Cherry Coal Mine Disaster

Taken From the Daily Review, Decatur, Illinois
Online transcription by Nancy Piper for Genealogy Trails
Photos donated by Tracey Ristau-MacLeod

(To see a larger version of each photo, click on the photo)

Thursday Evening, November 18, 1909

GO INTO THE MINE: Encouraged By Lower Temperature At Surface
Soldiers Surround Shaft and Keep Crowd Off. No Demonstration

Cherry, Ill., Nov. 18 - Encouraged by the lower temperature at the surface of the mine this morning, the decision was reached to open the mine today and make an effort to recover the bodies of the entombed victims. The explorers, under the leadership of State Mine Inspector Taylor expected to enter the mine before noon.


At noon all was in readiness for descent into the air shaft and soldiers surrounded the workmen with the crowds beyond the lines. No demonstration occurred when the troops assembled. New cage being constructed to make possible descent.

Fireman at the Mine, November 18


At 1 pm J W Paul of the United States Geological Survey at Pittsburg, entered the air shaft and was lowered to the bottom.

Paul quickly completed his mission and came to the surface, where he was joined by George H. Rice and R. Y. Williams for a second descent. All left letters to be mailed to their families in case of their death. They will make a desperate effort to ascertain the condition in the fatal second gallery.


One body was discovered and the odor of burnt flesh was noticeable when the seal was off the shaft. The body was brought to the junction of the gallery and ventilating shaft. The most important discovery was that an attempt to enter the main shaft, while hazardous, is still feasible.


Cherry, Ill., Nov. 18 - Thomas Morris and R Y Williams, both of the government geological survey, descended the ventilating shaft of the St. Paul mine last night and discovered the fire is moving back from the main shaft.

Williams descended to the second gallery where the fire started. The shaft was comparatively cool. There was considerable smoke but much less smoke than Sunday.


The buckets in which they descended were large enough only to stand on and the effort of carrying oxygen apparatus on their backs at the same time wore the men out. A safety lamp was lowered and extinguished at 100 feet. It was argued against risking more lives, but the importunities of the surviving miners that a desperate chance to taken toward reaching the imprisoned bodies prevailed and Morris and Williams descended. Signals were made by the automobile horn. After the trip Morris declared: "We must have a bucket big enough to sit on the rim before we can do anything effectively."


Williams said: "There is very little smoke much less than Sunday. For ninety feet down the timbers were scorched lower this was less noticable. Steam is too dense to see into the galleries. Down 310 feet I seemed to have loss the sense of feeling, but when I rose the air revived me." Carpenters at midnight began to construct a cage with which it is proposed to descned the air shaft again.


Cherry, Nov. 18 - It was a terrible shock to the widows and orphans when they visited the mine yesterday and found the armed sentinel forming a living wall around the only opening into the coal mine which holds their kin. The grief and sorrow began slowly to give way to protests and indignation and many threats were heard against those who called for the soldiers, where previously were heard only moans of grief.

Sisters of Charity


News of the arrival of the soldiers spread like a prairie fire among the officials of the various mining and labor organizations and brought forth with the announcement that they would appeal to Governor Deenan to recall the troops on the ground that they were sent to the mine on a misreprehension of existing conditions.


The arrival of nuns from Chicago who speak the various languages of the inhabitants of Cherry and the work of Bishop Dunne in taking personal charge of arrangements for the future of the orphaned children, were welcomed as potent influences to sooth e and relieve the survivors. The reception accorded to them was in strange contrast, to that given the soldiers.


Cherry, Nov. 18 - "The safest mine in Illinois," as the St. Paul Coal Company declared the Cherry mine to be, has turned out a veritable death trap for 400 men. Gross negligence in constructing the mine in defiance of all provisions approved by competent mining engineers was the fundamental cause of the greatest mine disaster in the history of the United States."

This is the conclusion of Duncan McDonald based upon an investigation conducted by him as president of the United Mine Workers of Illinois. He has been at Cherry since early Sunday morning.

The several points where the company failed to provide safeguards for the miners as found by McDonald follow:

  1. The structure around the main entrance in the Cherry mine was entirely of pine timber, which is a highly combustible material. As soon as the flames from the burning bale of hay, which caused the disaster, came in contact with this timber, a fierce fire was the result. The coal dust which had accumulated on top of the structural work ignited like tinder and spread to other inflamable parts of the mine. Had the entries been built of brick or steel girders or concrete there is no doubt that the dreadful catastrophe would never have occurred.

  2. A scarcity of water and a lack of sufficient rubber hose in the mine made a fight against the flames by the miners caught in the trap an impossibility. The company had neglected to provide sufficient means to extinguish a blaze after once it was started. No pipes carrying water under pressure were placed in the mines, nor was there sufficient support on the surface, and even if there had been such it would have been of no practical service because the company failed to provide necessary fire hose.

  3. No fire drill had ever been practiced among the men, and no precaution had been taken by the company to see that in case of an emergency the miners would have the benefits of the right sort of rational discipline and instruction to them to safety.

  4. The open torch flaming near the main entrance in the second vein was a constant menace. This torch had been used as a substitute for an electric light which had been out of repair for two weeks.

  5. The escape shaft was timbered with pine and the stair were built of wood. This was gross negligence on the part of the company. A mine where any effort has been made to safeguard life would certainly have had an escape shaft constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. One of the first things in the corridor of the mine to burn away was the escape shaft. This made egress absolutely impossible after the cage stopped running and practically sealed the doom of the men below.

  6. The escape shaft was placed less than three hundred feet from the main shaft at Cherry. This would be contrary to law, unless the location of the escape shaft were permitted by some state mine inspector.

Bishop Dunne's Statement

Peoria, Nov. 18 - Bishop Dunne of the Peoria diocese has issued an official proclamation which will be read in all the Catholic churches of the diocese in which the mine disaster at Cherry occurred. The prelate announces that the people and the clergy of the entire diocese will participate in the task of securing homes and places in proper institutions for the orphaned children, widows an aged kin of the entombed men.

The officials of the diocese and the priests in the towns near Cherry are enrolled by Bishop Dunne to direct this enormous task with him at once.

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