6 September 1869, one hundred and ten men and boys died in what was the greatest industrial disaster up until that time in the history of the United States.

Dangerous work
Coal mining has never been overly safe. Even today, with numerous safety precautions taken and training for the workers, it can still be dangerous. In the nineteenth century (and earlier) it was atrocious. In an essay by a Reverend John McDowell in 1902, he estimated that "during the last thirty years over 10,000 men and boys have been killed and 25,000 have been injured in this industry. Not many old men are found in the mines. The average age of those killed is 32.13 years." (www.history.ohio-state.edu)

McDowell also noted the poor working conditions; the need to furnish one's own tools, being forced to buy "powder, squibs, paper, soap and oil" all from the company, the slave wages (especially considering the hazards of the job), concluding that

It is an endless routine of dull plodding world from nine years until death—a sort of voluntary life imprisonment. Few escape. Once they begin, they continue to live out their commonplace, low leveled existence, ignoring their daily danger, knowing nothing better

Granted that he was writing for a labor magazine but he is generally accurate in describing the conditions and prospects of those who made their livelihood underground.

The many hours of hard, physical labor, alone, took its toll on the health of the men. In addition to that, they had to worry about things like pneumoconiosis or "black lung" (once sometimes referred to as "miner's asthma") from inhalation of coal dust that results in scarring of the lungs. It is irreversible. Some miners never get it (or it never progressed beyond the early stages), others got it in under ten years.

Consider this, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site: "according to recent studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), about one of every 20 miners studied has X-ray evidence of some pneumoconiosis" (www.cdc.gov)—if this is the case today, imagine the situation well over one hundred years ago. Further, according to the American Lung Association, there were 14,156 deaths attributed to black lung between 1979 and 1996.

Using dynamite in the mine also led to the threat of being not only injured (or worse) in the explosion but from falling rocks or a collapse (both possible anyway, made more likely during and shortly after the charges were set off). Water in the mine was another hazard as it could cause flooding (and drowning). It often required a pump to remain on while the men worked to keep it out (hand or steam-powered since there was no electricity until the late 1900s). Working in the dampness was not good for health, either.

The other problem was air ventilation. Again, since there was no electricity, this was difficult. Without a fresh supply of oxygen, the miners could die. It could also allow a build up of methane (not uncommon around coal) that could ignite and explode (as well as contribute to suffocation). One of the ways ventilation was accomplished was by having a "furnace" at the bottom of the mine shaft. It would create a draft that would ventilate the mine. It would have a separate shaft, often lined with wood and timber, to complete the cycle of ventilation (there was no separate shaft at Avondale). This made flooding more dangerous because it could extinguish the furnace. Another danger was for the wood in the ventilation shaft to catch on fire. It would quickly burn and use up all the oxygen in the mine.

This is what happened in Avondale.

The fire
The Avondale mine was about four miles (6.4 km) from Plymouth, Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna River, in the heart of the anthracite coal region (the Central to Northeastern part of the state). There had been a long strike and the miners were returning to their work at the mine for the first time since it ended. They went down into the mine, intent on making up for lost time (which often meant lost wages).

A fire, that started when the furnace lit some nearby shaft timbers, was first noticed between nine and ten in the morning by a stable boss who had been getting a load of hay for the mules. He immediately alerted anyone he could find and within minutes the fire raged up the mine shaft. The machinery and buildings around the top of the shaft went first: the coal breaker (the building where the coal was placed into large machines that "break" it up into pieces for transport and use) and the engine house. The engineer barely had time to shut down the boilers to prevent further explosions, before escaping with his life (but not, reportedly, with his hat). The miner's houses just escaped the blaze due to an opportune shift in the wind. The flames were said to reach a hundred feet in the air and the burning pieces of building and equipment fell into the mine as part of the opening collapsed inward

Surrounding communities were telegraphed right away asking for help. Families, friends, and other concerned people rushed there from miles away (at one point there were a couple thousand people at the site). The several fire companies and volunteers were able to get the fire under control by mid afternoon, though it took constant streams of water shot directly into the shaft.

Rescue attempts and bodies
After the fire was out, a group of fifty men (made up of miners, superintendents, and other coal workers) volunteered to go into the mine to look for those who had been working underground. Before anything could be done, it would need to be declared safe for entering and the shaft cleared of nearly forty feet (12.2 m) of debris.

Between five and six in the evening, the first attempt was made. A small dog with a lit lamp was lowered into the shaft as far as it could be. When they brought it back up, the dog was still alive and the lamp lit. Then, an hour later, a human volunteer was slowly lowered into the mine. He got halfway down before finding himself blocked off. Two new men (the first being exhausted from effort) were sent down. More men entered, working hard to remove the debris from the shaft. The finally reached the bottom, finding three dead mules in the stable and the closed door to the main gallery of the mine.

The men pounded on the door and yelled, hoping to get a response. Only silence. Later they were pulled out. Two others went down, only to be overcome with gas and become two more victims added to the list of the dead. A canvas hose was lowered into the shaft with a ventilating fan at the end. With it, they were able to pump fresh air into the mine so that small crews of men could continue efforts (they still needed to be brought up after short periods in order for them not to succumb to the dangers of the mine).

The furnace was found still burning with piles of coal nearby. The gases from the burning had been pushed into the mine by the furnace-ventilation system. Further attempts would require the fire to be put out but they were unable to do so, despite trying all night. The fire had burned itself out by the next morning and the volunteers continued trying to find the miners (though they were hampered by still high levels of gas in the mine).

By midnight of the second day, the gas had mostly cleared out and they were able to explore more fully. At two in the morning, the first two bodies were found. At first they were unrecognizable—one of the disaster's victims would never be identified. Continuing, they found an area where the miners had shut themselves in, in order to escape the build up of gases. The majority of the miners were there. About two-thirds of the men and boys who had been in the mine that morning were gathered in the area, some clasped together, some in positions that suggested prayer. Others were found singly or in small groups further back in the mine where they had tried to get as away from the shaft as possible.

Within a few hours of the grim discovery, over sixty bodies had been transported to the surface. By noon of that third day, the rest had been recovered.

One hundred eight died inside the mine. Two rescuers died. One hundred and ten victims at Avondale.

There was a relief fund set up for the surviving family members. With donations from sympathetic people coming in from all over the country, the total soon reached $155,825.10. It was then decided how to distribute the money and the first payments began on 1 October, less than a month after the catastrophic fire.

It was determined during testimony at the coroner's jury, that the simple effort of installing a second shaft could have allowed many of the miners to escape, possibly all of them. Because of the disaster, some laws were enacted to that effect, in an attempt to avoid another replay of Avondale. There was also a push to get mine inspectors to check on safety conditions at mines. All this, of course, did not always work in practice, but it did move along efforts for worker safety and open the door for further legislation and precautions—but the victims of Avondale were far from the last deaths caused by the inherent dangers of coal mining.

(Sources: www.history.ohio-state.edu/projects/Coal/CoalContents.htm, members.tripod.com/~mheinz/avondale.html, www.cdc.gov/niosh/blung_q2.html, www.lungusa.com/diseases/occupational_factsheet.html)

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