Roanoke Coal Mine

taken from "Roanoke Centennial History"

History of the Mine

Tragedy Strikes

Surviving Miners

The Roanoke area, like most of Illinois, is underlain by rich veins of coal. The second coal shaft in Woodford County was sunk here in 1881. The Roanoke Coal Company was organized to sink a shaft in the cast part of town just west of the north branch of the creek on the south side of the railroad. Isaac Snyder, Peter Kennell, and Peter Belsley were chief investors. Miners went down 480 feet to discover a vein of high quality coal thirty inches thick. Two other veins were passed through because of poor quality. Actually, two shafts were put down, the main hoisting shaft and a smaller ventilating shaft located about 500 feet east. These had wooden structures at the heads. There was a pit or sump at the bottom of the shaft from which water was pumped out of the mine. Also, the coal coming in cars from the main tunnels was hoisted from here. The longest tunnel ran about two miles east and a little north of town on a downward slope. This meant the coal had to be pulled uphill to the shaft. Also, the water which collected in the tunnels had to be pumped to the sump. Late in the operation of the mine, the grade became so steep it was all a mule could do to pull out a loaded car.

Another tunnel ran east of town south approximately one and three-quarters of a mile. A third was started in a westerly direction, but this coal was "flinty" or mixed with rock and digging was discontinued after reaching the vicinity of the depot or blacksmith shop. A room was dug out at the bottom of the shaft to stable the ponies and mules used before the electric equipment was installed in 1905. The drivers babied them with apples and candy. They were brought up and "farmed out" during the summer. Fred Wolfe, a blacksmith used to go down and shoe the mules in the mine.

Work started at 7:00 a.m. with a blast on the mine whistle at 5:00 a.m. It sounded again when the men were brought up at the end of the day, 3:30 p.m. In the evening three blasts meant "work the next day," one meant "no work". The second shift went down in the evening to feed and water the mules, make repairs, and other miscellaneous work. Also, the inspectors went down at this time. The inspectors, the weighers, the engineers, the tally men, the car loaders, or men who worked "on the top" were company men and could not belong to the United Mine Worker's Union.

The mine operated seasonally from abut September through the winter heating season into April, when it closed until a two week period just before oats threshing begun in July. Some of the men went back down to mine enough coal to fire the steam traction engines used to thresh out the oats crop in the country. A line of farmers with teams and wagons would form from the tipple along the street as far west as the blacksmith shop. Each farmer supplies the fuel for the engine while it was at his farm.

Then the mine closed again until fall. In 1890, the mine produced 42,000 tons of coal which sold for $2 per ton. At its peak, the mine employed around 300 men and hoisted 500 tons a day.

In 1899, the property was sold to the Roanoke Coal Mining Company and was operated by Buggan Brothers, who also operated The Roanoke Supply Company, a large general store that carried groceries, dry goods, shoes, hats, plus feed store. The store was located on the north side of Broad Street, in the old Hatcher and Jeter hardware building where Apache Trucking office is. Store hours were six a.m. to ten p.m. J. B. Smith, J. L. Curran, and Sam Spaulding were managers of the store. The store was closed and the merchandise cleared out and sold to Designes before the mine closed for good.

Pay day was held every two weeks at the company store. The manager spent most of the morning at the bank counting out money and putting it into separate envelopes then recounted it at time of payment to the employees. The men left one window where they were paid and went directly to a second window where their bill from the last two weeks was settled. The children received a sack of candy at the same time. The money not paid out was taken back to the bank after hours, sometimes by an unsuspecting ten-year-old carrying an old brown paper bag. No one was ever harmed returning money to the bank, nor was Mr. Spaulding while enroute at noon from the bank to the mine office a block away with thousands of dollars.

The men were paid according to the number of cars of coal they sent up to the tally man on the tipple. since the vein was abut 30 inches thick, dirt and shale was dug with a pick from underneath the "face" or vein at the end of the tunnel, a hole was drilled by hand and a powder charge set and ignited, thereby dropping the coal for loading into the low four wheeled cars. Branch;Branching off from each tunnel were "rooms" from which the coal was removed; afterwards the "rooms" were refilled with clay and dirt dug out from under the coal in the next room. Enough coal was left to support the roof with help from "props" and "shoring". Sometimes three cars of clay would have to be removed fro each car of coal. No pay was received for these, so sometimes a miner would go back down in the evening taking a son along to help and remove these cars of dirt in order to get a good count of coal the next work day. The work was hard and dangerous. Conditions in the mine were often very bad. no two members of a family road the same cage when entering the mine. Boys of 13 or 14 often worked along with other members of their families for very little daily pay.

By 1903, the price of coal reached three dollars per ton. In August of 1904, the miners were idle because of poor ventilation in the mine. Finally it was agreed the men would go back on two shifts, one day and one night, so that the air would be better. In November the engineers went on a strike of short duration, the three-whistle signal denoting work the next day. The mine was becoming more hazardous each year. It had been running now for over twenty years and the wooden construction and old equipment was deteriorating. January of 1905 saw Regis Mathiew killed by a fall of coal. In May a cave-in took the life of Eli Dinquel. Finally something had to be done, so Duggan Brothers bought the mine outright from C. A. Devlin, a multi-millionaire from Topeka, Kansas, who also owned the $100,000 Big Muddy Colliery Company there.

Extensive repairs were made to make the mine safer and more efficient. The hoisting shaft on the west was converted to the ventilating shaft with a fan house at the top. The east shaft, first used for ventilating, was enlarge and converted to the hositing shaft with a new steel tipple. New engines and boiler rooms were added just east of the tipple. Ralph LeConte remembers working on these boilers. They were large brick-in water-tube type with cast-iron headers on each tube. Five tall steel stacks provided draft for the fires. These boilers provided steam for the pumps and the hoisting engines.

The engine room contained a large two-cylinder drumwinch engine which carried the tailings up the slag pile to the south of the tipple. There was a trigger at the top of the track which tipped the car and emptied it. Occupying the north end of the room was another huge hoisting engine which raised and lowered the cage in the shaft. The cable was wound on a drum of abut 15 feet in diameter and eight to ten feet in length. Crank rods on each end of a reduction gear were connected with steam cylinders of approximately 16 inch bore by 36 inch stroke. It took one engineer to operate each engine. A cast-iron implement seat was provided while the engineer alternately raised and lowered the cage by reversing the engine. On the wall in front of each winch a clock-like dial indicated the level at which the cage was moving in the shaft. Also a large bell connected to a wire hanging in the shaft allowed the men in the cage to signal the engineer to start or stop.

Hot water, very much appreciated, was provided in the bath house.

Frank York worked on the tipple for many years. In the days of the fast passenger trains, he would keep a number of small cars containing a ton each of coal waiting on a track extending out over the main line of the railroad. The engineer on the train coming from the east in the evening would give a number of whistle blasts when a mile out of town corresponding to the number of ton he needed dumped into the tender. Stopping just long enough to take on coal, the train would move ahead to the depot and the standpipe for water.

At first, a trestle track was built to the east of the old shaft to dump the tailings from. When that was filled up too it would be moved a ways to the side and the procedure repeated until the tailings made a fan shaped pattern to the south east of the tipple. These tailings would wash into the creek and dam it up causing serious flooding to the north and west in the village. The city council asked the owners to remedy this situation; afterwards the tracks were built on an angle of about 30 degrees which caused a pile to form that later came to be called the "Jumbo".

In the top of the tipple, the coal was dumped into a hopper which metered it out on a long shaker screen extending over three railroad siding tracks. The car on the track nearest the tipple caught the finest grade or size of coal, the second a larger grade, and the third caught the lump coal. The tracks had a slight grade downward from the west and the east. The lowest point was just east of the shaker. The empty cars would be spotted on the west and a "top man"would move the cars eastward under the screens as they filled and afterward place a "sprague" under the wheel to keep them from rolling back, while another empty car was brought down from the west. Phillip Reiter was killed when a loaded car got loose and rolled back inning him between it and an empty.

Local children often picked up pieces of coal that spilled along these tracks and carried it home. They would often mark off a section of ground with a stick and "lay claim" to all coal within their mark.

The mine bought hay from the mules and wooden props and timbers for supporting the ceilings. These were stacked on the sough of the siding west of the hay barn and wash house.

Tragedy Strikes

There seemed to be a great deal of tragedy connected with the mine. The new shaft was closer to the creek on the east and a vein of sand and gravel extending toward the shaft conducted ground water toward the shaft, causing continual concern for a cave-in around the shaft at the 70-foot level. A lot of piling and reshoring was required to hold the sides of the shaft in place. Eventually, this situation caused one of Roanoke's most severe tragedies. Four men working at the 70 foot level plunged 400 feet to the bottom after quicksand poured out of the sides onto their scaffold and tore it from the walls.

The next morning the Roanoke Call printed a special edition describing the accident. We reproduced those pages here since it tells the story better than we could describe it after so long a passage of time.

In 1910, acetylene mine lamps were introduced. A great improvement over the old wick and lard oil or kerosene lamps. 1911 saw 170,235 tons of coal produced in 208 days by 349 miners plus 76 others and six boys at a cost of $1,766 per ton.

J. T. Barron bought the mine and Willems old brick yard, which in 1906 had been sold to American Clay Tile Products Company, and operated them both after 1917 as the Roanoke Col and Tile Company. Coal from the mine was used to heat the kilns that burned the brick and tile.

Barron had a great deal of labor trouble with a number of strikes. In 1923, the tile yard was struck, and the miners went out in sympathy with the tile men. Finally, the union broke Barron and the property passed in 1927 into the hands of N. L. Rogers of Peoria, who held the bond on it. Fate seemed to be stalking the premises and the discouragement of the depression days sealed its doom. 1938 brought Mr. Rogers also to bankruptcy, after which the property passed into receivership under D. B. Hodel's supervision. Medill Brothers leased the mine property from 1938 until 1940 when they, too, closed it down for good.

The mine managers over the years were: Pat Morris, Bill O'Connor, Mike Proctor, George DeWilde, Robert Pettigrew, Paul Cerar, and Ferd Pretet.

The brick yard never reopened after the sping of 1938. In 1941, D. B. Hodel organized Prairie Dehydrating Company, an alfalfa meal processing operation in the tile yard buildings from which the clay products machinery had been removed. The kilns and brick flues were removed. After the Roanoke Concrete Products Company plant on Green Street burned in November, 1973, a new modern operation was set up on part of the site and concrete blocks began coming from the automated operation at the rate of 60,000 per day. Quite an improvement over the 1,000 bricks per day rate by 25 men in 1915.

At 3 p.m. on April 14, 1941, the earth shook in Roanoke with a rumble heard a mile away. The tipple at the mine had collapesed into the shaft leaving a crater 60 feet across and just as deep. This hole filled the next day with the bluest water anyone in Roanoke had ever seen. When ever the mine was down, the cages were left at the half way level in the shaft. Apparently the walls of the shaft had collapsed at this old "sore spot", letting dirt pile up on the top of the cage which, in turn, hung by cables from the large pulleys at the top of the tipple. This enourmous strain drug the whole structure down the shaft, foundations and all. Since the pumps on the bottom had been turned off when work stopped, the mine had filled with ground water which in turn was displaced by the large volume of wreckage and soil at the collapse, thereby forcing the water to the top of the crater. The state mine inspectors ordered the crater filled. The engine room was torn down, the equipment sent to Chicago, and the blacksmith shop, office, fan house, wash house, and coal bins fell into a state of decay until now nothing is left but part of the Jumbo. Eli Amigoni estimates 800,000 tons of the Jumbo were hauled away for fill, for spreading on roads, and filling trenches when the town sewer lines were put in during the sixties.

With the closing of the mine and brick yard, a kind of gloom set in on the town. People moved away looking for other work. The population decreased to 1056 people from 1368. In the beginning, the mine had been worked by mostly people of Irish, Welsh, English and German ancestry. With the great period of immigration to this country around the turn of the century, a large number of Italian, French, Chech and other nationalities became citizens of Roanoke. Sometimes a lack of communication and even indifference caused minor misunderstandings among the various groups. But now the mine was dead, and everyone was hurting. If the town was to progress it would take the best efforts of all her people working together to build a new future. This has been done with the cooperation of one of the finest agricultural communities in the world. In line with our Mayor's admonition of Founder's Day, July 18th, we truly are keeping faith with those early settlers who came to this bare and lonely prairie with hope and determination.

The mine property was sold to Wade Wren and Brachter Huschen in 1956. "Sepp" Pretet says there was still good coal below ground when they quit.

Since Roanoke rose like the Phoenix from the ashes after three fires in the business district, the brick yard site is once again turning out building blocks, the old wooden elevators shipping 560 bushel loads of grain in a car have become one modern cooperative doing a seven-million-dollar yearly business, our local factory is once again in operation, and our declining population has become several additions filled with beautiful homes, religious, educational, recreation and service facilities, who knows? With renewed interest in coal as an energy source, maybe the mine won't stay dead.

Surviving Miners of the Roanoke Mine

John Michelettie, a retired miner was born in Italy in 1888, and came to Roanoke with his parents in 1899. He spent 35 years working in mines in the area. His daughter Kathryn (Mrs. Tony Gallianettie) lives in Roanoke. His son was the late Jack Micheletti.

Ferdinand Pretet, retired coal mine manager was born in Seine-Eiger-Sur-Dunn, France in 1899. He came to Roanoke in 1905 with his parents and started to work in the Roanoke Coal mine when he was 13 years old. He worked in the mine for 30 years, and also worked at Caterpillar for 24 years.

He married Edith Lay in 1919. Of their three children, two live in Roanoke, Hilda (Mrs. Robert Priller) and Georgette (Mrs. Ralph French); and a son, Roger who resides in Normal. Ferdinand's father, Claude and his two brothers, Andrew and George were also miners.

Fred Barra, a retired coal miner celebrated his 89th birthday in May. He was born in Broscasco, Italy, in 1910, and came to Roanoke with his brother, John.

He returned to Italy in 1914 to marry Margaret Barra and they returned to Roanoke in 1915. He started to work in the Roanoke Coal Mine and spent 32 years there. In the summer he worked on farms. Thresherman's Reunions were an event both Fred and his wife enjoyed attending.

Mrs. Joe Isoardi (Margaret) and Joseph Barra are their children.

Joe Isoardi, Sr. was born January 16, 1886, at Vanasca, Italy. Came to Roanoke in 1903. He started to work in the coal mine, returned to Italy to marry Domenica Arnando October 4, 1910, and brought her back here to live. He worked all his life in coal mines with a few exceptions. He worked 43 years in the coal mine in Roanoke until it shut down. He was policeman for Roanoke from 1945 to 1949. He worked to help build Caterpillar and helped on highway 116 and Route 51 to Minonk to Rutland. He was flag man on the road from Roanoke to Benson before retiring. He can speak four languages. He has lived in Roanoke all his life now living in the Roanoke Manor Nursing Home. He has three children living, one dead. Mrs. Walter Maquet, Sr., of Pekin, Illinois, Joe Isoardi, Jr., of Isoardi Insurance, and Mrs. Alex Amigoni. He was the grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of eight living, one dead.

Battista Bussone, is a retire coal miner. He lives at 522 N. Main Street. He is 79 years old. He was born in Venesca, Italy, and came to America with Joe Bussone, Bart Gioletti, and other young men who made Roanoke their home. After he found work he returned to Italy to marry Anna Pittavino. One son, Mario was born there and in 1931 the family came to Roanoke. Rosemary (now Mrs. Harrison Janssen) was born after they came to Roanoke.

He also speaks French, since he left home at the age of 11 to work in France.

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