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Coal has long been one of the great resources of Illinois but over the years, the rich veins of black gold have been soaked with the blood of those who have labored for them. On November 13, 1909, Illinois’ worst coal mine disaster occurred in the small northern Illinois town of Cherry, a place that within a few short days saw the best --- and the worst – of human nature. The disaster was caused by an electrical failure and fire but human error and panic lead to the deaths of 259 men and boys, a number of who died heroically while trying to save the lives of others.

The coal mine opened in 1905 in a town that was named for the mine’s developer, James Cherry. In those days, most miners were European immigrants and the Cherry miners were typical, representing sixteen different nationalities. The miners had come to the new town, located about eight miles northwest of the LaSalle-Peru area, because the mine was a good place to work. The entire output from the mine, owned by the St. Paul Coal Company, was used to fuel locomotives of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. Because of this, unlike most mines at the time, there were no lay-offs in the summer time. The operation provided good, steady work and had a good safety record, as well.

There were three veins of coal in the mine but only the second vein, at 324 feet down, and the third vein, at 485 feet, were being worked. The second vein had proven to be the richest and in November 1909, the men were laboring a mile east and a mile west of the main shaft. About two hundred feet from the main shaft was a smaller airshaft that also served as an emergency exit and had a line of wooden steps that ran from bottom to top. In addition, the mine also featured the relatively new innovation of electric lights. Power plants were constructed directly on the site but unfortunately, the lights only worked sporadically. In the fall of 1909, the lights had been out for nearly a month because of trouble in the main wiring cables. The replacement parts finally arrived on November 14 --- one day too late.

Around noon on the afternoon of November 13, six bales of hay were lowered down the mine’s main shaft to feed the mules who pulled the underground coal cars. The hay was piled into an empty coal car and the car was pushed to another shaft, where it was supposed to be lowered to the stable below.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the car with the hay in it was parked under one of the kerosene torches that were being used in the absence of the electric lights. It was a common practice to turn the lighted torches horizontally so that the oil would keep the wicks soaked for a brighter flame but this also meant that the kerosene would often drip. On this day, a little of the oil dripped onto the hay and the hay caught on fire. 

The hay in the cart was soon burning but unbelievably, everyone ignored the flames. The fire could have been easily extinguished, but small fires were commonplace and two men working close to the shaft just left it to burn. One man actually walked past the fire without a backward glance. He was in a hurry to catch the hoisting cage to the surface and couldn’t be bothered. 

Finally, two other men on their way to surface passed by and decided to push the car to the shaft so that it could be dumped into the water-filled pit below. The tracks were littered with debris, however, and they had trouble getting the car to move. As the flames grew and smoke began to fill the tunnel, the men worked more frantically. Finally, they managed to get the hay to the water, where it was immediately snuffed out. Tragically, it was too late.

Pieces of wooden planking, as well as support timbers and scattered chunks of coal, had started to burn. A large fan on the surface above kept a strong and steady current of air flowing through the mine, fanning the flames. Within minutes, the mine was burning.

Earlier that same day, 481 men had gone down into the mine for the work shift. They were scattered out in various areas when the horror began. Even after the men at the bottom of main shaft became aware of the fire, they continued to haul out coal. They believed the fire was nothing to be concerned about. From the time the fire was discovered, 45 minutes passed before attempts were made to start warning the workers who were spread out through the mine. When the seriousness of the fire was finally realized, a mad scramble for the surface --- and for life --- began. At last the signal to clear out the mine was given, but for many, it was too late. 

In an attempt to slow the spread of the fire, someone ordered the fan that was located at the top of the emergency airshaft to be reversed. This was a tragically flawed move as the reversal served only to suck the flames up into the shaft, burning the wooden steps. For a short time, though, the reversed air flow did keep the flames away from the main shaft. But as the heat that was pulled upward scorched the fan, its bearings began to melt and the fan ground to a stop. The flames then swept back into the main shaft.

A sixteen-year-old miner named Peter Donna was one of the ones who made it out. He later told of leading 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."

About 200 of the miners escaped but more than 260 remained underground when the elevator stopped working, trapping twelve miners in the cage and leaving others with no escape route.

On the surface, the mine’s shrill whistle cut through the afternoon air, carrying a dreaded alarm to the community. The people of Cherry flocked to the mine. Wives, daughters, sons and loved ones crowded to the edge of the company property as clouds of black smoke billowed from the mineshafts. Panic ran through the crowd and necks were craned, hoping to catch a glimpse of anyone who had emerged from beneath the ground.

The hoisting cage, normally not used to carry passengers, with 12 brave volunteers inside, descended into what must have seemed like the pit of hell six times and each time, managed to bring up a few desperate survivors. Communication between the man operating the hoist on the surface and the men in the cage depended on a wire that rang a bell. The number of times the bell rang, the operator responded accordingly. On the seventh trip down, the clanging of the bell made no sense and the panicked operator, not knowing what to do and being assailed by threats and curses from those nearby, waited almost five minutes before bringing the cage back up. The men inside were horribly burned to death.

Finally, with no one else being allowed into the mine, the shaft was sealed at 8:00 p.m. in an attempt to smother the flames. Several attempts were made to reopen it, but each time it was unsealed, the fire flared up again. There was little hope that anyone could survive under such brutal conditions. 

News of the disaster swept through the nation and a multitude of relief workers, including the American Red Cross, doctors, nurses, clergymen, reporters and even other miners, arrived in Cherry. Everyone wanted to help. They all wanted something to do but there was little that could be done. The crowd milled about on the surface as the men beneath the earth burned to death, choked on the smoke or simply suffocated as the fire literally pulled the air from their lungs.

Over the course of the next week, volunteers equipped with oxygen masks tried to descend into the mine but were continually driven back by the smoke and flames. The blaze was finally extinguished seven days after it started. The rescuers assumed there could be no survivors – but they were wrong. Twenty-two miners had managed to retreat to the deepest recesses of the mine, where they found a small amount of water, and sealed off the shaft behind them. On Saturday, November 20, near death, they attempted to escape. As they broke through the wall, they heard the sounds of a rescue party. In their haste to get out, one of the miners was killed when he struck his head on the opening. The others, however, found their way to the exploration party. On the early evening of November 21, one week after the fire had started, 21 miners were brought out of the mine alive. One of them later died. 

News of the survivors exhilarated the town for a short time but no other men were rescued. By Thanksgiving Day, 12 days after the fire broke out, 150 bodies had been recovered from the darkness of the mine. The inner depths of the mine continued to smolder and rescue work remained dangerous. Many feared that the air from the surface would cause the fire to flare up again. Finally, the difficult decision was made to seal the mine with concrete in order to permanently extinguish the fire. All hope had been lost that anyone else could have survived.

Time passed and the remaining bodies were not brought to the surface until the following April. At least one of them was not found until July. Many of them were never recovered at all. Of those who were, their funerals seemed to go on and on. The men were laid to rest in a cemetery that remains today on the south side of Cherry. A sculpture of a mourning woman adorns a monument that was constructed in memory of the disaster victims, men who left 160 anguished widows and 390 fatherless children behind.

Illinois’ worst mine disaster – and the third worst coalmine disaster in American history – had been caused by six carelessly placed bales of hay.