On Wednesday, November 5, 1930, 182 Sunday Creek Coal Company miners were gathered near two hoisting cages waiting their turn to descend, in groups of 10, 189 feet into the main-shaft opening of the No. 6 mine. It was a cool, cloudy day, temperatures were dipping into the low 40's. Nine Sunday Creek Coal Company officials and visitors were, perhaps, the subject of some miner's conversations. The officials had gathered for a tour and would follow the miners into the mine. Included in the group were W. E. Tytus and P. A. Coen, President and Vice-President of Sunday Creek Coal Company; H. H. Upson, Assistant to Mr. Tytus; H.E. Lancaster, Chief Mine Engineer; and Walter Hayden, Mine Superintendent. Apart from the unusual presence of Sunday Creek's top officials, this day appeared no different to the miners than any other day mining coal at the No. 6 mine. However, this day would end tragically as no other day in Ohio's mining history. A total of 82 men were killed—73 employees, five company officials, and four visitors—in a mine explosion at the No. 6 mine, making this the worst coal-mining disaster in Ohio history.
The No. 6 mine was located about 1 mile east of Millfield, Dover Township, Athens County. In 1930, Millfield was a community of about 1,500, many of whom worked in the No. 6 mine. Other miners who worked in the No. 6 mine lived in nearby communities, including Glouster, Jacksonville, Sand Hill, Sugar Creek, and Trimble. The No. 6 mine (formerly known as the Poston No. 6) was opened by the Millfield Coal Mining Company (founded by Clinton L. Poston and George H. Smith) and leased to the Poston Consolidation Company in 1911. The first coal from the mine was loaded on March 4, 1912. In September 1929, Sunday Creek Coal Company acquired the Poston No.6 mine. The Sunday Creek Coal Company was a major corporation—the second largest coal company in the world in 1905. Included in the company's holdings were 60 mining properties, 33 of which were in Ohio. The new owners suspended regular operation of the Poston No. 6 mine on April 11,1930, in order to make much needed repairs and improvements. Upgrades to the mine included the addition of brick walls and 8-inch steel I beams 22 feet in length to support the roof along the main haulage road; double rows of electric lighting several hundred feet in length strung along the entries; new double haulage tracks and switches; and the construction of a new ventilation shaft located about 1.4 miles northwest of the main hoisting shaft. The renovated No. 6 mine resumed full operation by August 11, 1930. The No. 6 mine had been developed on the room-and-pillar system and had double and triple entry ways for ventilation, passage of men, and coal haulage.
Conventional mining was used in the No.6 mine. The working face of the Middle Kittanning (No. 6) coal seam was undercut using coal-cutting machines that looked like oversized chain saws. Once the coal had been under cut, several holes were drilled into the working face. Explosive charges of pellet powder were then inserted into the holes and detonated. Following the explosive shot, the loosened blocks of coal were loaded into coal cars by hand. The loaded coal cars were taken to the main hoisting shaft by electric shuttle engines and then raised up the shaft to be unloaded at the tipple. As the miners advanced the working face farther into the seam of coal, track layers would hammer additional rails into place and other workers would install steel I beams or wooden timbers for roof support. By November 1930, about 5,000 tons of coal were being mined every 24 hours, 5 days a week; the mine operated by double shifts. The coal was shipped from the No. 6 mine by the Kanawha & Michigan Railroad. Conventional mining was strenuous and dirty work even with the best mining machinery of the day. Usually work stopped only for 30-minute meal breaks.
Without warning, tragedy struck suddenly, at 11:45 a.m., shortly after the miners' lunch break. A tremendous explosion erupted at the rear of the mine, several hundred feet from the working face. A group of 79 miners working about 4,700 feet from the main shaft heard a "terrific slam and a whistling noise" of a powerful gale approaching them from the northern portion of the mine. Instinctively, some miners dropped to the floor of the mine, while others were knocked down as a great gust of wind passed over them. This gust of wind was followed shortly afterward by a second rush of air passing in the opposite direction. E. W. Smith, in an unpublished 1930 report, stated, "These men were thrown about by the force of the explosion but none of them were seriously injured and all of them were able to leave the mine by the main motor road which was the intake airway of the mine." Initially, some of the miners thought the noise and wind were a result of a major roof fall. However, they quickly realized that an explosion had occurred in the mine, and retreated to safety out of the mine under the direction of Section Foreman Robert Marshall. The first indication at the surface of trouble in the mine was when Ed Dempsey, a miner working at the top of the new air shaft, was knocked off the ventilation housing by a sudden burst of air followed by thick smoke. Word of the explosion spread quickly. Within minutes of the explosion, distress calls for assistance were made for medical personnel and supplies. Calls also were made to the Ohio Division of Mines and the U.S. Bureau of Mines for mine-rescue personnel and equipment because the No. 6 mine did not have any mine-rescue equipment on hand.
First news reports stated that 150 miners were trapped underground as a result of a gas explosion. Families and relatives of the miners, news media personnel, and spectators surged into Millfield to learn the fate of the miners. Two companies of the Ohio National Guard were ordered to the mine to help maintain order. Twenty-four Red Cross nurses, several doctors, and Salvation Army volunteers arrived at the No. 6 mine to tend to the injured. About an hour after the explosion, Andrew Ginnan, District Mine Inspector for the Ohio Division of Mines, arrived at the scene and, with Section Foreman Robert Marshall and Mine Superintendent Pete McKinley, entered the No. 6 mine to start clean-up work and restore proper ventilation to the mine. The northern portion of the mine contained carbon monoxide, the deadliest of all mine gases. Carbon monoxide or white damp, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, lighter-than-air gas that is a combustion product of mine fires or the explosive ignition of methane or coal dust. The mine would not be cleared of carbon monoxide until Sunday morning, November 9, 1930.
By 4 p.m., November 5, E. W. Smith, Chief Inspector for the Ohio Division of Mines, and three other mine inspectors arrived with mine-rescue equipment. Included among the mine-rescue equipment were carbon monoxide detectors, gas masks,and several canaries. Several hours later, J. J. Forbes, Chief Engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Mines, and two other mining engineers arrived at Millfield in a railroad car converted into a mobile safety-training and mine-rescue facility. The U.S. Bureau of Mines personnel brought with them self-contained breathing apparatuses which allowed workers into the most gas-filled portion of the mine.The force of the explosion was so great that near the point of the explosion (10,200 feet from the main shaft) electric shuttle engines and mine cars were knocked off their tracks, steel I beams were twisted and blown about like sticks, and wooden timbers were smashed into kindling. In addition, the force of the explosion demolished numerous brick stoppings (ventilation barriers between adjoining rooms and entries), knocked down trolleywires, ripped up track for a distance of about 760 feet, and scorched equipment for a distance of 1,640 feet from the point of ignition. Some of the miners speculated that the explosion was caused by a pocket of methane, ignited by the open flame of a miner's lamp. Even though the No. 6 mine was known to be somewhat gassy, open-flame carbide lamps were used by the miners working in the mine. Another theory was that a mine car containing pellet powder exploded. However, careful examination of the debris by state and federal mine inspectors revealed that the explosion was triggered by a rock fall that broke an electrical (trolley wire) cable, which then shorted against an underground train rail, producing an arc, which ignited a pocket of methane gas that had collected in that portion of the mine.
Ventilation to the damaged portions of the No. 6 mine was restored slowly. Canaries carried by mine-rescue personnel were overcome in 3 to 4 minutes by high concentrations (0.3 percent) of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide concentrations greater than 0.25 percent can cause a person to lose consciousness very quickly and apparently without any pain or suffering. Because the haulage equipment used in the No. 6 mine was electric and electricity to the damaged portion of the mine could not be immediately restored for fear of a second explosion, a dozen mules were brought into the mine to assist in clearing the entries and removing the bodies. By midday November 6, rescue personnel wearing self-contained breathing apparatuses had found the last of the bodies.
By 7:15 p.m. November 6, 78 bodies had been removed from the mine. Four remaining bodies were recovered the following day. Apparently most of the deceased were killed by asphyxiation from the carbon monoxide that resulted from the ignition of the methane gas. The bodies of the official party were found about 200 feet east of the base of the new air shaft. The official party had no chance of escape as they were on a nearly direct path with the force of the explosion, and carbon monoxide would have flowed past them on its way out the new air shaft. A few miners survived by climbing out a ventilation shaft,and an additional 19 miners were rescued 10 hours after the blast. The group of rescued miners were found, most of them unconscious, behind a ventilation partition located about 1,500 feet southwest of the new air shaft (almost 2 miles northwest of the main shaft). John Dean, Inside Foreman, is credited with saving the lives of the rescued miners, including himself. Dean and the other miners erected and gathered behind a ventilation partition which protected them from a deadly cloud of carbon monoxide. Dean risked several trips into the smoke-filled entries to carry some of his comrades to safety before he collapsed and had to be carried to safety. Another heroic effort was shown by James Mackey, Fire Boss, who nearly lost his life as he climbed partway down into the new air shaft to rescue a stricken comrade, who died just as Mackey arrived. Mackey was barely able to climb back out the smoke-filled air shaft; had he delayed, the effects of the gas would have been fatal.
A storage room, a pool hall, and the Sunday Creek Coal Company store at Millfield were turned into temporary morgues. Funeral services were held for the miners on Sunday, November 9, 1930.As a result of this mine explosion, C. H. Harris stated, "fifty-nine women were widows and seventy-nine sons and seventy-five daughters of various ages, were made fatherless. The health of the few who survived was wrecked in a number of cases. Many families were several times sorrowed—one mother lost five sons . . . .
Burial of the victims was paid by the state, allowing $150 in each case. Dependents of the miners were compensated at the rate of $18.75 a week until exhaustion of a death claim of $6,500 under the workmen's compensation law. By March 1940, the state had paid to the No. 6 miners and dependents a total of $712,391. "The No. 6 mine reopened a month later and operated until 1945. The tipple of the No. 6 mine, which had stood as a sentinel over the disaster site for nearly 65 years, was recently razed for safety reasons. To the writer's knowledge, no known survivors of the Millfield mine disaster remain living. A monument with the names of the miners killed in the disaster was erected in the town of Millfield. Since the disaster, a memorial service commemorating the victims has been held annually at Millfield and the tragedy lives in the minds of community residents who were in the area at the time of the disaster.—Douglas L. Crowell
[Source: "Ohio Geology", Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Fall 1995]