Work in the underground tunnels of the early coal mines in Illinois was dark, dirty, and always dangerous. There was always the likelihood of death or injury faced by the men and boys as they dug coal from the often narrow seams, sometimes lying many hundreds of feet below the surface.
Worst of all were the great disasters; an explosion under ground, the sudden flooding of the shafts, the silent spread of poisonous gasses, or fire. In the early years of mining, there were few safety regulations or procedures required by the State. The mining companies showed minimum concern for the safety of the workers.
Replacements could always be found from among the immigrant workers pouring into America from Europe. Financial liability to injured or even killed workmen was limited. Since they were paid by how much coal they had dug by the end of the day, miners went about their work in a hurry with little time and attention to safe practices.
The wives and mothers of the miners lived in dread of the wail of the mine whistle, sounding the alarm that an accident had happened.
The coal fields in northern Illinois experienced more than a few such dreadful disasters. One of the worst took place on November 13, 1909 in a mine near the little town of Cherry, just a few miles north of La Salle, Ill. on Illinois Highway 13. By 7:00 a.m. that morning 481 men and boys had descended the shaft to reach the coal, in some cases more than 500 feet below the surface.
It began as a day like any other, except that the electrical system had broken down and the mines were lit the old-fashioned way. Kerosene torches were placed along the walls; but the miners were used to that and nobody was alarmed.
Around lunch time several bales of hay were dropped down the hoist to feed the mules. Forty mules, were stabled underground. Their job was to pull the little cars, which had been loaded with coal by the miners through the tunnels to the elevator hoist.
Now, 15-year old Matt Francesco and another man pushed one of the cars piled with the hay over to the stable area. They gave it a final shove down the track, and then went on their way. Unfortunately, the car came to rest under one of the open torches. Soon the hay caught fire. Efforts to move the car out of danger only spread the fire. The heat and smoke became overpowering, as the fire began to spread.
At last the signal to clear out the mine was given, but it was too late for many. Listen to the voice of 16-year-old Peter Donna who led his father through the smoke and darkness toward an escape route.
After my father and I got to the second level the fire blocked us off. It singed my hair on the side of my face and my head. We circled around the burning section and made our way to the main lift. The smoke almost overtook us. I led the way .... All the lights were out and our matches wouldn't stay lit. We met only a few others who came with us on the way. When we finally reached the lift, there was no trouble getting on it and up the shaft. It took several seconds for my eyes to get adjusted to the bright light of the surface. When I finally could see, I couldn't find my father. I wanted to go back down into the mine and get him, but they stopped me. After a couple more cage-loads of men came up, my father stepped off with an old man he had saved.
But there were 259 men and boys who were never saved despite great deeds of heroism by volunteer rescue teams. Sadly, that heroism was rewarded with death for no less than twelve of the rescuers. They were a hastily assembled team of people from the town who went down in the cage six times, each time dragging more miners to safety. From the seventh trip into the hell below, however, none returned alive.
There were tales of unbelievable suffering and endurance. One group of miners, 500 feet underground, had built a wall of mud, rocks, and timbers to block off the poisonous gasses. They were in total darkness with only a pool of water leaking from a coal seam to drink.
After eight days of confinement, they could bear it no longer. They tore down the barricade and began crawling through the tunnels. Finally, they heard the sounds of a search party. Twenty-one men still alive from this group were rescued.
After 25 days the Cherry mine was sealed. The question of compensation for the lost lives of the miners and rescuers remained to be resolved. The laws governing worker's compensation and employer liability were not yet on the Illinois statute books, and the mine company had gone into bankruptcy. At length, it was agreed that the settlement of claims would be based on standards set in the Workmen's Compensation Act, which had recently passed in the British Parliament.
A relief commission was set up in June of the following year. It included a representative of the United Mine Workers of America, the union of the coal miners. They administered a relief fund collected from the public, plus a contribution by the coal company, which was actually owned by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. It came to enough to give about 1,800 dollars to the bereaved families.
Impelled by the public outcry over the tragedy, in 1910 the Illinois legislature established stronger fire and safety regulations governing mines. A year later, the State adopted a liability act, which later developed into the Illinois Workmens' Compensation Act.