Saturday, February 6, 2016

All in a Day's Work

Coal mining has to be an occupation that is not only physically demanding, but rife with hazards. In the United States alone, coal mining has historically been considered a dangerous occupation, with over one hundred thousand coal miners killed in accidents in the twentieth century, alone. Even more sobering is the statistic that ninety percent of that century's fatalities occurred in the first fifty years.

How can this procedure go wrong? Let me count the ways. Besides vehicle collisions or mine wall failures, there is the possibility of roof failure, gas poisoning, coal dust explosions or gas explosions.

When something did go wrong, it often could cost the lives of many. Take just one year in that century as an example. In 1944, from a total 453, 937 miners employed in the entire United States, nearly thirteen hundred of them died on the job. Anyone studying the bigger picture of their family history in those coal mining states of Ohio, Kentucky or West Virginia—as our family had in researching my husband's maternal line in Perry County, Ohio—will recall the newspaper headlines and accompanying photographs of somber-faced family members awaiting news of the fate of loved ones trapped down below after yet another mining tragedy.

One such example was the March, 1944, disaster at the number four mine of the Katherine Coal Company in Shinnston, West Virginia. Opened only six months prior to the incident, the mine employed about one hundred fifty men.

What was described as "a violent underground blaze" caused, in turn, "a blast so terrific that it tore up a surface area of half an acre" in the early morning hours of March 25, 1944. It all started with a spark from a machine cable, which ignited a wall of coal.

The front page of the March 26 edition of The Charleston Gazette described the unfolding story. At the point at which the explosion occurred,
One of the dead men—no one yet knows who—was piloting a motor into the mine. Tiny pieces of the motor were found, but no trace of the motorman.

Other factors complicated any hope of rescue attempts. For one, the ventilating system for the mine "was completely wrecked," while a makeshift replacement, hastily set up, was no match against danger of further methane gas leaks. A greater problem than that, though, was
the fact that the explosion, in tearing up the earth, left a giant hole through which air rushed in to feed the underground flames.

It was reckoned that the explosion "eventually reached every section of the mine." Because of the now out-of-control situation, the state Mines Chief and a special state inspector-at-large were called in, as well as representatives from the United States bureau of mines. Crack safety teams and rescue crews from surrounding areas—even from neighboring states—arrived to render aid.

Still, contingencies led to the decision that the only thing left to do was to "push the broken earth back into the hole and seal up the enormous air vent." It was estimated that it would take five to six weeks for the flames to be fully extinguished, at which time crews could be sent in to recover the bodies.

It was reported that sixteen men had lost their lives on the job that day at the number four mine of the Katherine Coal Company—about ten percent of the entire work force assigned to that location.

It was interesting to note, in reading the account of the disaster, that one of the employees mentioned in the article was named John Hogue. Whether that Mine Superintendent was the same as the John Hogue whose life story we've been following, it is hard to say. But I'd consider it a possibility.

The outcome for Hogue, unlike those sixteen others, was different but unexpected. According to The Charleston Gazette,
     Mine Superintendent John Hogue narrowly escaped with his life, through the lucky break that he had returned to the toolhouse for some equipment just as the blast let go. Hogue had been in the mine superintending salvage efforts.
     Hogue was standing with John Crock and John Earnest near a stove when the explosion occurred. All were thrown about thirty feet but escaped with bruises.

If this was, indeed, the same John Hogue as the coal mining engineer we know, it wouldn't have been the first time he had narrowly escaped with his life.


  1. It was decades after the Shinnston explosion that another disaster in the same area prompted the US Congress to enact occupational safety and health regulations and set up the Mine Safety and Health Administration to administer the regulations.

    But the headline-grabbing events, which do continue because mine owners/administrators fail to adhere to regulations, have not been the only cause of the many miners' deaths noted in WV, KY, CO and other localities' death records.

    The slow, agonizing deaths from Black Lung Disease have been a lot less visible except to miners' families and communities. And in some areas miners' and communities' exposures to substances other than coal dust, such as uranium and asbestos, cause other deadly ailments. In at least some of these, governmental agencies bear some responsibility due to failure to spend the money for safety measures, and failure to alert vulnerable populations to nature of the hazards. There are also failures in the enforcement of safety/health regulations, and many occasions for political considerations to outweigh the interests of the humans who do this demanding and essential work.

    The mine owners and their henchmen practically never suffer consequences for this toll. They just pay fines and continue on.

    1. It seems John Hogue was once again caught up in the vortex of not only personal difficulties, but the sweeping purview of current events. What you say about Black Lung and other health hazards faced by miners is so true, despite attempts now to mitigate the risks of the occupation.

      Hogue, as it turns out, is an anomaly, being a member of a family which could, at one point, have been called mine owners--yet at the same time apparently were the engineers on site developing the properties and, at least in John Hogue's case, actually in the mines, getting his hands dirty with the day to day operations of the business. In such a role as that, as we'll see tomorrow, he did not escape that scourge threatening those he worked with.

  2. Life was cheap for a long time - the railroads maimed and killed thousands too - and the Triangle Factory Fire in NYC was by no means an "unusual event."

    Passing laws, didn't stop things - only enforcement will.

    1. I think we tend to gloss over some of these desperate scenarios from our history, when taking the time to see what can be learned from such tragedies would be so much more of a reasonable investment in effort. Speaking of the railroads, both mine and my husband's families are witness to such losses, directly. Perhaps, as we each work through our own family histories, we'll start running into family members who suffered the impact of some of these tragedies and others like them. History revisited--if only in the microcosm of family history--hopefully serves to inform, even on the personal level.


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