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P. A. Blake Company
Lehigh Valley Railroad Company
West Pittston Colliery Fire

West Pittston, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania
May 27, 1871
No. Killed - 20

News Articles from the Period  (4.5 Mb)  PDF Format
Annual Report excerpt and inquest testimony  (5.0 Mb)  PDF Format
1871 Anthracite Fatalities  (1.4 Mb)  PDF Format
Pittston Sunday Dispatch News Article  (800 Kb)  PDF Format
See also: West Pittston Colliery Disaster, Mar. 9, 1905
From the Google News Archives:  External Link
(news links open in a separate window)

Between one and two o'clock on the afternoon of Saturday, May 27, 1871, a wooden breaker constructed near the shaft caught on fire.  No opening for escape had been provided for men working underground.  The men perished from inhaling the gases and impure air by the burning of the breaker.

The deceased:
  • Hiram Curtis
  • George Cull
  • Aaron Smallcomb
  • Martin Cooney
  • Charles M'Ginnis
  • Owen Macken
  • John Burroughs
  • Martin Crahan
  • David Edwards
  • William James
  • John Lloyd
  • Patrick Carden
  • Thomas Ruan
  • Daniel Conner
  • Peter Davis
  • Thomas Prosser
  • Evan Davis
  • Tim Walsh
  • Benjamin Jones
  • Patrick Farley
Source: 1871 Pennsylvania Anthracite Annual Report

Successful Rescue

The anticipation was palpable as rescuers worked through the night and into the next day.  At 12:30 a.m. (10 hours later) they brought Andrew Morgan to the surface in an unconscious state.  Learning that more miners had barricaded, they sent out for more men and tools.  Up to 22 hours after the fire was first discovered, around twenty more miners, not more than alive were brought out.  Only one or two recovered enough to give an account of themselves.  It is not known how many of those rescued survived.  In their own words.  PDF Format

Another Terrible Coal Mine Disaster
Philadelphia, May 27, 1871

A Pittston dispatch dated 2:30 p.m. says the shaft of one of the mines is on fire, and that all the miners are inside. None can escape.

The second dispatch says the West Pittston Shaft, owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, worked by Blake & Co. of New York, is burning.

There is only one outlet. Part of the men have been saved. No particulars have been obtained, but it seems to be a repetition of the Avondale catastrophe.

Fire engines are playing on the ruins, which are so hot that no one can probably approach them before morning. A dog has been sent down the shaft of the mine and brought up alive, which fact encourages the belief that the thirty-four men may yet be saved.

Later -- Communication has at last been had with the men in the mine, and it is known that all of them are alive, though none as yet have reached the surface.

Titusville Herald, Pennsylvania
May 29, 1871

PIttston, Pa., May 28 -- All the men in the mine, thirty-eight in number, have been brought up -- eighteen dead.

At half past twelve o'clock last night the workmen succeeded in effecting an entrance to the bottom of the shaft, and brought to the surface Andrew Morgan, and also found Herman Garis lying with his face in the water.  At 12:45 they sent up word that the men had barricaded themselves in, and sent up for more men and tools.

This morning the excitement at the shaft was greater than ever.  Up to eight o'clock, twenty-four men had been brought to the top, of which number six were dead, and the rest insensible when brought out.  One or two have so far recovered as to be able to give an account of themselves.  Morgan first discovered, is still alive, though his recovery is yet doubtful.  He is still unconscious.

The exploring parties were compelled to proceed with the utmost caution, and were frequently brought out asphyxiated with foul gases.  At 10 a.m., thirty men had been brought out, ten of whom were dead, and twelve not more than alive, and one or two remained in the mine.  Every one of the men brought up for the past two hours were found stone dead.

The excitement was almost indescribable, and thousands of people crowded around the mouth of the pit, and in their eagerness to see and hear it was with difficulty they were kept outside of the rope, which had been stretched around the shaft.

At the time of ignition of the upper part of the shaft yesterday, the shifts of miners was being changed, and many were standing around, and a few others had been relieved by their companions coming out.  The alarm being given to engineer McDermott, he at once communicated the warning of danger to the bottom of the mine, and began to hoist the carriage, bringing with the first four trips several men.  In the three succeeding trips no arrivals are reported, and while the eigth trip was being made the rope slipped off the pulley, and all further means of escape was beyond a possibility.

At one time a young lad at the bottom of the shaft, 280 feet down, saw a nervous twitching of the bell wire, but the bell refused to respond.  Suspicious of some disastrous accident, he ran into the east gangway several hundred feet, and warned his brother of the circumstance.  These two, with their companions, were the last to ascend from the pit.  In an hour and a quarter the breaker and burned to the ground, and men of all vocations in life began removing the half consumed timbers that obstructed the passage to the mouth of the shaft.

No water but from a small well being available, it was drawn in wagons and barrels from the river, a mile distant.  Telegrams were dispatched to the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre fire departments for assistance.  The Scranton steamer arrived at quarter past three o'clock, and about the same time came the hose companies of Pittston.  The Wilkes-Barre steamer followed soon after.  By five o'clock water had cooled the iron and wood near the shaft, and preparations were made to clear the mouth.

In the meantime hundreds of women and children had congregated near the scene of the disaster, and their heartrending cries pierced the air.  At 6:40 the mouth of the mine had been sufficiently cleared to let down a dog.  He was kept down for three minutes, and let down again, staying five minutes, and came up alive.  At 7 p.m. timber was brought to the mouth of the mine, and a temporary frame work was made to cover the opening.  A platform carriage was then constructed, and preparations were made to enter.  At 8 p.m., two men, David Harris and William Warren, were let down about twenty feet.  They had lights, bell ropes, water and tools.  They removed the burned timber and charred scantlings, and constructed a partition to secure an up and down current of air.

A few minutes previous to this, William Law was let down by a rope seventy-five feet into the shaft, but immediately gave the signal for hoisting.  A strong current of air came from the opening, carrying with it thick smoke and obnoxious gases.

Preparations to rescue the miners continued to be pursued with great vigor until 12:30, when, as above stated, the first man was reached.  The fire originated in spontaneous combustion by friction of the woodwork of the breaker.

Martin Cox, a miner taken out alive, makes the following statement:
We went in at 7 a.m.  My brother cut through from one airway to another, turned on the gas and six miners came out with him.  Before their shaft was closed up the air was so bad they could not work at all.  This was fifteen minutes before fire, and seven miners came up to the top five minutes before the fire was discovered.  The first intimation had of the fire was a sound thought the mine as if there was an explosion.
Cox is an intelligent Englishman and about 22 years of age.

Joseph English, a miner, said:
"It is fire."  We were then working about fifty yards from the bottom of the shaft, on the west side.  I then ran to the bottom of the shaft and saw fire coming down.  I ran back and told my comrades that all was lost and that the shaft was on fire.  We were seven in all.  We then ran to the foot shaft, and, burning timbers coming down, we threw on water to put out the fire.  The smoke became so intense that we were nearly suffocated.

Dense volumes came down the shaft and filled the place.  We then ran over to the west side in the direction of the river bridge, down the slope and got into the door with eleven others, making eighteen in all.  In that place the smoke came in upon us so badly that we gathered up a lot of fine stuff and plastered up the cracks of the door, and also stuffed coals in the holes, which stopped the smoke for some time.

We now had time for thought and reflection.  No one expected to see daylight again, and said it was a second Avondale.  We all sang hymns and prayed, calling upon God in His mercy to save, or we all felt doomed beyond human aid.  We ran back and forth through the gangways for fresh air.

At 3:15 p.m., Patrick Farley fell, groaned twice, and was found dead when the men came into the place after the fire.

I then went over to the west side for my coat to help stop out the smoke, as we would all be suffocated very soon.  Men then passed me carrying back their comrades, who were dying in their arms, and more men outside the door were crying out in distress and anguish, calling upon God for safety and succor.

None expected to come out alive.  The mules were kicking and neighing.  A boy told his father who was crying: "We will come out safe, and if we must die, let us die like men."  The father and son came alive.  At 7:30 p.m., I became insensible and remained so until I was brought out by my brother Robert about five o'clock on Friday morning.

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