Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Darr Mine Disaster

On December 19, 1907 at approximately 11:30 AM a blast rattled windows and shook buildings in the Youghiogheny River Valley. The concussion from the blast was felt within a radius of several miles. At least 239 miners lost their lives in the Darr Mine Disaster. The explosion is still to this day the largest mining disaster in Pennsylvania history. 

December 1907 would prove to be the deadliest month in U.S. Mining history. Over 704 miners lost their lives in five explosions in four different states. 



December 1, the Naomi Mine near Fayette City, PA exploded claiming at least 35 lives. 

December 6, in what is listed as the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, at least 362 people lost their lives when the Monongah Mine in Monongah, WV exploded. 

December 16, at least 57 lives were claimed in an explosion at the Yolande No. 1 Mine in Yolande, AL

December 19,  at least 239 were killed at the Darr Mine near Van Meter, PA

December 31, 11 lives were lost at the Bernal Mine explosion in Carthage, NM

The Darr Mine was one of the earliest mines in the area. It has been said coal was being mined there as early as 1850. The workings were very extensive. The initial explosion occurred close to two miles from the main portal. The official report ruled that the explosion was caused by an open flame miners light coming into contact with explosives or an accidental explosion of dynamite. Blame was placed on the miners for being in a restricted area of the mine that was closed off by the fire boss due to a bad roof. As such, all blame was removed from the Pittsburg Coal Company (now Consol). 



"That we traced the course of the explosion and examined the report of the fire bosses for the morning: of said December 19, so as to obtain sufficient facts from which we might be able to form an opinion as to the explosion; well knowing that a theory or opinion not based on facts would be of no consequence, nor would it aid the jury in arriving- at a correct conclusion. It appearing from the book of the fire bosses that right butt entries 3 and 4 off 28 entry were fenced off by the fire boss on the morning of the explosion and prior thereto as dangerous because he discovered danger from the roof falling, and the bodies of five miners being found in No. 3 butt and 200 feet or more beyond said fenced-off portion and in said dangerous and forbidden section, this is conclusive proof that miners were in dangerous and forbidden portions of the mine without the knowledge, consent, or approval of the owners of the mine; and with such facts established and together with evidence we discovered in the mine, that the course of the explosion was from said fenced-off section into other parts of the mine, we are unanimously of the opinion that said explosion resulted from the presence of said miners in said fenced-off section, at a time when there must have been considerable fall and the possible liberation of gas: and that, for the presence of said miners in said forbidden section and the explosion resulting therefrom the owners of the mine are in no way to blame nor are they in any manner responsible." 

(Report From The Department Of Mines, Part II Bituminous, 1907)


 The report failed to mention what the miners had been saying for quite some time previous to the explosion, the mine was very gaseous and dangerous. The report continued:



"We are of the opinion that the initial point of the explosion was near the face of No. 9 left butt entry off No. 27 face entries, (marked B on map herewith) and that the general trend of the force from this point was as follows: Down No. 9 and No. 10 left butt entries to No.7 face entries. Here a division 

of the forces took place, one part going into the face of No. 27 face entries and then down through No. 9 right butt entry off No. 27 face entries to the Swamp face entries, reinforcing itself, there and on rib falls between No. 6 and No. 7 left butt entries to the Swamp section. with gas, and going out of the Swamp entries toward the entrance of the mine: and another division going out of No. 27 face entries and through No. 1 and No. 2 left butt entries to No. 29 face entries. The force which came out of No. 27 face entries seemed to sweep No. 2S face entry and Join the force of No. 29 face entries and from thence it proceeded to No. 30 face entries and the main entries. From these points the general course was toward the entrance of the mine. The evidence of forces was so conflicting in many of the entries that we have made no attempt to describe any but the main ones, which were fully demonstrated in many ways: as for example, the sweeping of tools and the roads from the face of No. 9 left butt entry and parallel off No. 27 face entries, and the demolishing of a car near the last cross-cut and the condition of a loaded trip that stood near the foot of this entry, the abrasion of the sharp projections of coal pillars along the passageways, the unmistakable fine dust deposits, or dust eddies, at sharp pillar projections and on timbers: dust eddies formed, and the floor swept clean of dust along the path of the blast: the carrying of heavy materials in well-defined directions: the forcing of coke dust into the rugged ends of pillars, and the bending of T iron rails and switch levers.


The cause may have been the projection of flame Into a gaseous and dusty atmosphere (the mine being very dry and dusty at this point) from a shot fired in the face of No. 9 butt entry or in a cross-cut nearby; or the ignition may have been caused by one of the open lights used by the workmen (when we consider the ease with which the ventilation could be disarranged in this section 

of the mine, and also the fact that this entry was generating gas), or it may have been caused by an accidental explosion of dynamite. The explosion reached nearly all portions of the mine and was intensified by coal dust.


 We deem it our duty to express our disapproval of the system of workings

of the Darr mine in that it does not provide for efficient ventilation and we also deem it our duty to recommend the following:


That the main developments of the mine be conducted on the four-entry system and the ventilation be controlled by overcasts instead of numerous doors; that a different type of coal cutting machines be substituted for the chain machines; that the best flameless explosives be used for all blasting purposes; that competent shot firers be selected and employed to prepare, charge, and fire the shots after the workmen are out of the mine. These shot firers should have the authority to reject the charging and firing of holes which in their judgment would be unsafe to fire, and all stemming should be with clay or other incombustible material; that the mine be worked exclusively with locked safety lamps. That a water system be installed for the purpose of thoroughly wetting and laying the dust, and all accumulations of dust be loaded and sent out of the mine at least once a week, and said dust to be thoroughly watered before being loaded; a sufficient number of fire bosses should be employed to make care- ful examinations of the mine without undue haste; that the superintendent shall see that the mine foreman devotes the whole of his time to such duties in the mine ,as prescribed by the Act of May 15, 1893, relating to bituminous coal mines, and he shall maintain rigid discipline at all times. 


We are of the opinion that had the well-known safeguards, such as ample and efficient ventilation, the use of safety explosives, the thorough wetting and laying of dust, the use of locked safety lamps, the employment of shot firers, and the maintenance of rigid discipline been employed in the Darr mine, this calamity would not have occurred.


 These recommendations apply not alone to the Darr mine, but to all mines in the various bituminous districts which are gaseous and dusty."


Respectfully submitted, 


 C. B. Ross, Elias Phillips, I. G. Roby, John I. Pratt, Joseph Knapper, Thomas D. Williams, Joseph Williams, Alexander McCanch, Roger Hampson, John F. Bell, F. W. Cunningham, Alexander Monteith, David Young, Nicholas Evans, W. J. Neilson, and Thomas S. Lowther



 The following is the map that was included with the text:


The above caption states: 



The main entries in the Darr mine are over 10,000 feet in length from the surface. As the larger portion of the mine was worked out or idle, the map of the mine shows only 4,100 feet of the main entries. The full width of the mine, 5,400 feet, appears on the map. It also shows the parts of the mine where the bodies were found after the explosion, each black dot representing a body.



The front page of the December 20, 1907 Uniontown Morning Herald.


Two men survived the blast. The first man was Thomas A. Williams. This photo mistakenly describes him as the sole survivor.

 (Photo from Technical World Magazine, 1909)


According to this paper, the first bodies were discovered 5,000 feet from the entrance of the mine. The other survivor was near the 21'st entry. Joseph Mapleton, a Pumpman, described the event as "I was near entry 21 when I heard an awful rumbling. I started toward the entry, but the next instant I was blinded and for a little time I did not know anything. Then I got to the side entry and worked my way out".



It is near this area where the first bodies were found. There was a pit boss's shanty located here. Inside the shanty were found five bodies including the mine foreman William S. Campbell, who had been decapitated. Campbell was well aware of the dangerous situation of the mine. His wife reported of his fears about the gas and lack of ventilation in the months proceeding the explosion. He had informed the company of his concerns and a new ventilation shaft was in the process of being sunk. She believed that if the men were allowed one more day to dig out 40 feet of coal to reach the shaft, the explosion could have been adverted. 

The 21'st entry is shown on this mine map.

 The 21'st entry is located near the end of Flack Hollow Road.

Detail of the distance between the 21'st Entry and the main portal.

Going off the Department of Mines report, the attached map and the mine maps database we can easily locate the area where the initial blast occurred. The report states that the initial point of the explosion was near the No. 9 left butt entry off the No. 27 face entries "Marked B on the map herewith".  Using a portion of their map we come up with this:

Notice "B" marked toward the top left of the mine map. This marks the initial point of the explosion. Also notice the crossroads above the "B". These roads are modern day Routes 981 and 51.

Going off the marking "B" as well as the property owners marked on the department map I was able to locate this section on a later map in the mine map database.

This puts the initial point of the blast south of the railroad bridge on Rt. 51.

Detail showing the initial blast location.

Detail showing the locations of everything covered so far. All of this is spread out a little over two miles.



Many people travel past here every day. It is in this area, 143 feet below the ground, that the worst mining accident in Pennsylvania history was ignited.



At the mine mouth work continued to reach and recover the bodies of the doomed miners. Work was slow, there was a heavy amount of deadly after damp gasses lingering in the mine. The force of the explosion amazingly left the mines ventilation fan intact and in working condition. The rescue operation was supervised by William Kelvington, superintendent of the mine. Two rescue parties of 25 men each were organized and the grueling task began. By evening the following bodies had been recovered:



The Morning Herald, Uniontown, December 20, 1907

General Manager J.M. Armstrong was in charge when the first bodies were discovered at the pit boss shanty. He had the blacksmith shop fitted into a temporary morgue. He issued an order that no bodies be brought out until the crowd that formed around the mine entrance could be cleared. A large tent was also erected and was used as a temporary morgue as well. By December 27 only 124 bodies had been recovered with only the 27'th entry needing to be cleared.

Rescue workers outside of the Darr Mine. (Photo courtesy of Westmoreland County History winter 2007-08)

Rescue workers outside of the tent being used as a temporary morgue. (Photo courtesy of Westmoreland County History winter 2007-08)

(Photo courtesy of Westmoreland County History winter 2007-08)

Workers would keep turning up bodies until at least February 22, 1908.

(Logansport Pharos Tribune February 22, 1908)

Many of the miners lived on the other side of the river in the small patch town of Jacob's Creek. There was a sky ferry (cable car) over the river which was used to carry the miners, six at a time,  to and from work. 

Photo showing the sky ferry, the small box suspended over the river, that the miners used to get to and from work from Jacob's Creek. (Photo courtesy of The Virtual Museum Of Coal Mining In Western Pennsylvania)

Photo of a few of the old miners houses at Jacob's Creek today.

The old company store building at Jacob's Creek. This was from the Eureka Mine and Coke Works that was located near Jacob's Creek. The company store for the Darr Mine, Pittsburg Coal Company, was located across the river in Van Meter.

Meanwhile rescue work was moving slowly. Heavy falls of slate and other roof materiel in the mine made progress slow. Sections of heavy after damp gas had to be cleared before any more progress could be made. The grief felt by the survivors was obviously overwhelming. At least one suicide and one attempted suicide were reported.

(The Gazette, West Lebanon, Indiana, December 20, 1907)

(Fort Wayne Sentinal December 25, 1907)

Police guards from the State Constabulary were called in to prevent people from mobbing around the pit mouth.  They were not respectful to the victims families. The Logansport Daily Reporter of December 23, 1907 records some of these interactions between the police and the grieving family members.

(Logansport Daily Reporter, Monday Afternoon, December 23, 1907)

 Here are the enlarged portions of the article. The last two describe the confrontations with the victims families and the police:

It's hard to imagine the atmosphere of the event from looking at old photos. This article seems to be the best description. 

The photo that was attached to the newspaper article.

On January 30, 1908, $25,000 was donated to the widows and children of the Darr Mine victims by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.



(Logansport Daily Tribune January 31, 1908)

(Logansport Daily Reporter December 26, 1907)

The Miracle Of Saint Nicholas



Despite the huge loss of life in the Darr Mine Disaster, the death toll could have been at least twice that amount had it not been for what is referred to as the Miracle Of St. Nicholas. Many of the miners were Carpatho-Rusyn. According to the Julian Calendar, December 19 is the Greek Orthodox Holiday of the Feast Of Saint Nicholas. These were very religious people and the coal company knew that there was no chance of them working on this day. 

The Miracle Of Saint Nicholas as far as the Darr Mine is concerned is only one part of this two part miracle. When the Monongah Mine exploded less than two weeks earlier on December 6, the Carpatho-Rusyn's of that region had no church of their own. They attended the Roman Catholic Church which celebrated The Feast Of St. Nicholas by the new calendar on December 6. Estimates place the number of those saved from the Monongah explosion at 60 - 100.

Estimates of those saved at the Darr Mine from the Miracle Of Saint Nicholas are from 200-250, it depends where you look. Regardless, had it not been for this day, this disaster would have been the largest mining accident ever seen in this country. 

The Darr Mine had a short work week that week and was closed for two days prior to the explosion. Not working the holiday meant losing a third day's pay. Despite this, the miners chose to celebrate the holiday rather than work. Instead of being in the mine, they were at church when they felt the blast shake their building.

There is much more available on this if you do a Google search. This is really just the basics.

St. Nicholas Saving the Miners Icon. Notice the miners in the mountain at the bottom left.

After the Darr Mine Disaster, Carpatho-Rusyn's erected two churches dedicated to St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church was built at Jacob's Creek. They hold a service on the anniversary of the disaster. The St. Nicholas Byzantine Church was built in Perryopolis. This church is listed in the National Register of Historical Places.





The Pittsburg Coal Company paid for the funeral arrangements for all the victims of the tragedy. The miners are buried throughout Westmoreland and Fayette Counties. The nearby Olive Branch Cemetery has a common grave where 71 are buried including 49 unknown miners. One monument in the cemetery marks the location.  


 The front side of the monument. This large empty space is where half of the 71 miners are buried.


 The back side behind the memorial. Where the remaining are buried in one mass grave.

Next to the mass grave is the grave of Joseph Knorsh. A 29 year old miner killed in the Darr Mine explosion. Many more of the victims are identified here.

On the Great Allegheny Passage, this small memorial sits just south of Van Meter near the entrance to the Darr Mine.

This sign is located on Rt. 981 near the Olive Branch Cemetery. The sign has been taken down and I imagine it's being repainted or worked on. I hope so anyway. The sign was dedicated September 14, 1994. Nearly 87 years after the fact.

 The Darr Mine was reopened in 1910 as an entry to the adjacent Banning No. 3 Mine. The name Darr was never used again. Banning No. 3 was mined until at the least the 1950's. 

 Darr Mine entrance from the Great Allegheny Passage.

 This grate and pipe were put down a year or two ago when erosion had unsealed the mine and they sealed it back up. It's probably so bats can get in and out.

 Looking down into the Darr Mine entrance. It's accessible by climbing down the huge pile of dirt they put in front of it. Apparently it didn't stay resealed for long.

A couple pieces of remaining ruins from some of the Darr Mine buildings.

The Following is a list of the victims who perished in the Darr Mine explosion. This list is from the American Hungarian Federation.



1 comment:

  1. Very informative however a little better resolution for your pics and maps would be amazing