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Story of the Great Cherry Coal Mine Disaster

Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad
St. Paul No. 2 Mine Fire
Cherry, Bureau County, Illinois
November 13, 1909
No. Killed - 259

St. Paul No. 2 Mine Fire Home
List of the Deceased

News Articles:
News icon Hundreds of Coal Miners Meet Death, The Des Moines News, Nov. 14, 1909
News icon Company Makes Statement, The Des Moines News, Nov. 14, 1909
News icon Ninety-One Rescued Alive in Cherry Mine, The Des Moines News, Nov. 21, 1909
News icon Some Rescued Alive from Pit at Cherry, Cook County Herald, Nov. 26, 1909

Hundreds of Coal Miners Meet Death
The Des Moines News, Iowa
November 14, 1909
By United Press

Spring Valley, Ill., Nov. 13. -- The most appalling mining disaster in the history of Illinois and one of the most disastrous in the history of the United States took place this afternoon when the lives of several hundred miners were snuffed out in a fire in a second vein of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad coal mine at Cherry, seventy-seven miles from here.

With the fire still raging at midnight, 500 feet in the depths of the mine, the shafts of which have been sealed, it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of men who perished.

Whether 200 or 473 men perished was not certain at midnight.  At that hour the officials of the railroad company issued a statement that between 200 and 250 miners were still in the mine -- presumably dead, while persons who have been constantly at the mouth of the shaft since the disaster, declare the time keepers records indicate that 473 have perished.

The railroad officials insist that of the 485 men who went into the shaft this morning about 200 have been taken out alive.  Late reports from Cherry, however, deny this assertion and say that of the men who went into the mine in the morning only twenty-four are now on the surface and living.

The heroes of the disaster are twelve rescuers headed by Ike Lewis, a Cherry storekeeper and mine foremen Bundy and Donnelly.  These men went into the shaft in an effort to aid the imprisoned men and a few moments after were taken out dead.  Their bodies were burned almost beyond the semblance of human beings and were terribly contorted by the intense heat.

President A. J. Earling and General Manager Bush of the Milwaukee railroad accompanied by W. W. Taylor, general manager of the mine, arrived here tonight and took personal charge of the situation.

Many Were Saved

The first that was known of it was when there was a deafening explosion and a column of fire and smoke shot out of the mine shaft.  The cage was instantly lowered and a moment later it was pulled up packed full of miners who staggered to the ground as it reached the surface and gasped out the story of the scenes of horror they had witnessed below.

Before they could tell their story the cage was sent down again and again, each time bringing up its burden of blackened and weakened men.  Finally there was no signal from below to draw up the cage and when it came up it was empty.

Then the survivors told the story while physicians attended them.  They said all the men were at work at 3 o'clock when there was a terrific report and almost in an instant the whole mine was filled with flames.  They seemed to go everywhere, and it was impossible to escape from their horrible heat, they said.  There was a wild dash for the shaft and when the cage came down the living men fought each other to clamber in.  All of them were blackened and burned with coal dust and the bodies of some of them were terribly burned.

Rescuers Burned Alive

Volunteers were called for to attempt to rescue the entombed men.

Art Lewis, of Ladd, Ill., was the first to respond and within a minute eleven other men stood at his side.  They were James Y. Earley, Spring Valley; Alexander Strangberg, Spring Valley; James Jamieson, Cherry, miner; Harry Stewart, Cherry, miner; Robert Clark, Cherry, miner, and Donnelly, mine foreman.

They got into the cage and it was shot down into the mine.  The men above waited for a few minutes -- long enough to hear from the party -- and when no signal was received the cage was drawn up again.  The twelve rescuers were all there -- dead.  Their faces were burned almost beyond recognition and the trunks were still smoking hot when the cage reached the surface.

Later tonight reports from Cherry declare hope of taking any of the imprisoned miners out alive have been abandoned and the mine has been sealed up.  It is not believed possible any of the entombed men can have escaped for according to the survivors the flames reached to the innermost recesses.

The mine is the property of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad.

Is A Small Town

The town of Cherry is small and has a population of about 3,000 nearly all of them Austrians, Italians and Lithuians employed in the mine.

When the news of the disaster spread there this afternoon there was a wild rush from the little cottages to the mouth of the mine, where wives, mothers and children of the victims waited for the news of men buried under the earth.  Each time the cage came up with survivors the women and children rushed to the shaft and almost overwhelmed the occupants in their eagerness to identify them.

The superintendent of the mine organized the miners from other shafts to preserve order, but it was with difficulty that many of the frantic women whose husbands or sons did not come up with the other survivors were kept from hurling themselves down the shaft.

Finally when the cage came up the last time and it was realized that the time for saving the entombed men was past, the men, women and children standing about the shaft fell on their knees and prayed aloud in various tongues that heaven would visit its mercy on their doomed relatives and friends.

No Hope Left

At 10 o'clock the statement was made positively at Cherry be persons in charge of keeping order at the mine that there was absolutely no hope for the 400 or more men buried under the earth.  At that hour persons familiar with the topography of the mine declared that the flames undoubtedly had burned away the frame work in the mine and that many of the inner works had probably caved in on the imprisoned miners.

It is expected that the fire will not burn itself out for weeks and it is believed that when the depths can be penetrated nothing will be found but heaps of charred debris, with little or nothing that bears a semblance to human bodies.

The inhabitants of the little village are dazed tonight at the magnitude of the disaster.

In spite of the frantic demonstration at the mine immediately after the explosion, it is clear that they do not yet realize the full extent of the calamity that has come into their lives.  Little knots of men are scattered throughout the village discussing the tragedy in awed whispers, all probably expressing the belief that the entombed men will be rescued, but privately feeling that hope has long since passed.

Practically every house in the village has lost at least one member of the family in the disaster and the taking off of the breadwinner of the family has brought many of them to actual want.  To meet this emergency General Manager W. W. Taylor and Supt. James Steele, of the mine sent messages to the Milwaukee railroad officials tonight asking for relief in the shape of provisions and clothing.  The railroad sent a half dozen special trains bearing the necessities and also nurses and physicians to the scene.

Everything for an emergency hospital has been taken to the town, but the general belief is that the place will need coffins more than it will need bandages.

Great difficulty was encountered by newspaper men in getting news of the disaster to the outside world.  The explosion which wrecked the mine also partially wrecked the telephone and telegraph wires into Cherry and it was hours before any news reached Spring Valley except by courier.

Company Makes Statement
The Des Moines News, Iowa
November 14, 1909

Chicago, Nov. 13. -- A statement declaring that of the 485 men who went into the Cherry coal mine this morning, 200 have been taken out alive, was issued tonight by the officials of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway company.

The statement denies that the fire started as the result of an explosion of mine dust, declaring that the accidental firing of a load of hay on the second level by a careless miner probably started it.

The Cherry mine is one of the newest and best equipped coal mines in the country, the statement asserts, the shaft having been sunk only four years.  There are two levels, one 300 feet below the surface and one 550 feet below the surface.  Most of the miners in the mine when the fire started were at work in the lower level.

The mine was well equipped with modern machinery, says the statement, and was well lighted throughout with electricity.  In order to eliminate the chance of fire.  The statement adds that the exhaust fan installed to draw foul air from the mine broke shortly after the fire started, rendering it necessary to close all the shafts, excepting the hoisting shaft, in order to check the spread of the flames.

Pour Water in Mine

Late tonight special trains carrying fire apparatus were sent to Cherry and the volunteer firemen began to pour water into the mine in the hope of checking the flames.  The work was greatly hampered, however, by the fact that there is little water at Cherry and the engines had to carry it three miles from Ladd in tank cars.  Several hundred men, some of them armed with buckets, were set to work dumping the water into the shaft.

President Earling, of the railroad, and General Manager Bush expressed the belief that some of the entombed men were still alive and that when the fire has been checked and the smoke cleared from the shafts, rescuers may be sent down safely and efforts made to communicate with any of the miners still surviving.

These hopes are not shared by the practical miners of Cherry who declare that even if the imprisoned men could get air, they could never survive the intense heat of the fire.

It was stated at Cherry tonight that the officials of the local miners’ union were formulating a demand for a complete investigation of the disaster and the circumstances surrounding it.  Miners were heard to declare that if the exhaust fan had not broken at a critical moment, some of the men now entombed might have been taken out alive.

Survivor's Story

A vivid story of the disaster was told tonight by John Haney, one of the twenty-four men who were taken out alive.

Haney and James Flood, the latter of whom went back into the mine with the rescue party and perished, are believed to have been the last miners taken out of the mine alive.

Haney declared he and Flood were the first to discover the fire.  He said he was about to leave the mine about 2 p.m. and was walking through the main entry way from the escape shaft to the hoisting shaft when he discovered the flames.  He summoned Flood who was nearby and together they fought for an hour with the fire in an effort to extinguish it.

"I don't know how the fire started," said Haney.  "I only know that I saw the flames and I realized that it was absolutely necessary that I put them out or several hundred miners would be roasted to death."

"The heat was horrible and both Flood and I were blackened but we stayed with the fire for an hour and did out best to put it out.  Finally, though, the fire got away from us and when it crept up into the overhead timbering of the mine, I could see it was all off."

"Flood and I then ran from the place as fast as we could to the escaping shaft.  We found that others were there before us and were being hoisted up.  We waited in the intense heat for what seemed a life time to me, but finally the cage came down and we were lifted to the surface.  I guess we were the last men taken out alive, for when the cage went down the next time it came up empty."

"I don't know what became of the other poor devils down in the lowest level, but I don't see how any of them can ever be taken out alive.  When the cage bringing us up was coming up, it was easy to see that it would not take very long before the fire would weaken the supports and the whole interior of the mine would cave in."

Ninety-One Rescued Alive in Cherry Mine.
The Des Moines News, Iowa
November 21, 1909

Cherry, Ill., Nov. 20 -- The St. Paul Coal Mine has given up its living.

At midnight there had come alive out of the pit twenty-one men who for a week had been given up for dead.  At that hour upwards of 70 men were known to be alive in the mine but had not yet been brought to the surface, while it was reported that fifty others might have achieved the seemingly impossible and escaped death.

The return of the men to life one week after their burial alive came so suddenly that the whole community was stunned.  The men came to tell tales of hardship and privation and suffering as only the pen of a Poe could adequately describe.  They told of fighting first against death in the shape of fire and later against the slow death of suffocation.

For seven days they subsisted on what little food was in their buckets and the bark of the mine timbers and drank the oil from their lamps and the seepage in the gutters of the mines.  For seven days they watched and waited and prayed for rescue and tuned their ears to sounds from the outside world that would tell them that saviors were near at hand.

Then when all were sinking to the apathy of despair and the songs they had sung and the stories they had told no longer served to keep their minds off their approaching doom, rescue came and willing hands dragged them from their prison 300 feet under the earth's surface and brought them up to home and friends.

History has seldom recorded so providential a rescue and rarely has the world witnessed such scenes as attended the return of the entombed men to life.

The first news that men were still living in the mine reached the surface at 2 p.m.  For days the interior of the mine had been a fiery furnace and all hope that men might still be living in the subterranean tunnels had been abandoned.  Volunteers had gone down to being up the dead and could scarcely believe their own senses when they found men living.

The news spread like wildfire throughout the stricken village and before the first of the entombed men had stepped out of the cage on the surface a dense throng surrounded the mouth of the pit.  Men, women and children deserted their homes and ran some of them half-clad to the mine's mouth.  The two companies of state troops that had been sent by Gov. Benson to prevent disorder when dead bodies were brought up, found no disorder until the living appeared.

Women whose husbands, brothers or sweethearts had been buried since the fire broke out became hysterical in their excitement and fought with the soldiers to reach the mouth of the shaft.

Many swooned.  These whom the soldiers held back as gently as they could, returned again to the attack and seizing the guns of the soldiers endeavored to wrench them from their hands.  Many got through the lines and would have hurled themselves head foremost into the pit had they not been restrained.

Everywhere the village teemed with excitement

When the first rescued men, Joseph and Giacoma Pigatti, appeared on the surface with their rescuers they were taken to sleeping cars in the village where nurses and physicians were in attendance to care for the men.  Their progress from the mine shaft to the cars was blocked every foot of the way by hysterical men and screaming women so that the rescuers had literally to fight their way along.

Men and women fell on their knees on the ground and prayed aloud their thanksgiving for what they regarded as a direct manifestation of providence.  Many is their frenzy threw themselves on the ground or clasped the foot of the rescuers and kissed them.

Women who recognized among the 21 men taken out their own kin would not be restrained but threw themselves on their necks and sobbed, refusing to tear themselves away when physicians attempted to point out that the rescued men must have food.  Those women had stood for seven nights and days waiting for news of their loved ones and they would not be denied.

The first half hour after the living men appeared chaos reigned, and it was not until 2:30 p.m. that a semblance of order was restored.  As fast as the survivors were brought to the surface they were hurried to the sleeping cars.  The physicians carefully fed the men small quantities of soup aiming to restore their strength gradually.

A guard of troops was thrown about the cars and once inside the men were allowed to see none but the newspaper men and their relatives.

There the men began to unfold the stories of their experience in the underground tomb.  Their stories showed that the evidence given at the coroner's inquest that the fire had started from a torch projecting, from a wall in the mule stables on the second level was correct.  They told of finding fire in the mule stables at 3 o'clock last Saturday afternoon and under the guidance of William Clelland, a Scotchman, at throwing up a barricade to keep the fire, smoke and gases away from them.  The passage of time was not marked by them, they said and most of them thought they had been imprisoned but a single day.

Then came the rescue of the survivors.  One man asked only to see his wife and children, he did not want food, he said, another begged for a glass of beer, while a third scorned food but remarked, "Lord, how I wish I had a cigarette."

Doctors declared that the minds of many of them had evidently been temporarily unbalanced by the horrors they have faced.  Rescuers reported that when they dug through the barricade to the second level and the 21 men came scrambling and fighting each other to get through the passage, the rescued men laughed hysterically and made jokes about their long siege underground while waiting for the cage to take them up.  First twenty-one men taken out alive:

George Semich, John Semich, Frank White, Joseph Pigatti, Glacoma Pigatti, Wm. Mcclelland, Walter Waite, Frank Waite, George H. Eddy, Wm. Hynes, Francisco Zinirini, Quartaroli Abolanara, Thos. Richards, John Timko, Andrew Timko, Frederiko Lorenzi, William Mortmer, John Brown, Bomfilio Rugerio, Joseph Crescini, William Heinze.

Meanwhile another report flashed through the village

"There are 150 more men alive down there," shouted a rescuer as he stepped from the cage after a trip below.  Instantly all the earlier excitement was renewed and all the earlier scenes were re-enacted.

Priest Goes Down

Rescuers were sent down into the mine at once but came up to get oxygen helmets, saying they could hear men calling to them, but could not stand the gases or the stench of the bodies of burned mules in the second level.  With the rescuers on the return trip went Father Henry of Mendola, a Catholic priest.  He had donned the clothes of a miner and went down to give absolution to all of those Catholics who might be dying.

The work of reaching these men was taken in charge by D. E. Powell, superintendent of the Braceville mine and B. C. Maxwell, chief engineer of the St. Paul Mine company.  For six hours without relief of any sort Maxwell stood in one spot and directed the efforts of the rescuers, despite the black damp which threatened all of the rescuers.

The rescuers found two parties of entombed men still living.  All were on the second level in the west tunnel and near the spot where the twenty-one men had been taken out earlier.  The rescuers were attracted by rappings on the walls on the tunnels and following them, they came upon a barricade.  Their signals were answered immediately and they started to dig.

At a late hour tonight they were able to talk to the members of one party of sixty-seven men, who declared they were all in good physical condition.  The rescuers proceed cautiously as that portion of the mine reeked with black damp and it was feared that if the men were brought in contact with it suddenly they might die.  It is realized that the living men are largely borne up by excitement and that they probably are not as strong as they think they are.

At midnight 120 rescuers were at work, endeavoring to take the men out and it was expected that they would be brought to the surface before morning.  Other rescuers are digging to reach another party of eleven.  Meanwhile respirators have been provided and will be passed to the imprisoned men.

Late tonight 16 of the 21 men brought to the surface were taken in carriages to their homes.  A nurse was sent to each one, to see that he did not eat anything but what the doctors prescribed.  Inspector E. C. Crawford of the state board of health, who is in charge of the medical corps, expressed the belief that some of the men might collapse tomorrow when the excitement had been wore off.

Despite their affected jauntiness when they were rescued, the faces of most of the survivors plainly tell the story of their sufferings.  A week ago William Clelland's hair was a dark brown; tonight it is a silver gray.  He was almost too weak to walk until a childish voice called his name through the window of the sleeping car when he was strong enough to reach out and gather his two children into his arms.  His six-year-old son Willie, and his eight-year-old daughter Francis, perched themselves upon his knees and the first thing Willie said was, "Papa did you get your dinner?"

Many of the rescuers collapsed under the strain to which they have been subjected.  D. E. Powell was brought up unconscious tonight and is said to be in a critical condition.

Barney Dougherty, another rescuer, after making two trips into the mine was sent up hurriedly and fell unconscious as he stepped out of the cage.  At midnight he was reported dying and a priest was sent for.

On all sides tonight men are saying:
"Any man who does not believe in God after this is simply insane."

"It was the greatest miracle of the age," declared William Taylor, state mine inspector, as the tears rolled down his cheeks.  "This is the greatest moment of my life.  No one could feel the enormity of the disaster more than I and that men are really alive down there is nothing but a direct answer to our prayers.  Nobody can make me believe otherwise."

On Saturday, November 13, 1909, like most days, nearly 500 men and boys, and three dozen mules, were working in the mine.  Unlike most days, an electrical outage earlier that week had forced the workers to light kerosene lanterns and torches, some portable, some set into the mine walls.

Shortly after noon, a coal car filled with hay for the mules caught fire from one of the wall lanterns.  Initially unnoticed and, by some accounts, ignored by the workers, efforts to move the fire only spread the blaze to the timbers supporting the mine.

The large 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.

The two shafts were then closed off to smother the fire, but this also had the effect of cutting off oxygen to the miners, and allowing the “black damp,” a suffocating mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, to build up in the mine.

Some 200 men and boys made their way to the surface, some through escape shafts, some using the hoisting cage.  Some miners who had already escaped returned to the mine to aid their coworkers.  Twelve of these, led by John Bundy, made six dangerous cage trips, rescuing many others.  The seventh trip, however, proved fatal when the cage operator misunderstood the miners' signals and brought them to the surface too late - the rescuers and those they attempted to rescue were burned to death.

One group of miners trapped in the mine built a makeshift wall to protect themselves from the fire and poisonous gases.  Although without food, they were able to drink from a pool of water leaking from a coal seam, moving deeper into the mine to escape the black damp.  Eight days later, the 21 survivors, known as the "eight day men", tore down the wall and made their way through the mine in search of more water, but came across a rescue party instead.  One of those 21 survivors died two days later with complications from asthma.

259 men and boys died.

Some Rescued Alive from Pit at Cherry
Cook County Herald, Arlington Heights, IL
November 26, 1909

Twenty-one men rose from the grave in Cherry, Ill., Saturday.  Twenty-one men pronounced dead days ago by all the mining experts in Illinois, rose from the depths of the St. Paul mine, where, with 310 others, they had been entombed for seven days, and when the people looked at them they were alive.  Cherry saw a tragedy one Saturday.  The next it witnessed a miracle.

But, just when the hopes of the waiting wives of the remaining entombed miners were at their highest, when the rescuers seemed likely to bring scores of other living men to the surface, the sickening news came that the mine was again on fire.  At midnight a small fire broke out, cutting off the rescue work.  Fire apparatus had to be lowered and a stream of water had again to be turned into the mine.

The news of the rescue of living men swept through the village like a telepathic wave.  It transformed a community which was groveling in the deepest pits of woe into a community delirious with joy, intoxicated with hope.  When the men came forth from the shaft they found the whole community gathered to give them welcome When their eyes, accustomed for a wek [sic] to the inky blackness of a sealed-up mine, were able to take in the sights around them one of the first things that they saw was the piled-up coffins in which, by all the laws of science and engineering, they were to have been buried When they were able to speak the first words that left their lips were words that brought up hope that hundreds of other men yet in the mine might still be alive.  During the long watched of their own imprisonment they said they had heard sounds that made them sure that the crannies and corridors about them held living men.

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