On December 6, 1907, a massive explosion ripped through the Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and 8 mines in Monongah, Marion County. The powerful blast, which shook the earth and was heard several miles away, killed at least 361 men, making it the worst mine disaster in U.S. history. Although investigators never definitively pinpointed the cause, they concluded that an underground train wreck, a blasting operation gone awry, or an open flame lamp had created an ignition and stirred accumulations of dust and gas, thereby triggering the massive explosion.
Many of the men employed at the two mines were recent immigrants, with especially high concentrations from Italy, Hungary, and Russia. Because there were no trained rescue workers at the time, miners from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio—-many of them fellow immigrants—-hastened to Monongah to help with rescue efforts. Putting ethnic rivalries aside, these rescue crews inched through 700 acres of underground workings, battling fires, cave-ins, and deadly, explosive gases with little more than picks and shovels. Eventually, the mutilated bodies of men and boys-—some as young as eight—were pulled from the carnage. The actual number of deaths has been estimated as substantially higher because the miner identification system was destroyed in the explosion.
In the weeks following the explosion at Monongah, three other major mine disasters occurred, prompting the last month of 1907 to be nicknamed ‘‘Black December.’’ In the final tally, 3,241 American miners were killed on the job that year, the largest number killed in a single year in this country’s history. In spite of such horrific accidents, many mining operations, including Monongah, continued to ignore recognized safety precautions, using open candles instead of shielded lamps, employing cheap dynamite instead of controllable explosives, and skipping tests that would detect methane gas. Such practices were already being followed in Europe.
As a result of the national outcry following Monongah and the other mining disasters, Congress initiated fundamental reforms. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt advocated the formation of a federal agency to investigate mine accidents, teach accident prevention, and conduct mine safety research. Two years later, the Bureau of Mines was formed.
This Article was written by J. Davitt McAteer
Last Revised on October 20, 2010
Graebner, William. Coal-Mining Safety in the Progressive Period. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.
Todd, Alden. December 6, 1907-50 Years Ago: The Horror at Monongah. UMW Journal, (Dec. 1957).
The Greatest Coal-Mine Disaster in our History. American Review of Reviews, (Feb. 1908).