A HUNDRED YEARS
OF MINE EXPLOSIONS
IN SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA
By Edward L. Henson, Jr.
Professor of History
Clinch Valley College
A Paper Presented to the
Historical Society of Southwest Virginia
In 1884, as the signs of spring multiplied in the Pocahontas coalfields of Southwest Virginia , Harriet Eliza Latrhop could look back over the preceding thirty months with a great deal of satisfaction. Just before Thanksgiving in 1881, she had left her native New York with her husband, William, a twenty-six-year-old mining engineer, to come to a wilderness where she faced snakes in her kitchen and people afraid of kerosene lamps. Now, thanks to her husband's leadership, the mines which he opened and the town which he built were both thriving. Pocahontas boasted a company store, a bowling alley, an ice house, and an Episcopal congregation.1
At 1:30 in the morning of March 13, 1884, a loud explosion rocked the Lathrops in their bed. Young Lathrop soon learned that a blast in the Laurel mine had knocked houses off their foundations three-hundred feet from the driftmouth, and heavy mine cars had been hurled from the mine. Inside were mangled bodies, some without heads and some missing limbs. A fire necessitated sealing an flooding the mine with 114 bodies still inside.2
When the fire was out, the water was pumped into a creek running through the town. Two carloads of disinfectant were dumped in the creek and on the streets, and men were brought in to build coffins. Lathrop finally became ill under the strain, which threats against his life did not help. He and his wife were glad to move to another job when an opportunity arose.3
The Laurel mine was regarded as non-gassy so that there was no apparent reason to use safety lamps. This supposition left the miners free to "shoot from the solid" - to get coal down from the face by substituting massive amounts of explosives for the tedious and time-consuming job of undercutting. There was almost certainly a quantity of methane present in the Laurel mine which was ignited by the blasting. This in turn touched off suspended coal dust which provided the chief explosive.4 The initial blast created a wind of hurricane force which picked up more coal dust, ignited it, and produced a raging, all-consuming, and self-perpetuating horror.
The explosion at the Laurel mine was shocking to the people of Southwest Virginia because it was their first. Before it, min explosions is the Richmond area had assured Virginia it would lead the nation in this category of mining casualty until 1890.
Each day a working miner enters an area where no human being has ever been before. In the process, he sometimes releases methane gas which has been trapped in the ground for 280 million years or more. How to keep this gas from exploding was a problem that miners in England had been wrestling with for several hundred years.
During one period, methane was burned off by the fireman, a heroic figure swathed in wet sackcloth, who crawled about the mines, thrusting a candle ahead of him on the end of a ten-foot pole. It was discovered that moving air in the mines lessened the chances of explosion. Circulation was increased by lowering iron baskets filled with fire into the shafts to create convection currents. Larger mines created drafts with furnaces, a method used in the United States well into the twentieth century. There was a system of partitions, wooden doors manned by boys called trappers, and brattices consisting of tarred or creosoted strips, all of which were designed to direct the air currents to their desired spots. Air pumps were designed with huge wooden pistons and fans came in 1850.
There were also efforts made to deny methane a means of ignition. It was thought for a while that the phosphorescent glow given off by decaying fish could be used as a source of light, but this created another problem. Some tried to direct sunlight into the shaft with a series of mirrors. John Spedding attempted to provide a safe light by rotating a steel wheel against a flint to give off a shower of sparks. Sir Humphrey Davy discovered that methane only exploded in concentrations between 5.4% and 13.5%, which answered the question of why circulation inhibited explosions. Using this and other information, together with the heat-conducting properties of wire mesh, he invented a safety lamp in 1815.5
It was 1846 before Americans mined as much coal in a year as the English produced in 1660. Although we took advantage of their technological advances, there were certain things which Americans had to learn by experience. The lessons for Southwest Virginia began at Laurel mine in 1884 and continued through the tragedy at McClure almost a century later.
The second fatal mine explosion in Southwest Virginia occurred at another Pocahontas mine on October 3, 1906. Investigators concluded that it was caused by "shooting from the solid" which provided a large quantity of dust and a source of ignition. Thirty-five men were killed, including two members of a rescue party who were overcome by afterdamp, by carbon monoxide which washed back over an explosion site.6
There was a movement in the legislature to pass mine safety laws after the Laurel tragedy, but two more fatal explosions would have to occur before this was done. Both of these were at the Greeno mine in Tacoma. The first one, which took place on March 16, 1907, resulted in the death of six men including two sets of brothers. Since it took place as the morning shift entered the mine, it may be assumed that the miners' lard oil lamps ignited a pocket of methane which had collected overnight.7 The second Greeno explosion occurred on December 14, 1910. Eight men, including the superintendent who had led the rescue work in the first explosion, perished in this one. Four miners who knocked a hole in an air pipe managed to survive. A sad noted was added by the arrival in Southwest Virginia of the superintendent's wife on the day he died. She had come from Minnesota to spend Christmas with him.8
After the second Greeno explosion, twenty-two years would elapse before there would be another fatal one in Southwest Virginia. During this period, many advances were made in the field of mine safety. In 1912, Virginia became the last coal-producing state to pass a mine safety act. This provided for periodic inspections, site mapping, minimum ventilation standards, and the prohibition of dust accumulation.9 On the federal level, the newly-created Bureau of Mines carried out experiments in 1910 in the use of rock dust to quelch and limit explosions. A layer of rock dust on the floor, ribs, and ceiling would be taken up by any explosion so that particles of limestone would insulate particles of coal dust from one another. By 1925, a quarter of the mines in the country were using rock dust to some degree. Electric cap lamps were developed in 1910 and, within two decades, forty percent of the miners had traded their oil and carbide lamps for them.10
As if to show contempt for these efforts and to make up for a statistical lapse, there were three serious explosions in the first half on 1932.
Smoking had been a problem at the Parrott mine, just a few miles west of Blacksburg. Two men had been fired recently for trying to smuggle cigarettes in, one in a biscuit and another in a shoe. On the afternoon of January 18, 1932, there was a terrific explosion three thousand feet under the ground that left six men dead. Fans had pulled a lethal concentration of methane from some inactive workings. Two cigarette butts were found at the point of ignition.11
Just over a month later, thirty-eight men died two miles underground in the Pocahontas field at Boissevain. The Bureau of Mines inspector found the cause in the simultaneous blasting of four holes. The large number of casualties can be attributed to the fact that no rock-dusting had been done.12
The third disaster of this terrible year occurred at Splashdam in Dickenson County. The ventilator fan had been turned off the night before and was not restarted until ninety minutes before miners entered the mine. Their open lights encountered a large pocket of firedamp. Since rock dusting had been neglected, the explosion did not stop until hit had boiled out of the mouth of the mine, sorching wet foliage and trees three-hundred feet across the rive. Ten men died in this disaster, including three who were killed by afterdamp.13
In 1934, the year which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first Pochahontas explosion, a tragedy occurred at the Stonega mine at Derby. The mine had been idle the day before and accumulated gases were ignited by either smoking or an electrical arc. Since there had been no previous signs of gas, rock dust was not applied. Seventeen miners lost their lives and the ground was blackened for three-hundred feet outside the mine.14
On April 22, 1938, an accident occurred on Keen Mountain which killed more men than would die in Virginia mine explosions over the next forty-five years. Two men were decapitated outside the mine when the blast overturned an eight-ton mine motor. A passing state trooper said that "it looked as if the whole mountain top was coming off."15
Inspectors believed that an adobe shot, one not contained in a bore hole but rather plastered to the surface with clay, had touched off the explosion. Rock-dusting was reported to have been inadequate which permitted the explosion to spread over an area of three-million square feet, killing forty-five miners.16 After this explosion, the governor of the state appointed a commission to propose new mine safety laws.17
There was also an impetus toward federal safety regulations. In 1941, inspectors were given the right to make inspections over the opposition of the individual mine owner. Idle or abandoned sections of the mine would either have to be ventilated or sealed off. There must be no "firing on the solid", no adobe shots, and no shots were the methane concentration exceeded one percent. All bituminous mines had to be rock-dusted to within forty feet of the working face. The problem was that no power was given to inspectors to enforce these new standards.18
There was only one fatal mine explosion in Virginia during the Second World War. This occurred near Norton when two machine operators were killed on December 11, 1944.19 Another man died in Bartlick on November 19, 1945.
During the following year, tragedy returned to the semi-anthracite operation on the New River. In order to get to the coal at McCoy, it was necessary for miners to descend a thirty-five degree incline to a point of half-mile below the bed of the New River. On April 8, 1946, an explosion was ignited apparently by an arc from a battery-powered motor. The force of the explosion blew a fourteen-ton train 150 feet up the incline and killed twelve men.20 Another miner lost his life in the same mine later in the year.
Some impetus toward federal regulation of mining was gained in the spring of 1946, when bituminous mines were placed under a federal administrator during a prolonged strike. It was not until 1952, however that Congress passed a law incorporating the provisions of the 1942 act, providing this time for a means of enforcement. Considerable attention was paid to rock-dusting and minimum ventilation standards. Rules against smoking were tightened and black powder was completely outlawed underground.21
A dozen years elapsed between the McCoy incident and the rather curious blast at Moss No. 2 mine on April 8, 1958. A roof fall disrupted a bleeder system which permitted an accumulation of gas. The probable source of ignition was the "frictional contact of two or more mine rocks" during a pillar fall which had been predicted earlier by the fire boss. That only two men were killed was due to in part to a very careful rock-dusting program.22
In 1969, a comprehensive federal Mine Safety Act was passed. It contained many of the regulations that were already in the state and previous federal acts. The new law was, however, written with much more thoroughness, compliance was made much more expensive, and exemptions were minimized.23
After the incident at Moss No. 2 Mine, Virginia enjoyed a fifteen-year respite from mine explosion fatalities. The next one occurred at Oakwood Red Ash in Buchanan County on September 25, 1973. The superintendent and foreman went into an abandoned area in a battery-powered personnel carrier. An arc touched off an explosion which was fatal to both of them.24
A similar accident occurred at the P & P mine in Lee County on July 7, 1977. Methane gas became concentrated in an abandoned section which was entered by a work party, apparently without a pre-shift inspection. A blackened Scripto cigarette lighter, still in its open-position, was found at the point of ignition. The blast knocked out support posts nine hundred feet from the point of ignition and was not completely dissipated until it reached 3,500 feet. Four lives were lost in this explosion.25
The last fatal coal mine explosion of the century, following the disaster at Pocahontas, occurred at McClure mine on July 21, 1983. A preliminary report indicated that the seven miners who died, including a foreman three days away from retirement and the first woman killed in a Virginia mine, were victims of carbon monoxide. The absence of hard facts led to much speculation in the newspapers to the causes. Representatives of management, labor, and the federal government offered their versions of the conditions in the mine, the steps taken and the expenses borne by the company in the pursuit of safety, the adequacy of federal enforcement, and the safety record of this particular mine.26
It had been thirty seven years since this many miners had died in Virginia in a single mine explosion. The media played-up the fact that Virginia's safety record was not a good one. This situation led the governor to appoint a commission to study mine safety in Virginia.
In this report, the commission found that Virginia's mine fatality rate was indeed twice that of the nation. Its geology was conducive to roof falls, but there were also other factors. Virginia had the lowest ration of inspectors to mines as well as the lowest pay scale. Training programs for inspectors and certification for miners were being neglected.27
During the first century of coal mining in Southwest Virginia, sixteen fatal explosions killed 314 miners. This is only a fraction of those who have lost their lives through mishaps such as roof falls and electrocution. During the past twenty five years, explosions have accounted for less than three percent of the total mine fatalities in Virginia. The explosions have, however, attracted more than their share of public attention. They have been mine mishaps what airplane crashes are to vehicular accidents. They receive the headlines and the attention of state officials, who must be diligent in assuring that the most recent tragedy will not be repeated.
Mining coal will never be a safe occupation. The best that can be hoped for is a lowering of the odds on fatal accidents - a proportion of the laws of averages through improved safety regulations, education, and enforcement. Because of their dramatic effect, some progress in this respect has been made every time public sensibilites have been shocked by a mine explosion.
1Memoirs of Harriet Eliza Lathrop, 1881-1890, manuscript collection, Alderman Library, University of Virginia.
2 Richmond Dispatch, March 14, 1884.
3 Lathrop Memoir.
4 H.B. Humphrey, Historical Summary of Coal-Mine Explosions in the United States, 1810-1858. Bureau of Mines Bulletin 586 (United States Government Printing Office, 1960), p.7.
5 Most of this information and that in the preceding paragraphs is from various parts of J. U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry (London, 1932)
6 Roanoke Times, October 5, 1906; Humphrey, Historical Summary, p.26.
7 Big Stone Gap Post, March 21, 1907, Humphrey gives the total dead as eleven. See Historical Summary, table 4, page 22.
8 Big Stone Gap Post, December 21, 1910; Roanoke Times, December 15, 1910. J.J. Rutledge, "The Greeno Mine Explosion." A report dated August 11, 1911.
9 Code of Virginia of 1916, "Chapter 178 of Acts of 1912."
10Humphrey, Historical Summary, p. 32, 159, 163, 227, 257.
11Roanoke Times, January 19, 1932. J.F. Davies, Bureau of Mines Report summarized in Humphrey, Historical Summary, p. 133.
12Roanoke Times, February 28-29, 1932. J.F. Davies, Bureau of Mines Report summarized in Humphrey, Historical Summary, p. 133.
14Roanoke Times, August 7, 1934; Humphrey, Historical Summary, p.137.
15Roanoke Times, April 24025, 1938.
16G.W.Groves, Bureau of Mines Report summarized in Humphrey, Historical Summary, p. 144.
17Roanoke Times, April 26, 1938.
1877th Congress, Public Law in Humphrey, Historical Summary, p.230.
19Coalfield Progress, December 14, 1944; Roanoke Times, December 13, 1944.
20Roanoke Times, April 19, 1946; Humphrey, Historical Summary, p. 209.
21Humphrey, Historical Summary, p. 230.
22George L. Mears, W.R. Stewart, and Frank L. Gaddy, "Preliminary Report of Mine Explosion, Moss No. 2 Mine, Clinchfield, April 8, 1958," (Bureau of Mines, 19__) and "Supplementary Report" by the same investigators.
23United States Code, Title 30, Section 863 ff.
24M.L. West and Elmer Simmons, "Official Report of Coal-Mine Explosion, No. 4 Mine, Oakwood Red Ash Corporation, September 25, 1973." (Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration, 197_.)
25James D. Michael, Elmer Simmons, and Wayland Jessee, "Report of Investigation, Underground Coal Explosion, P & P Coal Company, Incorporated, July 7, 1977." (Department of Labor), Mine Safety and Health Administration, 1977.)
26Roanoke Times, June 24-25, 1983.
27Report of Governor's Commission on Mine Safety, 1983.