Johnstown, PA
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Johnstown, PA
Collier's Weekly - July 26 1902 Page Five
THE TERRIBLE DISASTER AT JOHNSTOWN
By GILSON WILLETS, Special Correspondent of Collier's Weekly at Johnstown, Pa.


SUNDAY following the tragedy, at eventide, a young woman trudged up the mountain-side back of Johnstown; then, through a break in a barbed-wire fence, she turned into a ten-acre lot. This was the Foreign Miners' Cemetery. Here was a phalanx of new graves, with wooden crosses bearing epitaphs daubed in the marking ink of the shipping-room - a name, Slavonic, Polish, Hungarian, Austrian - and "died July 10." Over one hundred graves there were, but straight to the one at the end of the seventh row the woman climbed. On her head was a gay-colored handkerchief, but in her face was the anguish of one who stands where her youth lies buried. She had come from Poland a month before, a bride. Only Thursday she had lighted her bridegroom's mining lamp, he had kissed her, and from their shack-door she watched him take his place in the mine-car which carried him down into the terrible corridors of the under-earth. This was at dawn. At noon a miner with frightened eyes stopped at her doorstep and shouted something - "Down in the Klondike dip!" He was there, two miles from the sunlight.

All night she watched by the pit that led to the black depths, speaking to none of the hundreds of men, women and children there forgathered in mute anxiety, all watching through the chill hours. At daybreak the little coal train came rolling out with the dead. Never since the flood thirteen years ago destroyed half as many lives as were lost at Gettysburg had such a ghastly funeral train rolled into Johnstown. Forty-nine cars there were, each with its dreadful load.

Who was responsible for that doomsday in Johnstown? Austria, through her consuls, has demanded an investigation in the interests of the families of the victims, most of whom were citizens of that country. For Pennsylvania, Governor Stone has ordered an inquiry. For Johnstown, the Mayor is conducting a search for the Cause. For the miners, President Mitchell and other leaders are moving heaven and earth to get legislators to enact new mining laws for the safeguarding of the 117,000 who toil in the subterranean passages in the bituminous regions. Of course, no man saddles the blame. Some mining men say that we can take lessons from England, where Parliament has enacted laws regarding pumping fresh air into the shafts. Meantime, for the good of all, the owners of the Johnstown mine are doing their best to fix the responsibility for the disaster and to find a way to avoid a repetition of such a horror. This, then, is the good that has come of the catastrophe in the Rolling Mine of the Cambria Steel Company. Not a cursory, but thorough, investigation.

No mine disaster has so aroused public attention, yet in the last eighteen years there have been twelve great disasters and twenty-two lesser ones, beginning with Pocahontas, Va., in 1884, when 150 miners were killed, and ending at Teaterville, Tenn., last May, when 200 died. In the bituminous mines of the United States last year 301 were killed.

Now, in the Johnstown mine disaster there was nothing that differentiated it from the preceeding disasters; it was not unique; in no feature was it extraordinary. It was simply the one-too-many that shocked the country out of its stupor of indifference. Officials, miners and operators declare that the present investigation will even this year result in better laws governing mine management, in the reorganization of the mine inspection system and in scientific innovations within the mines. One such proposed change is the introduction of electricity, but mining experts in Johnstown told me that if electricity is to be used in gaseous mines it will eventually be the cause of a disaster greater than all.

For fifty years this Johnstown mine had been tunnelled and drifted and shafted. It is one of largest, best equipped mines in the country, with the most powerful fans in Pennsylvania. It yields 3,000 tons of coal daily. The miners earn sixty cents a ton, and many mine ten tons a day. The bulk of their earnings they save, while living in squalor; for this is the way of the Hun and the Slav and the Pole. As there are - or were - 600 of them, they were poor as a community while well-to-do individually.

The fateful morning the day shift were on their knees in the bowels of the earth, safety lamps hooked to their wrists, picking. The last to go down were the 200 for the Klondike dip. One of these had said to his wife, "I can't - not to-day." He left the house, came back: "I can't - not to-day." His wife said, "Oh pshaw!" And he seized his dinner-pail, ran the way to the mine-cars, sprang in, was carried into his tomb. He was a "fire boss."

Said one of the few American miners, a survivor of the disaster: "Know what causes half the accidents? Too many foreigners and not enough American mine bosses." The "fire boss" who said, "I can't - not to-day," was an American, and his body was the first brought to daylight, broken, burned, bruised and torn, as if he had burrowed for air into the very bottom of the mountain of coal.

Three weeks before this the State Inspector had placed his O.K. on this mine - all except Klondike. Here he had posted a warning: "Fire damp. No naked lamps." Of the men who went into Klondike, the ninety and nine heeded the warning - used only the safety (the flame-locked) lamp. But, the one who strayed, who disobeyed the rule - was it he who caused that explosion as of a simultaneous discharge of batteries of artillery, reverberating through the ebony halls of the underworld, extinguishing every lamp as by a mighty breath, smiting to death all in that dip? This one, a young Pole, had been caught the day before searching the ledges with his naked lamp for fire-damp, playing with the balls of fire as a boy with Roman candles. The torso, legs and arms of this young Pole were found nearest to the point of explosion, his head elsewhere, with the face shot away. He was identified by the check containing the number by which his account was kept on the company's books - M-770.

"The coal operators," said a mining engineer, "make many rules and enforce a few." "Why?" "The fear of strike, inspired by the miners themselves. The operators discharged certain hands for carrying matches into the mines. The unions demanded that the men be reinstated, threatening a 'call-out.' Several times this has happened. Recently, with coal growing scarce because of the anthracite strike, the bituminous operators winked at matches. Then men who wanted to smoke their pipes in certain safe places were responsible for the laxity in enforcing rules, thus imperilling the lives of those who worked where the igniting of one little wax match could rend a mountain asunder." All agree that fire-damp lurks in all mines, and that ninety per cent of the catastrophes are due to the presence of this mixture of ordinary coal gas with two parts of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Miners often work in fire-damp without knowing it, even at times when the friction of a pick in the coal may ignite it. At Johnstown the explosion was remarkably severe because it happened in the lower levels, where the gas accumulates thickest and where the air pressure is heaviest.

But at Johnstown the explosion was the least of all the troubles. It killed but a few, and though it split a three-foot wall of masonry as though it were pasteboard, the actual property loss was less than one hundred dollars. It was the after-damp, the noxious gas that rolled through the mines in great waves after the explosion, that snuffed out so many lives and turned the under-world of Johnstown into catacombs. This after-damp pursued tiendishly those who were unhurt by the explosion, who fled - and what could courage or bravery avail in fighting such an enemy? Death itself was loose in that place, and it simply breathed upon its victims till they lay still. All this time one of the trapper boys, aged twelve, stood at his post, opening and closing the bratices. As terrified men passed through, the boy wondered what all the fuss was about. At last a miner in his flight caught the boy up like a bundle and carried him on to a place of safety.

There were heroes that day who turned back to succor their comrades. One mine boss, after reaching the outer world, rushed back into the jaws of death to save his son. The son escaped, the father perished. He was one of a score who, acting upon a similar impulse of supreme unselfishness, achieved martyrdom. A one-legged man, whose job was that of telephone operator in the heart of the mine, called up to the watchman at the telephone at the mine's mouth. Even as he said "Explosion!" he stopped like one suddenly gagged - and they found him lying face downward, clutching the receiver. In this room were found thirty-four dead, fifteen living. A hand of each of the dead clutched a dinner-pail - full. The living, entombed for twenty hours, ate only their own bread. One man saved the lives of eighteen. With his pick he attacked one of the pipes that carried air to other chambers, and, making a hole whence poured the life-saving current from the upper-earth, called about him all who came that way, enjoining them to keep close until help arrived. Thus for twenty hours he held eighteen men with noses to that pipe. One became a madman, cursing in impotent fury. When the rescue party arrived he flew at the doctors, who were in the lead, and would have killed them with his pick. The hero who had saved eighteen miners now saved two doctors by disarming the maniac. This hero is an honorably discharged private, Ninth Infantry U.S.A., recently from the Philippines. I saw him in a barber shop, the morning after the miracle.

"Hello, Kohler!" called some one, "going back to work in the mines?"

"Sure. Got to mine or tramp. Danger?" - an oath terminated the answer. He expressed the sentiments of all the miners who returned to their shelves the week after the slaughter.

As for that rescue party - the doctors, the mine superintendent, the Cambria Company's mining engineer, the State Inspector, and the valiant band of miners who volunteered for this service - "not for Carnegie loosened up," they swore, would they have gone down into that inferno. But to save life - different. Three times they ventured in, thrice retreated choking, having their jaws pried open with sticks - resuscitated. The same symptoms accompanied the return to life of nearly all the victims who were brought out before it was too late - nausea and "seasickness." The fourth time the rescue party entered (at twilight) they remained until daylight, when they emerged with the first group of the living and the first forty-nine dead. Later, the toil of mining for miners continuing the while, with sleep for none, they came forth with other victims. So the work went on.

They turned the armory into a ghastly dormitory, a morgue, through which, past the ashes of their dead, filed the mining population of Johnstown. Outside, hearses stood in waiting as cabs for the living, and, as each body was identified, the drivers competed for the "fare." The Mayor himself is an undertaker, and those days when all Johnstown mourned; when the surviving members of miners' families slept and ate in the room in which their dead lay in a casket; when there was a funeral every hour; when pallbearers smoked cigars while performing their sacred office in the streets; when the priests made a single service do for ten bodies in the church and held one service for forty souls at the cemetery and neglected to include one poor corpse, forgotten and left in the street, to the horror and rage of the widowed wife; when express wagons were used as hearses carrying at one time three or four caskets filled with the remains of the poor and lowly; when gravediggers could not work fast enough and barns were turned into tombs while waiting the convenience of the diggers - those days the undertaker-Mayor had his office in the morgue, washing coal from the bodies of dead miners that they might be identified, and toiling with sopping sponges and antiseptics.

Now for this whole miserable story, where lies the blame? The miners blame the owners, who in turn blame the miners. Say the American and more intelligent of the miners: "It's a case of too many ignorant untrained foreigners. They speak different languages, every order has to be interpreted or translated, confusion results, and the illiterate man does not comprehend that in breaking the mine rules he is not risking his own life only." Say the local leaders of the United Mine Workers: "As long as foreigners are imported by the hundred, dumped into the mines without any instructions or training, and run along on the theory that the mine boss, who gets his certificate from the State, is wholly responsible for the lives of hundreds under ground, we will be greeted every so often by the news of an appalling mine disaster." Say the foreign miners: "The owners are stingy in the matter of fire bosses; don't give us fire bosses enough. They ought to open a kind of kindergarten school of mines, to teach the workers the theory of mining so that all could toil with their heads as well as their picks." Say the owners: "The men will not obey the fire rules even when they are aware of fire-damp. Knowing the terrible penalty, a man now and then, just to get a little more light, will carry a naked torch instead of a safety-lamp. This disaster was unquestionably caused by the carelessness and disobedience of one man."

On Sunday there was a ball game in a field bordering the river. The players were hemmed in by spectators who had paid for the privilege of sitting there and shouting bravos in strange tongues. All this - "For the benefit of the widows and orphans of the miners." Also, newsboys were selling extras announcing that the Cambria Company would not deviate from past custom, that of paying to the widow of every man killed in the mines the sum of one thousand dollars.