Tragedy in Cherry

In the early years of the 20th century, reform movements swept the nation. These movements brought about many of the laws governing safety and working conditions that we take for granted today. Basic workplace safety laws, the Pure Food and Drug Act, prohibitions on child labor and the beginning of the end of the sweatshops; these all came about due to the efforts of reformers during that era.

But sadly, many of these reforms didn’t happen just because of the hard work of those seeking to create a better life for Americans. They were helped along by some of the worst disasters in American history. One of the most notorious is the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in which more than a hundred workers were killed when fire broke out in a locked sweatshop. Other early-20th century disasters as varied as the Iroquois Theater fire, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the sinking of the Titanic led to dramatic reforms of safety laws throughout the nation and the world. One such disaster which changed Illinois and federal law was the 1909 fire in a coal mine near the small town of Cherry.

Coal was discovered in Illinois at least as early as the 1600s, and commercial mining began a few years before statehood. Almost the entire southern three-quarters of Illinois; roughly from present-day Interstate 80 south; produces coal. As railroads and factories spread across the state and the nation, and coal became a preferred fuel source instead of wood, Illinois coal mining saw a dramatic expansion.

But with this expansion came risks. New, untested technologies were rushed into use for mining and moving coal. Mineshafts sank deeper into the ground, and miners toiled underground in all sorts of working conditions. In 1883, 69 miners drowned in an accident in a mine near Braidwood in Will County, which led to the enactment of a state mines inspection system. Illinois had enacted child labor laws in the early 1900s, but they were frequently ignored.

In 1905, the St. Paul Coal Company opened the Cherry mine, near the Bureau County town of the same name, to produce coal for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. Within a few years, the mine was producing as much as 400,000 tons of coal a year. Miners moved in and out of the mine via a hoisting cage, while a large fan moved breathable air into the shaft. There was also a wooden staircase. The mine was constructed with steel, concrete, brick and stone – design factors which led some to boast that it was fireproof. It also had electrically-powered lights underground, a rare feature of mines in those days.

On Saturday afternoon, November 13, 1909, around 500 miners and 30 mules were at work in the mine. Electrical problems had caused the lights to go out a few weeks earlier, so in order to keep the mine functioning, the miners had been sent into the shaft with kerosene lamps. At some point, burning oil from one of the lamps came into contact with a wagon of hay for mules and a fire began. The LaSalle Daily Tribune describes what happened next.

“The timbers were very dry and the fire soon communicated to the stables, forty in number, which are located midway between the main shaft and the escape,” the paper reported. “The alarm spread through the mine, but already the men below knew what had occurred for smoke was rolling toward them.”

Efforts to fight the underground fire were unsuccessful, and after about 45 minutes the call to evacuate was shouted through the mine. Miners stumbled through the darkness and the smoke to find the hoisting cage, which brought up groups of survivors. They sought to save themselves and each other; in some cases fathers looked for sons, brothers for brothers. But with the fire burning hotter and producing more smoke, it was getting more difficult to find an escape route. Fewer miners came up with each hoist of the cage.

Tales of heroism abounded in the days afterward: stories of miners who could have escaped choosing instead to go back and save others, sometimes sacrificing their own lives in the process. Rescuers now descended into the mine using the cage. The group of volunteers, choking on the thick smoke, brought up as many survivors as they could carry.

The rescuers descended again and again. But then, after another descent, the engineer did not receive the signal to bring the cage back up. The crowd gathered around the engineer grew frantic, and at last he raised the cage on his own initiative. “When the cage reached the landing the rescue party was aboard, not living men but corpses,” reported the Tribune.

Ruins of the Cherry Mine fan house and escape shaft.
A short time later, the fan gave out, cutting off any chance of breathable air reaching those still within the mine. Meanwhile, a massive medical response was underway. “All the doctors in Spring Valley rushed to the town of Ladd by automobile….Doctors went from LaSalle, Mendota and other places. Drug stores in Spring Valley were ransacked for surgical supplies and automobile loads of them were hurled into Cherry at top speed,” said the Tribune. Injured miners were treated in an improvised hospital at the scene, or transported to LaSalle.

Firefighting and rescue attempts continued through the night and into the next morning. Mine inspectors and other personnel from the Illinois Mining Commission were dispatched by Governor Charles Deneen to take charge of the scene. Water supplies ran out and more had to be brought in by rail car from Mendota. Miners from nearby mines made their way to the area to assist.

Firefighters and doctors from as far away as Chicago would eventually work at the scene. Rescue equipment came from Urbana within the first 24 hours and even from a mine rescue station in Pittsburgh later in the week. The crowd of worried onlookers grew into the thousands. It included mothers of some of the young miners, “many of them had been widowed years before by similar catastrophes in other mines. They felt the full force of the horror.”

Firefighters from the nearby town of Ladd poured water into the mine through an air shaft. Citing safety, mine officials refused to allow them to enter the mine itself, and during the many hours they worked at the scene some of them were overcome by the toxic smoke making its way to the surface. With all hope of rescue believed to be gone, the decision was made to seal up the mine shafts and suffocate the fire.

By Sunday night, the fire was believed to be out, though it would continue to flare for weeks. Rescuers began going back down into the mine, only to find the fire had flared back up. The firefighting and the recovery efforts resumed and stopped over and over for days. Miraculously, eight days after the fire, a group of 20 miners was located alive in the mine. They had managed to wall themselves off from the toxic air and survive on a trickle of water and the remnants of discarded lunch pails until they could make their way out of their shelter.

“The gamut from the deepest despair to the hysteria of hope was run today when twenty miners, entombed for a week, were rescued alive,” proclaimed the Decatur Review on November 21.

In the days after the disaster, stories emerged of trapped miners writing wills and letters to loved ones. Deneen made a nationwide appeal on behalf of the Red Cross for assistance to the families of the lost miners, and assistance flowed in from all parts of the nation. The Chicago Tribune organized a relief effort in the city. So deep was the tragedy that one particular street of miners’ homes in Cherry came to be known as “Widows Row.”
The Bureau County coroner began his investigation before sundown on the day of the fire, determining causes of death and taking testimony from survivors and other mine personnel. Families, surviving miners and members of the public demanded a grand jury investigation. State Representatives William Scanlan (R-Peru) and W.J. McGuire (D-Kewanee) called on Governor Deneen to begin an investigation immediately.

But the Illinois Mining Commission refused to conduct an investigation to assign blame, citing the existing state law at the time which charged them only with conducting investigations to recommend future changes to the law to enhance safety. In the end, the company was fined $630 for nine violations of child labor laws. Lawsuits against the company extended into 1913, when it was estimated that the company had paid settlements totaling around $500,000, both from the suits and from cases which were settled through mediation.

In all, the death toll would stand at 259, still the third-deadliest coal mine disaster in American history and the worst in Illinois.

The need for better mine safety regulations was made crystal clear by the Cherry fire, and in 1910 the Illinois legislature passed updated safety legislation, including new requirements regarding fires. That spring the General Assembly also passed legislation creating the Mine Rescue Station Commission which would operate centers for specially-trained mine rescue teams and maintain rescue centers throughout the state with trained personnel ready to respond to disaster.

In a special session of the legislature called by Governor Deneen, the state enacted new laws requiring mines to have firefighting equipment on scene and requiring better training and certification for workers in important safety positions. The next year, Deneen signed the Illinois’ first workers compensation law. At the federal level the disaster inspired the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines which led to better federal oversight of mining operations. Congress also passed a federal child labor law.

On the second anniversary of the disaster a marble monument was placed just southwest of the village of Cherry in the Holy Trinity cemetery. It was built with $2500 in donations raised from nearly 60,000 people. Another marker placed by the Illinois State Historical Society stands in the Cherry Village Park, a memorial to the 259 miners who lost their lives on one of Illinois’ darkest days.

These miners and the tens of thousands of others who have worked in Illinois’ coal mines over the past two centuries are honored by the coal miner statue which was placed on the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol in 1964. On its front is a plaque with the words of poet Vachel Davis, “True – he plays no grandstand role in life, but his importance is vital, great and just; for without his toil in earth caverns deep, civilization would soon crumble into the dust.”