united states mine rescue association Mine Disasters in the United States
Susquehanna Coal Company Nanticoke No. 1 Mine Inrush of Quicksand
Nanticoke, Pennsylvania December 18, 1885 No. Killed - 26
Tragedy before the holidays
1885 Nanticoke cave-in entombed 26 just days before Christmas
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
By Travis Kellar
NANTICOKE — On Friday, Dec. 18, 1885, scores of men and boys went to work just as they did every other day at Nanticoke’s Susquehanna No. 1 slope mine.
Their thoughts were surely focused on the duties of the day in the deep coal mine, as well as Christmas, which was a week away. Twenty-six of them would not live to celebrate the holiday.
A mine cave-in quickly filled the mine with quicksand and water, and The Wilkes-Barre Record reported on Dec. 21 that 26 of the workers were entombed 500 feet below the ground.
"Up to 7 p.m. last evening, not a trace of the imprisoned men, not a sign or sound to indicate that they were still alive," the newspaper reported.
Chester Zaremba, founder of the Nanticoke Historical Society, said tragedies in mines were common. The deep mines were not regulated, and were worked despite the danger.
"That was the nature of the work," Zaremba said. The mine workforce at the time numbered in the thousands, "so the odds were that somebody was going to get hurt real bad or get killed,"
Despite the odds, John Hepp, associate professor of history at Wilkes University, said the tragedy was not all that unusual. Like Zaremba, he said mining for anthracite coal was extremely dangerous, and workers and communites alike knew about the risks.
The Wilkes-Barre Record described the town’s distress as such that "cannot be described with the pen."
The paper reported that one young woman, Maggie Sarver, had two brothers, Isaac and John, who perished in the cave in. She became extremely weak after the incident, and died on Dec.
Of the dead, many were fathers and sons of families throughout Nanticoke. One family lost three sons in the disaster, with the fourth being rescued "with difficulty," according to the Wilkes-Barre Record.
"Their parents, an aged couple, are nearly frenzied with grief," the newspaper reported.
The stakes were high for the families if men did not come out alive. The dynamics of families were similar to a business in those days, according to Hepp. Each member of the family contributed in some way. If something happened to one or two members of the family, he said, it was often devastating for the family economically.
Zaremba said many families were housed in company-owned housing. If the breadwinner of the family died in the mines, the family would then have no choice but to leave. That is why so many boys and young men took jobs in the mines, Zaremba said — to protect the family’s home.
The coal companies also had a stake in disasters. They had to replace workers. Zaremba said the companies often sought workers that knew the trade well, so they often brought workers in from England and Wales. Mining was also popular among the Irish, who sought a new life away from the potato famine.
Zaremba called it a "win win" situation — immigrants needed somewhere to go to start a new life, and coal companies needed workers.
Retrieving the bodies
The Wilkes-Barre Record reported on Dec. 22, 1885 that rescue operations stopped when a sudden rush of culm (coal waste) and dirt partially overwhelmed some of the rescuers. On Dec. 26, the bodies would be reached through the gangway from Slope 2. But the threat of additional sand coming down over rescuers thwarted any rescue or recovery attempts.
"The company is very anxious to recover the bodies, but shrinks from sacrificing any more of the men," the Wilkes-Barre Record reported on Dec. 28.
Zaremba said rescues were often called off if conditions proved to be too dangerous or if the bodies were unreachable.
"At some point, somebody makes the call and that’s terrible as far as the families are concerned," Zaremba said.
The bodies remain
Somewhere underground at the site of the mine to this day. Among the 26 that The Wilkes-Barre Record listed as lost in the cave in was a Hungarian worker whose name could not be confirmed.
What caused it?
Zaremba said the cave in could have been the result of workers hitting an unknown danger, or the barrier wall protecting them from dangers not being wide enough. Zaremba said the engineering documents the miners had at the time were surprisingly advanced. Hepp, however, said the cave in was the result of the miners hitting an underground stream, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Mine Commission in 1891.
"Sadly, this strikes me as just a tragic mistake," he said. "In this case, I honestly don’t think … that anyone knew that this submerged creek was there."
Despite the tragedy, workers were once again mining for coal on Dec. 23 according to The Wilkes-Barre Record. It was business as usual for an industry with high demand for its product.
The work did little to dissuade men from returning to work, Zaremba said, as they had no alternatives for employment.
As a result of the disaster, Hepp and Zaremba said, miners were better prepared on how to approach similar situations form then on. An example Zaremba gave was how valuable rats were to miners — if miners saw mice scurrying out of the mine, they knew a cave-in was imminent.
Hepp also said miners began to trace where the underground streams were after the cave-in.
The incident, as tragic as it was, also serves as a benchmark in the community’s history. "I think every place and its people are sort of defined in some way by its history," Hepp said.
The following is a list of the deceased in the December 1885 Nanticoke mine disaster:
• Thomas Clifford, 14, doorboy
• William Delaney, 14, driverboy
• William Elkie, 19, runner
• Edward Hargraves, 21, miner
• John Hawk, 30, laborer
• Wadislaw Jelgoshinski, 23, laborer
• Oliver Kivler, 27, miner
• William Kivler, 17, laborer
• Frank Kivler, 32
• Maux Longolki, 17, driver
• Abram Lewis, 42, miner
• Andrew Lowe, 25
• Vincent Luke, age unknown, laborer
• Edward Mathews, 20, laborer
• August Matule, 45, miner
• Peter Mattlewicz, age unknown, laborer
• Joseph McCarty, 23, miner
• John Nowach, age unknown, laborer
• Abram Rubinski, age unknown, laborer
• Isaac Sarver, 28, miner
• John Sarver, 21, laborer
• John Shutt, 28, miner
• Thomas Williams, 21, laborer