united states mine rescue association Mine Disasters in the United States
South Wilkes-Barre Colliery
South W-B Mine Haulage Accident
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania May 7, 1935 No. Killed - 7
Seven miners died when boulder dropped in South W-B mine
Citizens Voice - Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania May 7, 2010
On May 7, 1935, at 3:30 p.m., seven mineworkers met their fate in one of the most extraordinary anthracite disasters on record. All were "transportation men" who perished when a 250 pound boulder fell about 625 feet into the No. 3 Shaft of the South Wilkes-Barre Colliery and smashed into their ascending elevator.
The rock mass struck the "cage" with such force that it pierced the protective steel roof or "bonnet" and ripped through plank flooring that was three inches thick. The men had just finished working in the Baltimore Vein and were traveling to the Hillman Vein to continue sending loaded coal cars to the surface.
Vice president and general manager, Edward Griffith, of the Glen Alden Coal Company reported that three of the victims - Arwell Roberts (age 34, Wilkes-Barre), Robert Walker (23, Plymouth), John Maidman (21, Wilkes-Barre) - were probably killed instantly. Richard Owens (33, Wilkes-Barre), James Johnson (53, Wilkes-Barre), and Nicholas Shields (30, Dallas) were likely knocked from the elevator and thrown 300 feet into a sump at the bottom. The impact rendered another passenger, Robert Owens, unconscious. He was trapped inside the damaged carriage but never regained awareness and passed away a few hours later at Mercy Hospital.
Thousands gathered around the colliery as word of the accident spread through the Valley. Twenty-six local, state, and company police, who were already on the scene because of a strike, controlled the crowd. Unlike many other mining calamities where it took several hours if not days to find the bodies, the six deceased plus the comatose Owens were brought to the surface within 60 minutes. Three of the victims were single and left behind parents and other family. The remaining four were survived by their widows and a total of seven children and three grand children.
Further investigation revealed that the boulder had somehow become dislodged about 200 feet from the top of the shaft. It struck the cage near the Hillman Vein located 650 feet down. Shaft engineer Joseph Huntsinger immediately stopped the cage when he felt a severe jerk. He called to the Hillman and reached mule driver boss Martin Hogan, telling him to investigate. When Hogan came to the shaft he heard moans and whimpers.
Although hesitant at first, in an act of immense bravery he slid 125 feet down the wooden shaft guides to the cage. He saw three lifeless men and the insensible Robert Owens inside. He made a quick assessment and thought that the elevator could make it to the surface. A "lift" signal to the engineer sent the battered carriage upward.
Four of the deceased were members of the Welsh Bethel Baptist Church on Parrish Street. Another victim belonged to the Second Welsh Congregational Church, meaning that five of the seven departed were of Welsh background. One victim belonged to the Franklin Street Primitive Methodist Church, Plymouth, and another was Irish Catholic. The prevalence of the Welsh workers underground belied the general belief that Welshmen were only in managerial positions. The recent immigration of John Maidman indicated that Welsh miners were still coming to the U.S.
The disaster stands as one of a small number of "shaft accidents." Other examples include the No. 2 Shaft of the Susquehanna Coal Company in Nanticoke (1875), where a weak platform holding six men broke and sent them 540 feet to the bottom; the Clear Spring Shaft in West Pittston (1905), where seven succumbed when the cable snapped as the cage was being lowered; and the Conyngham Shaft in North Wilkes-Barre (1905), where 10 workers dropped 350 feet when the cable broke.
Most anthracite mining disasters did not have high death tolls such as those at Twin Shaft (1896, 58 dead), Pancoast (1911, 72 dead), and Baltimore Tunnel (1919, 92 dead). Rather, the great majority of hard coal's 35,000 victims perished in smaller, lesser-known mishaps like the one that occurred at the South Wilkes-Barre Colliery 75 years ago today.
Bill Hastie is a retired mineworker who has written and spoken widely on anthracite history. Bob Wolensky is an adjunct professor at King's College whose research interests include anthracite history. This article is part of the authors' series on lesser-known regional mining tragedies.