Fairmont Coal Disaster : The Day 362 Men Died

My latest blog posts have focused on the U.S.-Mexican border in an effort to help paint a picture around the characters and incidents that occur in my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. Recently, I published a new page on my blog that outlines my interest in writing a series of stories about the Maddox family men from 1907 to 1999.

My first effort in this regard will be a short story called Wichita Snake, which takes place in 1907 and in which Glen Marshall (who will become William Maddox, Billy Maddox’s great-grandfather) arrives in Wichita, Kansas less than 48 hours after the death of his wife, Abigail Maris, at the hands of a cold-blooded murderer. Glen and Abby left their home of Monongah, West Virginia, following a mine explosion that killed hundreds of men and boys.

I hope to publish Wichita Snake by the end of July 2014.

Miners in Monongah, West Virginia

“Monongah – Carbon Arc Lights” by D.D. Meighen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

1907 Fairmont Coal Company Mining Disaster

The mine explosions that send Glen and Abby westward are not fiction. On December 6, 1907, just before 10:30 am, a series of explosions in Number 6 and 8 mines in Monongah caused chaos not only underground but above ground as well. They made buildings shudder, tossed people like rag dolls and wreaked havoc with the transportation system. Street cars were thrown off their rails like toys; horses fell on the streets as though light as feathers. Such was the force of the explosions.

In all, 362 mining men and boys were counted dead though mining companies in the early 20th century kept such notoriously poor records that many more workers were reputed to have died. In Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, Davitt McAteer believes closer to 500 men were killed. What could be counted were the number of widows (250) and children (around 1,000) left without husbands and fathers.

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Varying accounts of the disaster point not only to the collapse of the mines following the explosions but to the destruction of the ventilation system which, when operational, prevented the build up of toxic fumes in the compressed spaces where miners worked underground. Rescue efforts, as a result, were hampered by the presence of black damp (which included carbon dioxide and nitrogen, but no oxygen) and whitedamp, which was primarily carbon monoxide. Rescuers could not go in and what miners may have survived the blasts presumably could not come out.

Even had survivors been able to breathe in an oxygen-free environment, their way to the surface would have been prevented by the collapse of the entrance of mine number 6 and the obstruction by wrecked ore cars of the mine’s primary entrance.

A Mining Disaster Just Waiting to Happen

Sadly, a disaster of this kind was just waiting to happen. Since the Norfolk and Western Railroad entered the state in the 1880s, West Virginia had become one of the largest coal producers, drawing African and European workers to a newly booming economy. The surname of Glen’s wife Abigail, Maris, hints at her French ancestry. The new influx of laborers to the coalfields did not, however, lead to especially robust safety measures. Up to and, for some years, through the Fairmont coal mining disaster, West Virginia remained one of the most unregulated states in the country.

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Three years afterward, however, and partly as a result of the mine explosion (along with many others in the country), the United State Congress established theU.S. Bureau of Mines to inspect mines and prevent conditions that would lead to future tragedies. As a result, history has only theory to determine the cause of the explosions at the Fairmont coal mines: either the accidental ignition of methane and coal dust, or blown-out shots.

Fairmont Coal Disaster: Reality and Fiction

In my fiction, the staggering tragedy that was the Fairmont Coal Company disaster sends William and Abigail westward. Abby, already a strong-headed and willful young woman, has long been unhappy with her parents’ decision to move to West Virginia and take advantage of the coal boom. The explosions take her brother’s life.

And while mining explosions throughout the United States were only increasing in the early 20th century, those in Europe–the continent from which Abby hails–were on the decline due to effective government intervention.

For those who lived in and around Monongah, West Virginia at the time, meaning for those outside the realm of my fiction, the tragedy was very real and devastating. The Fairmont coal mine explosions represent the worst mining disaster the nation has ever experienced and, possibly, ever will.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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One Response to Fairmont Coal Disaster : The Day 362 Men Died

  1. Pingback: How A Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka | The Write PlaceThe Write Place

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