Since 1883, when fatality records began to be kept, more than 21,000 miners have lost their lives in West Virginia coal mines. Most of these deaths were single fatalities, many of which were not investigated in the early years. In 1883, when 20 miners lost their lives, the legislature established the West Virginia Department of Mines, with Oscar Veazey appointed as the first mine inspector. Just three years later, West Virginia’s first mining disaster occurred at the Mountain Brook shaft mine in the Preston County town of Newburg. A methane gas explosion there killed 39, making this the first in a long line. (An accident is classified as a ‘‘disaster’’ when three or more lose their lives; before 1961, the number was five.)
Coal production in the state increased from slightly more than two million tons in 1883 to more than 11 million tons by 1894. The next disaster occurred near Colliers, Brooke County, on November 20, 1894. Eight men lost their lives when coal was blasted using a dangerous method called ‘‘shooting from the solid,’’ meaning that they blasted the coal loose without first undercutting it. Just two years earlier, three men had been killed there in the same manner.
By 1900, coal production had doubled, to more than 22 million tons. The boom ushered in a period of great carnage. Just three months into the 20th century, a miner’s open light ignited methane gas at the Red Ash mine in Fayette County. The resulting explosion was instantly fatal to 46, many of whom were descendants of slaves, lured from the South by the promise of good jobs.
The recruiting of unskilled workers, including immigrants as well as black and white natives who were new to the mines, was a trend that would have disastrous results. The newcomers made up a majority of the victims in some disasters. For example, in 1907 at the Stuart shaft mine in Fayette County, an explosion, also caused by disregard of safety rules, killed 85 men, most of whom were waiting for the elevator at the bottom of the shaft. Only 37 were listed as ‘‘Americans,’’ meaning white natives since black miners were identified as Negroes. After the explosion, the New River Company (which also owned the nearby Parral mine, home to an explosion that killed 23 in 1906) renamed the mines to make it easier to attract new workers, with Stuart becoming Lochgelly and Parral becoming Summerlee.
On December 6, 1907, the Fairmont Coal Company’s interconnected Nos. 6 and 8 mines at Monongah exploded, killing at least 361 miners, the worst in U.S. history. Of those killed, only 74 were classified as ‘‘Americans.’’ The resulting public outcry brought Congressional action, culminating in the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910. Of the 4,260 miners killed in West Virginia between 1910 and 1920, 579 would die in massive explosions and fires. Some of the more notable disasters during that time were at Jed (now Havaco), McDowell County, with 80 killed; Eccles, Raleigh County, where 183 died; and Layland, Fayette County, where 47 men survived five days trapped underground after an explosion killed 119 of their fellow workers.
As the 1920s rolled on, new state and federal regulations, along with insistence for improved safety from the United Mine Workers, began to create a safer environment for miners. But disasters still happened, some of them with large losses of life. In 1924, the Benwood mine in Marshall County exploded, killing 119. Three years later, the Federal No. 3 mine at Everettville, Monongalia County, blew up, killing 111.
Several smaller disasters occurred in the 1930s, with the worst being in Logan County’s McBeth mine, where 18 died.
On January 10, 1940, 91 died in a methane explosion at the Pond Creek No. 1 mine at Bartley, McDowell County, shattering any illusion that major mine disasters had become a thing of the past. During the war years, there were several disasters, including explosions at Osage and Pursglove No. 2 in Monongalia County, killing 56 and 20, and an underground fire at the nearby Pursglove No. 15 mine, which suffocated 13.
In the 1950s, 10 disasters were added to the awful total. Notable among these were two explosions in the same mine in the McDowell County town of Bishop in 1957 and 1958, killing a total of 59 miners. An explosion in 1954 at Farmington, Marion County, killed 16 men at the Jamison No. 9 mine.
In the early 1960s, fires, roof falls, and flooding took their toll, but in nowhere near the numbers in previous years. Any resulting complacency was shattered on November 20, 1968, when the huge Consol No. 9 (formerly the Jamison No. 9) mine at Farmington exploded, killing 78. It was apparent that major changes still needed to be made. One year later, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. During this time, West Virginia also tightened its rules and regulations. These sweeping changes at the state and federal levels finally made a major change in coal mine safety and greatly reduced mine disasters.
However, they still happen. In July 22, 1972, at the Blacksville No. 1 mine in Monongalia County, a fire occurred while a continuous mining machine was being moved to a new working section. Nine men, who were working deep in the mine, perished as a result of smoke and fumes that were carried through the mine’s ventilation system.
Blacksville No. 1 was the site of another disaster 20 years later. By 1992, No. 1 had reached the end of its useful life and was being sealed. On March 19, while drainage pipes were being welded together and placed into the production shaft, a spark fell into the shaft, igniting methane gas that had accumulated there. Four miners were killed.
Disasters continue to trouble the West Virginia coal industry. On January 2, 2006, an explosion killed 12 miners at the Sago mine in Upshur County. Another explosion killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch Montcoal Eagle Mine in Raleigh County on April 5, 2010, the worst mine disaster in 40 years. As of April 2010, there had been 119 disasters at mines in West Virginia.
This Article was written by Rick Jarrett
Last Revised on April 28, 2014
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Cite This Article
Jarrett, Rick "Coal Mine Disasters." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 28 April 2014. Web. 23 February 2017.