Exhibit explores Cherry coal mine disaster
On Nov. 13, 1909, a torch ignited a load of hay 300 feet below ground at the Cherry coal mine in Bureau County. Rescuers worked for days to save their co-workers, friends and family. Eight days after the ordeal began, 21 survivors were brought to the surface. An estimated 259 men and boys were killed.
A new exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield takes a look back 100 years after the tragedy.
The exhibit sheds light on the disaster and its impact on public policy. The mining accident inspired a crackdown on child-labor laws and the crafting of mine safety rules that eventually paved the way to modern-day workmen’s compensation laws.
“In the annals of Illinois history, the Cherry Mine disaster is important because of the legislation it spawned,” said Dennis Suttles, a genealogical research librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. He helped coordinate the exhibit, “The Flames Caught Us,” which is now open and runs through March 31, 2010.
The display consists of more than 30 panels and numerous artifacts, such as a coal fork and shovel, which aim to educate visitors about coal mining in Illinois — and especially in Cherry at the St. Paul Coal Company Mine.
The focus turns later to a chronology of the disaster at Cherry and its aftermath.
The mine, located in Bureau County about 50 miles northeast of Peoria, was considered to be modern and secure in 1909. It had opened about four years earlier and supplied the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad with coal for locomotives.
“I liken it to the Titanic in a way because the Cherry Mine was supposed to be one of the safest mines in the state because it was electrified,” Suttles said. “But at the time of the disaster, prior to that, the electricity had failed for some reason.”
While waiting for repairs, the miners continued digging coal from the earth. To see their way in the dark tunnels, they used handmade torches, fueled with kerosene and wicks, Suttles said.
On Nov. 13, 1909, about 300 feet below ground, a torch ignited a load of hay that was intended to feed mules. The fire spread, trapping hundreds of miners.
According to various reports, 259 men and boys died, but Suttles said the accuracy of that figure has been questioned. The total number of survivors is hard to pin down because it was never clear exactly how people had gone down the mine, though historical accounts say there were 490.
Twenty-one men managed to survive in the mine for eight days by sealing themselves off from the fire. They became known as the “eight-day men.” One of them died two days after being pulled from the mine.
Newspapers carried gripping accounts of the accident and the heroic efforts to save the miners. Twelve rescuers died on a lift while trying to aid their friends.
“This really made the nation take notice of conditions, especially for the children that were working in the mine,” said Carla Smith, who works as registrar at the ALPLM and also helped coordinate the exhibit.
Artifacts from the Cherry mining disaster aren’t easy to come by, so planners of the exhibit put out a public call earlier this year, asking for items to borrow.
People responded by offering to share photos, postcards and equipment once used in the mine. Much of the loaned material came from the Princeton Public Library and from private family collections.
“It’s always much more meaningful when it’s people in the community that have (artifacts) and they can bring them,” Smith said. “It adds such a richness, such a depth, to the exhibit.”
Among the mementos that will be on display at the presidential library: a pocket watch that belonged to one of the dead Cherry miners. It has been passed down in his family over the generations.
When the watch owner’s body was recovered from the mine, it had been burned beyond recognition. He was identifiable only because of his distinctive timepiece, which has an image of a church engraved on the back.
The watch appears to be in good condition, but its protective crystal is gone and no one knows exactly why.
The glass could have been shattered somehow during the commotion of the fire, or the watch might have been damaged deliberately. As trapped miners waited in the inky darkness for their hoped-for rescue, they sometimes broke the crystal on their watches so they could keep track of time by feeling where the watch hands were, Suttles said.
The Love family
Workers in the mine would team up in pairs to do their jobs, and the duos often consisted of brothers or fathers and sons, Suttles said.
As a result, several families lost two or more relatives at the Cherry mine. Among the dead were a father-son team, the Kralls, whose bodies were found locked in an embrace.
The story of another of those families — the Loves — will be spotlighted in a smaller exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, across the street from the presidential library.
The Cherry mine accident claimed the lives of brothers John, Morrison, David and James Love, immigrants from Kirkintilloch, Scotland.
A surviving Love brother, William, later married the widow of one of the men who died while trying to rescue the trapped miners. The widow, Janet Clark Stewart, gave birth to her fourth child, Robert, just days after the death of her husband, Harry Stewart.
That child, later known as Robert Stewart Love, grew up to become a coal miner, following in the footsteps of his biological father and his adoptive father. He died at age 29 in a 1939 mining accident in Macoupin County.
“These families stayed in mining,” said Gwenith Podeschi, a reference librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library who delved into the Loves’ family history. “I don’t know if I could.”
Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.