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Laurel (East) Mine Disaster Memorial
Southwest Virginia Improvement Co.
Laurel Mine Explosion

Pocahontas, Tazewell County, Virginia
March 13, 1884
No. Killed - 112

Note:  The photo of the memorial marker indicates 114 died in this disaster, however, the total on the CDC/NIOSH list External Link is 112.

Final Investigation Report  (2.7 Mb)  PDF Format

(From the U. S. Bureau of Mines Bulletin 20, pp. 20, 29)

The night shift was in the mine at 1 o'clock in the morning when the explosion shook the ground and dwellings for half a mile around the mine.  None of those in the mine survived.  The mine consisted of five openings from the outcrop in a ravine into the hillside.

Cars, timbers, and debris were hurled from the openings with awful force.  The fan, the mine buildings, and surroundings on the surface in front of the openings were demolished.  Fire succeeded the explosion in the mine, and all that could be done was to seal the openings as the fire and smoke rapidly increased.

After the sealing, steam was conveyed into the mine from five boilers.  The mine was flooded, then opened, and the bodies were recovered in April.  It was thought that dust, with possibly some gas, was fired by blasting.  Gas could not be found in the mine after the explosion, although some claimed to have found it while working there before the disaster.  The mine was considered non-gassy, and no safety lamps were used.  Ventilation was of a low order.  Blasting was done at the end of each shift.  Shooting was "off-the-solid," using excessive amounts of black powder.  The mine was very dry and dusty.

For months after this explosion, its causes and possible preventive measures were argued in newspapers, and technical journals.  This disaster, with those at Crested Butte, Colorado and West Leisenring, Pennsylvania caught public attention; a mine inspection bill was introduced in the Virginia Legislature but failed to come to a vote.  Several committees investigated the circumstances, and the published conclusions stated that fine coal dust in mines was a serious explosion hazard when coupled with firing of heavy charges of black powder without first undercutting the coal.

The question of whether the coal might be ignited without any gas being present was not clearly answered, although experiments had indicated that it might occur (48, pp. 28, 29).

Historical Summary of Mine Disasters in the United States - Volume I

The Mountain Cracked by the Force of the Explosion
Plattsburgh Sentinel, New York
March 21, 1884

The victims of the mine disaster at Pocahontas, Va., last week, leave 97 widows and orphans.  There were five distinct explosions, and their force was so great that the mountain was cracked.  There were no expert gas men employed in the mine, and no safety lamps used.  The officers say the explosion was not caused by a lamp, but probably by a blast which opened up a large quantity of gas.  Two-thirds of the men were white, and more than fifty had families.  The actual number killed is 184, of whom fifty were negroes, forty Hungarians, and the remainder Germans and natives.  Ten mules were also killed.

The night relief went into the mines at the usual hour on Wednesday night.  A little after midnight the town was startled from its sleep by a noise that sounded like the rumbling of an earthquake, followed by a clap of thunder.  Soon a messenger came from the mines, three-fourth of a mile away, with information to the superintendent that there had been a terrible explosion there.  The superintendent and others hastened to the mines, and the scene presented to their view was indescribable.  The entrance to the main shaft was entirely torn out and scattered pell mell for hundreds of feet.  The little train track was torn and twisted, and shapeless timber and ties were mixed in confusion all around.

The cars were taken up bodily and torn apart, and their iron wheels were shivered.  They were thrown across a ravine five hundred yards, and buried in the mountain beyond.  The mountain itself was upheaved by the force of the explosion and in several places near the entrance of the mines enormous crevices were made in the earth.  In many places on the mountain coal dust has settled an inch thick.  Immense trees were uprooted four hundred yards from the mine.  Three dwelling houses near the mines were demolished by the falling of cars and debris on them.  Two colored women and a child were in one of the homes, and were literally torn to pieces.  Rocks were thrown through the workshops, and every object that stood in the direct course of the forced air was demolished.  Several workmen in the shops were injured.  The shops, as well as the locomotive house, were leveled with the ground.

The furthest entry effected was by a Hungarian whose son was buried in the ruins.  Nearly crazed by grief he could not be restrained, and penetrated to a considerable distance, but was eventually compelled to retire.  He reported seeing a number of bodies congregated in one chamber indiscriminately, torn and mangled beyond recognition.  One of the victims was a youth, 13 years of age, who was employed as a door boy, and was the pet of the mining camp.  The little fellow had just entered the mine when the explosion occurred.

The management, to prevent the possibility of any fresh disaster, will flood the mine.  It may be therefore several weeks or months before any attempt can be made to reach the bodies of the unfortunate miners.

The Pocahontas Disaster
Bringing the Bodies of the Victims to the Surface

The New York Times, New York
April 12, 1884

Lynchburg, Va., April 11 -- After everything had been got in readiness at Pocahontas yesterday evening a police force was placed on guard at the main entrance to the mines in order to keep back the crowd which had been attracted by the notice posted by Superintendent Lathrop announcing that the bodies would be reclaimed, and then Mining Engineer Moody, in charge of a rescuing party, entered the mines to note the situation of affairs.  When the party emerged from the mines it was announced to the crowd that the damage was less than had been supposed and that little trouble would be met with in recovering the bodies of the victims.

Two bodies were recovered yesterday in a horribly mutilated condition.  They proved to be those of Boon Maxey, a white boy, and Jim Crim, a negro.  The work of recovery was then postponed until this morning, when it was resumed under the direction of Engineer Moody.  A still larger crowd than that of the day previous congregated at the entrance, and ropes had to be stretched around to prevent too near an approach to the entrance.  The crowd, however, observed proper decorum, and no undue excitement was manifested, a spirit of great solemnity seeming to pervade the assemblage.

The bodies, as they were recovered were placed in boxes on the inside of the mine, and several of them were brought out together on a car.  A number of miners well acquainted with the victims were placed at the entrance for the purpose of identifying the bodies, if possible, but of the 16 recovered so far only 6 have been identified.  These are Jim Crim, recognized by a bell he wore; Isham Maxwell, by his boots; George Maxwell, by being found with his brother; William Slusher, identified by a patch on one of his boots; Young Jewell, by his hair and the location in which his body was found, and a German who was recognized by his wife.

Many of the bodies are horribly mangled, some with the heads blown off, others with arms and legs torn from the sockets, and still others with the entrails torn out entirely.  An arm and a leg were found in the main entrance, but the body to which they belonged could not be found.  A thrill of horror passed through the crowd in front of the mines as the rescuing party brought out the charred remains of a miner with his dinner bucket clasped in his arms.  He was probably just partaking of his midnight meal when the explosion occurred.  Several miners were found with picks in hand, and the positions of these bodies indicated that death was instantaneous to all in the mines.  At 3:30 o'clock the announcement was made that no more bodies would be removed before 9 o'clock Saturday morning.  The remainder of the day was occupied in getting out the carcases of mules, which, being too heavy to be dragged out, had to be quartered and taken out.  Very little excitement prevailed at the mines any times during the day.  As soon as the announcement was made that no more bodies would be taken out until Saturday the crowd quietly withdrew.

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