1907 Deadly Coal Mine Disasters

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Hundreds of Italian and Hungarian immigrants were among the 601 workers killed in the record breaking 1907 West Virginia and Pennsylvania coal mine explosions.

As bad as it was, the 2007 Utah coal mine disaster did not compare with the back-to-back mine disasters in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in December 1907. It was probably the worst month in industry history and was particularly bad for immigrants.

A total of 601 workers were killed in mine explosions at the Consolidated Coal Company in Monongah, WV on Dec. 6, 1907 and at the Darr mine operated by the Pittsburgh Coal Company in Jacobs Creek, PA Dec. 19, 1907. The 362 deaths at Monongah is still an American mining death record. Jacobs Creek’s 239 is not far behind.

Many of the Monongah victims were Italian immigrants. Most of the Darr victims were Hungarian immigrants.

In those days, according to the United Mine Workers, the United States averaged about 2,000 mine deaths per year. That prompted Congress to establish the Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior. The new agency was given authority to conduct safety research, but little authority to do much about actually reducing mine accidents. The annual mine deaths climbed to nearly 3,000 by the 1930s.

Union Chief John L. Lewis

The Feds could not actually go in and inspect the mines until 1941, when controversial union chief John L. Lewis pressured Congress to give the Bureau of Mines some teeth. Finally, in 1947 Congress authorized the first mine safety code of regulations and empowered the Bureau of Mines to enforce them.

However, the agency was dissolved in 1995 and its responsibilities were spread among several other federal agencies. That essentially took some public attention off coal mines, but by the end of the 20th Century mine deaths had decreased dramatically.

Crandall Canyon Mine

In 2005, the number of deaths dropped to a record low of 22. That number bounced by to 47 in 2006. The Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in Utah brought the 2007 total to 23 by August.

Some industry observers in 2007 expected the numbers to increase in future years because higher coal prices are encouraging companies to finish mining old mines. Working an old mine, some union leaders said, was more dangerous than working a new mine.

To get an idea of how dangerous and frightening coal mining was, you need only take a tour of a closed mine. One Pennsylvania company offers a ride into the mine in the same type of train once used by the miners. The guided tour even has a mannequin to illustrate where young boys once worked as helpers deep in the mine.

Kids Worked in Mines

Some kids continued to work even after their fathers died, just so the family could retain the house assigned them by the mining company. Congress eventually prohibited kids under 10 from working in mines.

Mine workers have grown more difficult to find and the 73,000 estimated to still be in the mines in 2007 had matured to an average age of 45, the union said. New, younger workers moving into the jobs lacked much underground experience and many were working 50 to 60 hours per week, creating potential fatigue safety factors. Workers were reportedly making about $20 per hour.

Meantime, the United States was accounting for 35 percent of the world coal production. It still counted 275 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves, one fourth of the world supply. And it was still using coal to generate half of its electricity.