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Cambria Steel Company
Rolling Mill Mine Explosion

Johnstown, Cambria County, Pennsylvania
July 10, 1902
No. Killed - 112

1902 Bureau of Mines Annual Report  (4.6 Mb)  PDF Format
Official Fatality List  (1.5 Mb)  PDF Format
Rolling Mill Mine Disaster Marker
Location: 40° 19.623′ N, 78° 55.523′ W.
Marker is in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in Cambria County.  Marker is at the intersection of Pennsylvania Route 56 and Lincoln Street, on the right when traveling south on State Route 56.  Marker is in this post office area: Johnstown PA 15901
Photographed by Mike Wintermantel
Source: The Historical Marker Database  External Link
Video: Rolling Mill Mine Disaster 100th Anniversary Commemorative  External Link
See also: Rolling Mill Mine Explosion, Oct. 4, 1906
See more mine disaster markers, memorials, and monuments.
From the Google News Archives:  External Link
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Successful Rescue

Four men who were brought out alive the night of the Rolling Mill mine disaster were taken to the Memorial Hospital, controlled by the Cambria Steel and Iron Company.  Among these were John Rotalick, Henry Rodgers, Valentine Schalla, and William Robinson.  And the next day, at 2 o'clock p.m., rescuers sent out for medical assistance to treat three others found alive.  They were John Cook, Philip McCann and George Hologyak.

Rescuer Deaths

Mine foreman, Harry Rodgers; assistant mine foreman, William Blanchard; and fire bosses, John Whitney and John Thomas were overcome by the afterdamp while attempting to rescue other miners.

(From State Inspector's Report, 1902 (pp. 52-72, 612-616))

At 11:30 a.m. the explosion in the Klondike section killed 112 persons, 7 by force of burns and the rest from suffocation by afterdamp.  Twenty-one others were rescued alive.

The destruction from the force of the detonation was small . . . attesting to its feebleness.  No. 2 room had been cut through to the rib fall on No. 5 entry where gas was known to exist.

The gas was ignited by coming in contact with one or both of the miners' open lamps, found in the face of the room.

All the men employed in the vicinity of the gas which exploded were selected on account of their knowledge of safety lamps and the method of using them to examine for gas, for which they were ordered to look always before firing shots, but were permitted to take their naked lights into the danger marks made by the firebosses.

It gave a man a better light for traveling to work, but it also afforsed and opportunity for . . . using his naked lamp for the sake of getting a better light.

"I am expected to make suggestions which may aid in the prevention of such catastrophes, but I despair offering anything that would avail under the circumstances.  What can we do when a miner recklessly disregards safety and violates all laws and rules in the mine?

No one in a gaseous district should use any except a locked safety lamp.  Until a safety lamp is put upon the market which will give something near as good illumination as the ordinary naked light, the men will continue their aversion to the common safety lamp.

The miner of today, all too frequently to get a better light than it affords, throws caution to the winds and endangers himself and others."

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

All in Mine Dead; 87 Bodies Removed
Brooklyn Eagle, New York
July 12, 1902

Johnstown, Pa., July 11 -- Just as day broke through the pall of fog this morning the grim details of the awful disaster at the rolling mill mine of the Cambria Steel Company dawned with renewed force on the thousands waiting for authentic news as to the extent of the explosion.

Forty-seven dead bodies, all contorted and many blackened and burned, lie stretched on rough slabs at the improvised morgue in the Armory building.  Forty more are in cars in the mine ready to be borne out as fast as room can be made for them.

The latest estimates of the number of dead reduce the scope of the calamity so far as the number of dead is concerned, but these, while fixing it at around one hundred, are not conclusive.  General Superintendent G. J. Robinson would not say this morning whether he thought there were 100 or 300 dead.

He says there is no way of telling until a full investigation of the mine is made.  When that will be he says he has no means of telling.  All rests with the difficulty to be encountered in clearing the heading of after damp.

All in Mine Believed to Be Dead

The mine officials now concede that no living soul who was in the mine after the explosion and not heard from can possibly be alive.

Dr. Lowman said that during his stay in the mine last night he counted 65 bodies.  At that time he did not have an opportunity to examine many gas-filled chambers of the big workings.

It was 5:55 o'clock when the first train load of victims was brought to the mouth of the main entry.  Forty-nine cars were used in bringing out forty-six dead bodies and four living injured.

The discovery of the dead bodies was made by a searching party about 10 o'clock last night.  They were lying in the main heading two miles in from the main pit mouth.  No attempt was made to remove them until it was established that no more living remained in the mine.

Victims Were Eating Lunch When Stricken Down

From the positions of the bodies the miners were evidently eating their lunches when suddenly stricken down by the explosion.  They were seated in groups of five and ten, with their buckets and the remains of their lunches scattered over the floor.  Evidently their lives were snuffed out quickly.

When the bodies of the victims came from the mine a long line of undertakers' wagons and picnic wagons were in waiting to take them in a roundabout route to the morgue in the city.  There they were backed up to a door and a large force of police was ready to check the great throng from pressing in too close.  Body after body was dragged from the wagons and borne inside.

All of them were blackened and unrecognizable, until the undertakers got to work.  The head of one man was crushed and the only means of identification will be by his check number.

All of the bodies were cold and stiff.  The arms of most of them were twisted in from of them as if to shield their faces from fire.  The left hand of one man was torn off at the wrist.  Their bodies were all found about two miles from the main pit mouth.  In the headings leading from that region off to the left.  It is expected, most of the dead will be found today.

Soon after the discovery of the first bodies the mine officials began to make arrangements for the removal of the bodies from the scene of the disaster.  At the armory of Company H, a big barn-like frame building on the outskirts of the city, preparations were methodically forwarded to transform the place into a temporary morgue.

Chairs were placed in rows opposite each other and rough boards and planks placed upon them to serve instead of the marble or slate slabs that receive the dead in metropolitan morgues.  Nearly a score of young men were called in to assist the dozen undertakers of the city; dry goods establishments were opened and hundreds of yards of muslin, toweling and other goods gotten out for the purpose of preparing the bodies for burial.

Sleepless mothers and wives waited all night for news from the missing ones and peeped through drawn blinds as the cortege[sic] passed on its way to the morgue.  Many trips were necessary and the gray dawn had come long before the last trip had been made.  President Powell Stackhouse and Superintendent C. S. Price were on hand for the arrival of the bodies at the morgue.

Distressing scenes are witnessed about the temporary morgue and on the side of the river at the foot of the descent from the pit mouth, where women and children are awaiting the solution of the awful mystery of the life or death of their relatives, yet unheard from.  Several thousand are congregated at both points.

Measures for Relief of the Stricken Families

Measures for relief of the stricken families have already been taken.  A fund, started late last evening by the Johnstown Democrat, at midnight amounted to $200.  W. A. Crist, general manager of the Berwind White Coal Company, contributed $110.

Those known to be dead include Mike McCann, a loader, married, lived in Prospect; Philip McCann, a loader, married, lived in Cambria City; William Blanche, a labor boss, married, lived in Prospect; Joe Thompson, single, a fire boss, who came recently from Pittsburg; John C. Whitney, fire boss, 55, married, was caught in after damp while with one rescue party, identified by son at morgue; John Thomas, a rescuer; William Blanch, a rescuer, lived at Prospect, Pa.; Sava Vargos; Frank Sabot, 16 years old; Alex Hovel, 22 years old; John Yuminski, a boy; John Hooley, miner, 38, married; Emery Basestlie; Andrew Kanotz; Anthony Lasarsky; John Krieger; Waldok Subsosky; John Hulz.

Most of the Victims Foreigners

As near as can be learned there was not one dozen Americans killed, the rest being Huns and Slavs.  These foreigners lived in different sections of the town, and it is difficult to tell how many are actually missing.

Harry Rodgers, the foreman of the mine, is undoubtedly dead.  He and Foreman Foster were together in a section close to the sixth when the firedamp exploded.  The doors of the section were blown down.  Both leaped to it in order to put it up.  They inhaled the poisonous gas and Rodgers staggered. "Come on," said Foster, "let us try to get out. You are giving away."

Rodgers became, angry at Foster's words.  He could hardly stand then.  In the darkness the two became separated and Foster does not know whether his chief is alive or dead.  Soon afterward Foster met Powell, the fire boss.  Both did what they could to warn the other miners and fought their way to safety.

Four Brought Out Alive

Four men who were brought out alive last night were taken to the Memorial Hospital, controlled by the Cambria Steel and Iron Company, but open to all victims of the accident.  The injured are:
  • John Rotalick, fire boss, unconscious and badly burned, but expected to recover
  • Henry Rodgers, mine boss, badly burned and unconscious from noxious gases inhaled
  • Valentine Schalla, known as check M 385, unconscious, but expected to recover
  • William Robinson, unconscious from gas
These four men were made as comfortable as possible and every care given them by the regular house physicians and other doctors who generously volunteered their services.

A second searching party of forty, headed by Mine Superintendent Robinson, entered the mine at 9:30 o'clock this morning.  It penetrated to the four left headings, which could not be reached last night.  The men found in one group twelve bodies and believed six of them were living.

At 2 o'clock this afternoon they sent out for medical assistance.  Drs. Woodruff and Updegraff have gone in the mine.  The names of the three living men are John Cook, Philip McCann and George Hologyak.

At 2 p.m it was believed that the victims will number 175.  Of the 45 bodies at the morgue 21 were identified as Poles by the Rev. Father Embinski.

As fast as identification is completed the bodies are being taken to their homes.  At noon the charnel house was about cleared of bodies.

Mine Worked for 50 Years

Johnstown, July 11 -- The rolling mill mine has been worked for about fifty years.  Five or six years ago the section where the disaster of yesterday occurred was opened.  The miners fancifully called it the Klondike.

It is said that for the past three years gas has been noticed in it and careful inspections, were kept up.  In the last three years safety lamps had been carried by the men.

Frank Sabot, one of the boys who met death in a heroic endeavor to save his comrades, was safely out of the mine after the explosion.  He worked in the mine ever since the Klondike was opened up.  He had trapped in the mine longer back than that.

After the explosion he hastened into the vault of death to do what he could to close the traps and check the spread of the after damp.  He was found lying near a partly closed door leading off to one of the left headings.

Outside of the property loss this catastrophe will cost the Cambria Steel Company a large sum.  The company has for many years past paid to the family of every person killed in its employ $1,000, outside of what it expended for medical purposes, and it has paid every man who has lost an eye, limb or became otherwise partially disabled, the sum of $500.  It is understood the practice will not be deviated from.

Doctors Saw Many Bodies

Johnstown, Pa., July 11 -- "They aren't all dead.  We ran across some of them alive," stammered Dr. Swan Taylor, late last night when he staggered out of the shaft at Mill Creek.

Just how many were dead or alive he was unable to say.  Indeed, he could scarcely talk at all for nearly half an hour.  He was almost overcome with the foul air in the mine, where he had been with the first rescuing party sent down.

He had been down in the mine since 2 o'clock in the afternoon.  When able to tell anything about the work of the rescuers he had left behind him he could only say that they would soon be coming up.

It was just an hour, when the first victim was brought to the surface.  He was William Robinson, accompanied by Dr. John B. Lewman.
"We have four with us," said the doctor.  "Robinson is in the worst shape.  He is unconscious and badly hurt.  We passed twenty-five bodies while getting out these four, who are yet alive.  We counted them as we went along.  They lay in all kinds of positions.  One man was sitting, leaning against a door, not far from Robinson, just where he had been thrown by the force of the explosion.  Froth was running from his mouth and he had undoubtedly died in great agony.  Others were partly standing, partly reclining.  They were in heaps and singly.  The party with us nearly reached the actual scene of the explosion, and the work of bringing out the poor fellows ought to progress rapidly from now on."
It was nearly midnight before four live men and one corpse were brought up and laid on mattresses and rugs on the ground.  They were not left long outdoors, as it was too cold there, but they were carried into the boiler house nearby and the doctors went to work on them, giving them restoratives and administering oxygen in the glare of the fires of the open furnace.

There was a great crowd around the mouth of the shaft, most of whom had been waiting for the appearance of the rescue parties from six to ten hours and some even longer.

The mine officials had stretched thick ropes in a semi-circle around the boiler house enclosure, the ropes being held in the hands of the bystanders.

Victims of After Damp

Superintendent Says There Were Not More Than Three of Four Deaths From the Explosion.

Johnstown, July 11 -- The first statement of the disaster was given out by General Mine Superintendent George T. Robinson at 7 o'clock this morning.  He said:
"As to the direct cause of the explosion, I cannot exactly say.  We know there was an explosion of firedamp in the sixth right heading of a section of the mine commonly known as the Klondike.  So far as I can find out now there were not more than three or four deaths from the explosion itself.  The balance were caused by the after damp."

"Our mine officials, the mine foreman, Henry Rodgers, Fire Boss John Retallie, Machine Boss William Robinson, who is my brother, and a Slav whose name I do not know, were eating lunch when the explosion occurred.  They immediately went down to the point of the explosion to put up the stoppings in order to carry the air in its proper channel again.  These were blown down by the force of the explosion."

"They, with the exception of the assistant foreman and one of the fire bosses, were overcome by after damp.  They were found by a rescuing party and the chances are that all will recover with the exception of my brother."

"As to the rescue work, I directed it to commence just as soon after the explosion as possible.  We started in at 1 o'clock p.m.  We started working our way down by putting up brattices in order to carry the air in with us.  I suppose it was 10 o'clock at night before we came across the bodies of the living.  Doctor John Lowman and John Hannan went down with us.  They carried tanks of oxygen with them which were emptied to good effect on the living."

"We found twenty-five dead on our way to these four living.  Twenty more we found later on.  They were scattered through that section of the mine.  Most of them were on their way out when caught by the fatal after damp."

Hell on the Disaster

Wilkes-Barre, Pa., July 11 -- President Mitchell of the United Mine Workers was greatly shocked when he learned of the extent of the disaster in the rolling mill mine at Johnstown, Pa.  He is waiting for information from representatives of the organization in that district and it is likely that union will take some action in the way of affording relief to those affected by the explosion.  President Mitchell said:
"The frequency with which these accidents happen is a strong argument why more stringent laws should be passed by legislatures regulating the ventilation of gaseous mines.  If mining companies would exercise more care in protecting the lives of their men in the mines instead of trying to reduce the cost of production, the occupation of a miner would not be so hazardous."

Fear List of Victims will be Much Larger
Brooklyn Eagle, New York
July 11, 1902

Johnstown, Pa., July 12 -- Dr. J. Frank Taylor, one of the rescuing party, who has made many trips into the rolling mill mine, where Thursday's disaster occurred, is confident that there are many more bodies in the mine and that the list of dead will be greatly increased.

A number of rooms have not been entered, and in these Dr. Taylor expects many bodies will be found.

The total of dead bodies brought out so far is 108.  Of those taken to the Memorial Hospital three have died.  This brings the dead so far known up to 111.

In the Memorial Hospital there are still 11 patients making a total of 125 living and dead who have been brought out of the mine.

How many more dead are in the mine is not known exactly.  Estimates vary from four to five in the statements of those who are close to the company, to over fifty among the people at large.

The mine workings, dangerous to enter yesterday, were thoroughly explored by a searching party during the night.

At 3 o'clock this morning the charred and mutilated bodies of fifteen victims were brought to the Westmont pit mouth and taken to the morgue.  The bodies were found in the upper end of No. 6 right heading, where the explosion occurred.  The bodies were all lying far in from the point of the explosion and could not be reached until the heading had been entirely cleared of the noxious gases.

Three deaths occurred during the night at Cambria Hospital.  These were among the last living victims who were brought out of the mine yesterday afternoon in an unconscious condition.  Another of these is in a precarious condition.

Many funerals are being held today.  Every undertaker in Johnstown has as many on his hands as he can attend to.  Inquiries were made at the mine offices and the morgue by relatives of four missing.  They are foreigners.  Mine Superintendent George T. Robinson says it is probable that men are lost in some pocket of the mine, where they went to escape firedamp.

Saddest of all the scenes of the great disaster were the affecting leave takings of the dead which commenced this morning.

All day the Slovak, Croatian and Greek Catholic churches were filled with picturesque throngs who attended the last services for the dead.  Knots of women and men stood on street corners, weeping and groaning.

Many women who attended the last rites in the churches were overcome with grief and fell fainting to the floor.

Most of the funerals today are in St. Steven's Slovak Church, where both Slavs and Poles worship.  The Rev. John Martvon, the Slovak priest, conducted masses for his countrymen, while the Rev. B. Dombrowsky officiated at the services over the Polish.

The first had twelve funerals scheduled for today, while the latter will have fifty-two.

The Rev. Father Cucka said mass at the Greek Catholic Church for nine of the dead.  Father Kojci at the Croatian Church said mass over twelve dead.  All these places of worship are located within a very few squares of each other and the streets surrounding them were choked with the great throngs clamoring for admission.

The party of rescuers that completed the exploration of the mine went in at 7 o'clock last evening and came out at 6 o'clock today.  In the crowd were Drs. George Hay, Frank B. Stotler and W. N. Pringle.

Dr. Hay said the headings, both to the right and left of the main Klondike heading, were practically free from foul air when they went in.  Nothing impeded the progress of the searchers.  The long search was rewarded when they reached No. 6, right heading.  Far back in the heading the searchers came across the blackened and charred bodies of fifteen men.  This discovery was made shortly after midnight.

Mine Superintendent George T. Robinson was at his office early today.  He said they would have the mine ready for work by Monday.  He said there has not been the slightest danger from explosion since the original and only one of Thursday.  The mine, he admitted, especially the section known as Klondike, always contained gas.  It did not exist in dangerous quantities, he said, and to cause an explosion someone must have violated the rules as to lights.  Every precaution was taken to guard against accident.

Superintendent Robinson strongly commends the Johnstown doctors for their bravery that saved the lives of a dozen or more men.
"When we made our first dash into the mine." he said, "we were taking our lives in our hands, as none knew what was beyond in our course.  The doctors came on and followed our lead without the slightest tremor."
State Mine Inspector J. T. Evans reached the pit mouth at 8 o'clock this morning.  There he was joined by Chief Inspector James E. Roderick, who came here last night.

Mr. Roderick said he had no intention of entering the mine now.  He held a private conference with Superintendent Robinson and Mine Engineer Marshall G. Moore, which lasted some time.

Moore had been in the mine up to 5 o'clock this morning.  He informed Roderick that the air was making a clean sweep of the workings and that noxious gases were fast diminishing beyond the danger point.

At 9 o'clock this morning there were sixteen bodies left in the morgue.

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