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Jones and Nesbet Mining Company
Coulterville Mine Explosion

Coulterville, Randolph County, Illinois
January 9, 1883
No. Killed - 10

News Articles from the Period  (550 Kb)  PDF Format

Terrific Explosion of Fire Damp in Coal Mine at Coulterville, ILL.
The Review Decatur, Macon County, Illinois
January 11, 1883

St. Louis, Jan. 10. -- A special from Coulterville, Ill., says the excitement in view of the terrible explosion in the Jones and Nesbet mine, Monday evening, has subdued.  Ten strangled and burned bodies lie in the public hall dressed and arranged for burial.

Their names are:
  • Nicholas Kohl
  • Frank Brown
  • Henry Fury
  • Thomas Hanson
  • Henry Starr, Sr.
  • Robert Dunlap
  • James W. King
  • A. H. Coombs
  • Frank Shanford
  • Henry Starr, Jr.
Eight of them were married.  Among them they leave twenty-five orphans.  The explosion was heard at the top, and when the hoisting cage was pulled up a few minutes later, a man and boy staggered from it, blackened with smoke, and so exhausted that they had to be supported.  The man was Sylvester Mason, the foreman of the mine.  Ten other men were known to be in the pit.

The details are meager, the clearest account of the catastrophe being that given by Sylvester Mason, one of the survivors.  Mr. Mason said that the shaft was 820 feet deep, and at the bottom a corridor seven feet wide leads eastward for over two hundred yards.  On each side of the corridor are the mining rooms where the men work during the day, drilling into the seven foot vein of coal.  It is customary to fire the blast all together late in the afternoon.  Each man lights his fuse, and then all hands run for safety to some niche, the blasts all being fired at once.  Foreman Mason said that he went down the shaft shortly after 4 o'clock Monday afternoon, and found that the thirteen charges were ready to be fired.  He told the men to light the fuses.

After giving the order he started for the foot of the main shaft two hundred yards away, accompanied by William Starr, a boy whose father and brother were at work in the pit.  "I stood at the foot of the shaft," said Mr. Mason, waiting for the men to come out so that I could check them off, and see that none would be left.  I heard three shots a few minutes apart, and then a fourth followed, in an instant by a terrible explosion in the gallery where the ten men were.

Next came a rush of air, followed by a great volume came a rush of air, followed by a great volume of fire that filled the whole corridor.  I was blown against the side of the shaft and my leg badly hurt.  The boy Starr was stunned.  First I thought I would wait and try to save some of the men, but the flames were coming up to me very fast.  The fumes became almost stiffling, even in the shaft, and I felt that it would be suicide to remain any longer.  I stepped on the cage, dragged the boy, who was insensible, after me, and rang the hoisting bell.  When we reached the surface I was almost strangled, and the boy was apparently dead."

S. Davis, engineer at the time, was the first man above to hear the explosion.  He said he was startled by a half-muffled explosion, which shook the ground like an earthquake.  Looking from the engine-room to the mouth of the shaft he soon saw a volume of heavy black smoke pouring up in great clouds.  Before he had time to think, a sharp ring at the signal bell told him that somebody was alive, and he set the machinery in motion as quickly as possible.  In a minute he saw Foreman Mason stagger out of the cloud of smoke at the mouth of the flash, dragging the boy with him as previously described.  The engineer gave the signal of a disaster in the mine, two sharp whistles and soon the whole Coulterville population was rushing to the shaft, which is a little way out of town.

The scene was heartrending in its wretchedness.  Women and children stood around, crying and wringing their hands in a way that showed they had relatives or friends in the pit.  One young wife told through a flood of tears how her husband had promised to come up from the mine and spend the afternoon with her, and how the nice dinner she had prepared for him was waiting on the table when she heard the distress whistle.  Wives with children in their arms crowded around the opening of the shaft and had to be held back from jumping into the smoking pit.

Soon after the accident Mr. Nesbet, one of the mine owners, and a small party boarded the cage and endeavored to go down to the rescue, but were driven back by the smoke.  Another attempt was made with the same result and one young fellow, Harry Lonshore, was so determined in his efforts that he was dragged up almost dead, and he is now in a critical condition.

About 8 o'clock in the evening the smoke had entirely cleared away from the mouth of the shaft.  Again a party went down in the cage, and this time reached the bottom.  They found the smoke still very thick there owing to the absence of air.  After an hour's hard work they penetrated about one hundred yards through the debris.  Then they found James W. King, the first of the dead, lying on his face.  The poor man had clearly crawled half-way to the shaft after the explosion as his body lay on top of a pile of slate which had been torn down by the explosion.

The digging party worked through another hundred yards of debris and then they found the nine remaining victims, all lying dead a few feet apart.  Three of the men were badly burned, the other seven were dead from suffocation.  One of them, Frank Brown, was found crouched upon his knees, his head close against the floor, to get away from the smoke, and his clothes and flesh were burned from his back.

The corpses were hoisted up two at a time.  At the top of the shaft the bodies were washed, the legs were tied together, and the victims were carried in spring wagons to the town, where they were laid out in the assembly-room of the Coulterville band.  It was midnight before the work was over.  The town is in mourning.  The explosion was evidently caused by fire-damp.  The mine was extremely badly ventilated, there being but one opening and no air shaft at all.

Nesbet and Jones opened the mine about ten years ago.  The president of the town board issued a proclamation advising that all business houses be closed, which has been done.  Coulterville is forty-seven miles from St. Louis and has about one thousand inhabitants.

The coroner held an inquest yesterday on the bodies of the dead miners at Coulterville, and returned a verdict that they came to their death by suffocation or burns caused by an explosion in the mine.  Eight of the ten bodies will be buried at Coulterville today.  The other two will be taken to a neighboring town.  Twenty-three orphans are left by the sad calamity.

The mine worked about forty men, and had the explosion occurred earlier in the day probably four times as many lives would have been lost.  The cause of the explosion is still a mystery.

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