk another 200 ft below the first and mined until the disaster.
Around 1905 my family came from the south of England and settled in Cherry to work. My Great grandfather and a great uncle eventually brought the family over along with a infant named Alma Mills, my grandmother and her siblings.
They settled in a company house that was shared with another family and proceeded to "work the mine". Based on our standards today, can you imagine two families, two rooms each, and 9 times out of 10 neither family spoke the same language. And back in the day, each family had 7 plus members. More the merrier! and more bodies to work. English, Italians, Austrians, Scots, Lithuanians, and a dozen other nationalities.
There were even African Americans segregated on the east side of town.
A small creek that runs through town that bears a derogatory name for the "blacks" that lived at the head of the creek, and still referred to as that "name" today. Gram always said it was because the "blacks" did their laundry and bathed in the water , hence the name. I dunno, I think it was just pure racism.
So Alma grew up in Cherry and her father worked the mine. One of the stories she told me, was the miners would walk to work with their lunch tins, a round bucket (galvanized)with a lid. About 6 " round and the same deep. The lid was attached with a string or a small chain to a handle. Most lunches consisted of bread, cheese and maybe some meat. You have to remember that these people lived entirely hand to mouth and what they had in their bucket was all they could afford without starving the children.
When you are paid by the ton of coal mined per day, not the slag, but just the coal, you didn't make allot of money. And most families ran a tab at the store just to survive. Also remember, they mined on their bellies and a 3 ft high ceiling was considered a cathedral ceiling. The coal was then loaded on to small wagons pulled by mules (yes mules) and brought to the elevator, and up to the surface. If I confused you, there were very large parts of the mine that had high ceilings, feeder tunnels if you prefer but the side tunnels were very claustrophobic and that's where all the coal came. Tiny little rooms working on your belly. In this area coal was found in thin veins that stretched for miles.
Gram told me that after lunch, the miners would send up their buckets to be retrieved by their children. School even revolved around the mine. At Grams lunch time she would walk to the mine and retrieve her fathers bucket. She was in kindergarten! The kids would take the buckets back to school, or home to mother. After school, the children (Gram) would walk to the tavern and the bar keep would fill each bucket with beer (a few pennies to fill) and then she would walk back to the mine and wait until her father came back to the surface. Father would be greeted by his daughter and a bucket of beer. Gram would walk home and help get supper going and her father would walk with her to the tavern and stay until dinner time.
Ah the simple life!
Cherry at its height, boosted 3000 plus people, 3 theaters, stores, butchers, bakers, numerous bars and taverns and everything a small thriving community needed for that time. Cherry boasted a K thru 8 and a high school, two churches, one Protestant one Catholic and the associated cemeteries. Segregated I might add. Really, from talking to the old timers it was a pretty happening place.
Now sometime in October of 09' a major part or the electrical generating equipment failed forcing the miners to use oil lamps again. Gram told me that when she was little her dad took her and the family below for a tour of the mine. She could always remember the HUGE barn that was underground for the mules. Always very clean and well kept. The mules were better taken care of than the miners themselves. After a few years below,the mules were brought above ground and promptly shot. You have to remember that these animals were basically blind from lack of light and when you brought them above ground, the sun drove them insane. Hence the humane disposal.
So no electricity, and the miners are back to wearing and using oil lamps to see and work. There is and was allot of controversy over the years about how the chain of events actually played out with what happened next. But generally most people agree that a oil lamp fell into a wagon full of stray (or hay) that was being pulled by a mule. The mule freaked and started to run through a portion of the mine and causing the fire to spread into the timbers that held the roof up and from keeping cave-ins at bay. Try to visualize a squarish tunnel, that is lined with wood planks, walls and ceiling, and every few feet large square timbers coming up from the floor and across the ceiling to hold everything up.
Across the street from my grandmothers house was an old guy named Dick Dona (Pronounced Dough-na, not sure of the spelling ) he was kind of a junk collector for most of his life and always had tonnes of shit in his yard. A great place to explore as a kid and he was always chasing us away. But I digress, Dick was one of the few survivors of the mine after the fire started. He and his brother were working their portion and smelled smoke. They promptly bailed on their digging and caught the first elevator up and out.
Now this is where I get personal in this story and my feeling has always been that they, Dick and his brother, didn't really do to much to raise the alarm about the fire. They just bugged out and saved their own asses. I could be wrong and their family members might be offended, but I have never read or heard any different. Even as a kid asking Dick to tell me stories of the mine, I just don't remember hearing differently. Again I maybe wrong.
To recap, we have a insane mule running through a coal mine with his ass (no pun) on fire and igniting all the overhead timbers on fire. Smoke has begun to fill some of the tunnels and a few of the miners are beginning to head to the elevator to raise the alarm.
There is more to the story and a whole bunch of other dynamics involved, detail that I won't cover here.
Every mine has a large ventilation fan, I mean large. It sucks air into the ground via the main shaft and up and out the ventilation shaft. This keeps fresh air flowing through the mine so the miners (and mules) can breath. After the topside was alerted to the fire, a decision was made to reverse the flow of air into the mine. I can understand why, and the thinking behind that decision for the time but all they managed to do (they the mine management) was blow more air onto the fire and cause more smoke to blown into the tunnels vice sucking it out, or shutting the fan off. I am not a miner, but come from a family of miners. So I cannot really second guess that decision.
My Great grandfather and his brother were digging in the farthest and lowest parts of the mine. They never made it out. A general alarm was never sounded about the fire and most men that did try to get to the elevator were met by a wall of black acrid smoke, some ventured further towards the elevator only to trip and fall over the bodies of dead mules and miners. A majority of men suffocated in a few minutes in the pitch black, others were burnt beyond recognition and their bodies never identified by family members. Some were only identified by their pocket watches, glasses, or some other personal effect.
Again, most men did not speak english, knew how to read let alone write. Men signed for their pay with an "X". This also added to the confusion in body identification, since the mine management did not really know how many men were below working that day. How many "X's" equals how many men?
There are stories of some men that did survive the inertial fire and smoke, only to suffocate from the "black damp" later.
There are also many stories of heroism in men attempting a rescue. Some men survived the fire, only to die in a rescue attempt later. Back in the day, there was no safety. No breathing masks, no emergency lighting, no OSHA.
With the mine engulfed in a full fledged inferno, water was brought in on tanker cars from Ladd, and Spring Valley via the railroad. Cherry had no real source of water at the time. The mine tried to dump water down the main shaft in a futile attempt to extinguish the flames. Since the rail head was a distance from the main mine shaft, men ran a bucket brigade from the tank cars to the shaft.
St Paul finally made the decision to "seal" the mine with all the trapped miners below, dead or alive. The idea was to smother the flames until it was safer to attempt another "rescue". I want to say the mined was sealed for 3 weeks. They did bring out 8 men (?) after 21 days that survived in an area that they (the miners) barricaded themselves in. They drank water that seeped in from between the slag and coal. They also fashioned small hand cranked fans from the mine timber to keep the air circulating and the black damp at bay. They ate nothing. Most of the survivors thought they were only in the mine for a day or two and had no realization of the time that had passed.
About a month after the disaster was over, the part for the electrical generator arrived for the lighting system. Over 280 men lost their lives that day. Families devastated and a town that never recovered. Widows only received $1200 restitution from St Paul RR.
There is a picture that shows "widows row" in Cherry, about 20 some houses, every house lost a man in the mine.
The mine was reopened during WWI around 1917-18 and ran until the early 20's The sections that had the fire were never reopened and other parts of the mine were worked until its closing.
Cherry never recovered and today is a small village of 500. 3 bars, 2 churches, a gas station, and they have kept their school open, K thru 8. We all were bused to Spring Valley for High school.
For all its tragic past, Cherry was a great town to grow up in as a kid. There was so much to do (although at the time I was bored), no crime, everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other. We used to climb the dumps as kids (although on private property and had to run the gauntlet of Angus cows that chased us) I always found it fasinating to sit atop history (the dumps) and look down on the village and try to imagine what it was like back in the day. Wouldn't trade any of the growing up there for any where else. Besides my great grandfather and uncle pulled allot of that slag up from the ground and to me it is mine as much as it is the farmer who owns the land.
You can still go to the cemetary and visit the memorial to the lost miners. It is on Illinois Rt 89 north of Ladd and I80. can't miss it. There is actually two areas that are mass graves and unmarked. These are the miners that could not be identified by their families. They all lay together along the north end of the protestant side of the cemetray. Right along the corn field, in view of the dumps.
Here is a good read about the mine
And a good thing that did come out of the disaster, MSHA was formed to protect all miners today. MSHA was a direct result of Cherry and her disaster.