Mildred Allen Beik
The deaths in January
2006 of 14 West Virginia coal miners, 12 in Sago and two in Melville, have captured the nation’s attention, if only for a short time. It is perhaps surprising but important to note that other recent, equally terrible, mining accidents have not always
elicited as much interest.
For example, when 13 coal miners died in an explosion in Brookwood, Alabama, in September 2001, they received relatively little national notice. At the time, the media, the movie industry, and talk-show hosts were lavishing a spotlight on the nine trapped
Quecreek miners who had been rescued in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, three months earlier. Featuring the Quecreek miners and their rescue, a happy story that bolstered national hope in the context of the dismal aftermath of 9/11, was an easier
choice than focusing on the Brookwood disaster, its victims, or the broad problems of mine safety.
The Sago Mine Disaster and the Melville fatalities have recalled the realities inherent in the nation’s dangerous mining industry. One of these realities is that the issue of mine safety does not belong to the distant past or an earlier industrial era,
but remains a live and contentious one today. Sago and Melville have brought home the ongoing importance of effective mine safety laws, rigorous enforcement of those laws, and governmental policies that favor workers’ lives over profits and narrow
business interests. They also suggest the need for an informed public, if mining and other workplace accidents are to be prevented in the future.
historical record about mining accidents is instructive and sobering. Coal miners and other industrial workers built the United States and made it a great industrial world power, but, in the process, paid a heavy price in terms of human life and
suffering that resulted from needless accidents. The first decades of the twentieth century, when coal was king and the industry basically unregulated, were more lethal than later ones for miners, but fatal and non-fatal accidents have occurred throughout
the industry’s history. Over 100,000 coal miners were killed in mining accidents in the United States during the period from 1900 to 1970 alone, and more than 1,500,000 were injured in non-fatal accidents in the period from 1930, when the federal
government began to collect such statistics, to 1970. For useful data on mining and other accidents, see the US Department of Commerce’s Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington: Bureau of
the Census, 1975) and the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health website.
The US government defines a mining “disaster” as one in which five or more people died. By this definition, Sago qualifies as a disaster; Melville does not. Accordingly, a total of 617 coal-mining disasters took place in the United States from 1839
to 2001. In 26 of these cases, 100 or more miners died in the respective incident. The greatest single national coal-mining disaster occurred in Monongah, West Virginia, on December 6, 1907, when 362 people died in an explosion. That disaster prompted
the United Mine Workers of America and reformers to take a new progressive interest in mine safety and workers’ compensation. In his excellent book, Coal-Mining Safety in the Progressive Period: The Political Economy of Reform (University
Press of Kentucky, 1976), the historian William Graebner traces the mine safety and reform issue throughout the Progressive Era. Unfortunately, then and since, mining reforms have often come about only after mine tragedies brought about
a necessary change in the political climate. It is no accident that the West Virginia State Legislature, but not the federal government, enacted new safety measures in January 2006.
Mine disasters often capture the public’s attention, but the reality is that the vast majority of fatal accidents in coal mines have involved only one or two miners in a single incident. The most frequent cause of deaths in such cases was a fall of the
roof. Usually such accidents received little attention outside of the families and communities involved. Coal-mining companies and coal towns of any size in the major coal-producing states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky,
might have been fortunate in avoiding a mining disaster, but few, if any, escaped enumeration in the grim list of mining casualties that state and federal officials collected.
The oral histories I did in connection with my book, The Miners of Windber: The Struggles of New Immigrants for Unionization, 1890–1940 (Pennsylvania State Press, 1996), suggest that virtually all large coal-mining families had some family member
who died or who was injured in a workplace accident. The impact of the loss of a father, brother, uncle, or son is not a measurable statistic, and oral histories with mining families are invaluable in revealing the real meaning and cost of such
a loss. For example, Anna Timko Thomas’s descriptions of the impact upon her and her family of her father’s death in a mining accident in 1903 are devastating. Aside from the help of fellow mining families, survivors were on their own without any
company or governmental aid, and widows often had to remarry quickly, sometimes with tragic consequences. See her interview and other oral histories in the Manuscript Collection 127, The Mildred A. Beik Collection.
A variety of records documents the fatalities and non-fatal injuries that occurred in the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company’s Mines in the Windber, Pennsylvania, area during active underground operations there from 1897, when the first mines opened, to
1962, when the last mines closed. This company town, with a local area population of about 10,000 in the early twentieth century, was only one coal-mining town in a state where many such towns existed, and a survey of Pennsylvania state mining records
suggests that the number and type of accidents that occurred in these mines were broadly representative of the industry.
Historically, the vast majority of Windber miners were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In an era when prejudices and racist movements to restrict immigration from these places were widespread, it was convenient for company and state mining
officials to blame “ignorant foreigners” for the accidents. But, as William Graebner has shown, Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, and other immigrants were no more prone to accidents than Americans were. Ethnic and American miners suffered casualties
in direct proportion to their numerical share in the work force.
Available records indicate that at least 343 miners lost their lives in the Berwind-White mines at Windber from 1897 to 1962. Search the “Digitization Projects and Online Exhibits” at IUP’s Special Collections site for “The Windber Miners,” which includes
related charts, descriptions, and lists of accident victims. The most comprehensive list of known mining fatalities is “Index and List of Fatalities in Berwind-White Coal Mining Company Mines in the Windber Area, 1897–1962.” For ethnic and other
data contained in state records on the miners killed during the period 1897–1918, along with descriptive accounts of their accidents, see “Fatal Accidents, 1897–1918.” For similar data on non-fatal injuries, see “Non-Fatal Accidents, 1897–1918.”
The “Index to Selected Obituaries” contains related articles about these victims from extant newspapers such as the Windber Era, the Windber Journal, the Johnstown Democrat, and the Somerset County Democrat. It is
noteworthy that these newspapers sometimes reported victims who were not listed in the state’s records or sometimes contradicted data contained in the state’s reports. In particular, the spelling of the names of foreign-born victims often varied,
and the ages of those killed occasionally differed from the information in official accounts.
One mining accident in the history of the Berwind-White company’s mines in Windber qualifies as a mine “disaster,” as defined by the US government. On April 9, 1909, seven miners were killed in a mining explosion at Eureka Mine No. 37. See the state’s
description of the accident and its findings in its report, “Explosion at Eureka # 37 Mine.” “Accident Statistics” contains a table showing the number of local fatalities and non-fatal injuries from 1897 to 1944, along with the number of concurrent
fatalities in the bituminous region of Pennsylvania. See Chapter 3, “The Work of Mining,” in The Miners of Windber for more on Windber-area accidents and the issue of mine safety.