Benchmarks: September 6, 1869: Pennsylvania's Avondale coal mine fire kills 110, igniting reform (2023)

by Rachel Crowell Friday, August 3, 2018

Benchmarks: September 6, 1869: Pennsylvania's Avondale coal mine fire kills 110, igniting reform (1)

Harper's Weekly illustrations of the Sept. 6, 1869, fire at the Avondale Colliery that killed 110, including five children and two rescuers. When the coal breaker caught fire and blocked the only exit, the miners attempted to seal themselves off, but were asphyxiated. Credit: both: public domain.

In the mid-19th century, American industry was fueled by coal, which was provided largely by the anthracite coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. The work drew tens of thousands of immigrants, including experienced English and Welsh miners, and many fleeing the Irish Potato Famine. But the work was dangerous, and each year thousands of workers died in the mines and many thousands more were seriously injured. In one of the worst disasters of this era, a fire at the Avondale Colliery in Plymouth, Pa., trapped and killed 108 miners, including five boys, as well as two men who attempted to rescue the workers.

While it was neither the first nor the last mining fire of its time, Avondale had a significant effect on the history of labor unions and mining safety regulations. One year later, Pennsylvania created the first mining inspection law for anthracite (hard coal) mines. Eight years after that, the law was extended to include bituminous (soft coal) mines, setting a precedent that other states soon followed.

Additionally, after the disaster, thousands of miners flocked to join the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), the first industrywide labor union for anthracite miners, according to an article published in the journal Labor History. Increased unionization drew attention to the Molly Maguires, an alleged secret Irish society that advocated for workers' rights, sometimes resorting to violence.

Some of the details of this transformative disaster are muddled by the nearly century and a half that has elapsed since it occurred, and because of “how far some of the numerous historical references to the Avondale disaster have strayed from the truth,” according to a historical report about the fire. For example, reports in 1916 and 1946 by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines erroneously tallied 179 deaths from the fire. Yet certain details from the tragedy are undisputed and were key in the eventual adoption of mine safety protections.

Early Reforms in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s first mine safety law was passed by the state legislature in April 1869, but that law, created just months prior to the mine fire in Plymouth, didn’t prevent the conditions that contributed to the fire’s deadliness, notes the website Explore PA History.

The 1869 law was partly a result of lobbying efforts organized by the WBA’s Committee on Political Action, according to a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) account of the history of Irish workers in American mining. John Siney, the Irish immigrant founder of the WBA, became a miner after immigrating in 1863 to St. Clair, Pa., in Schuylkill County. There, he helped lead a six-week-long strike in 1868 that succeeded in preventing miners' wages from being slashed for the second time in half a decade. He also led strikes to enforce state-legislated eight-hour work days.

Benchmarks: September 6, 1869: Pennsylvania's Avondale coal mine fire kills 110, igniting reform (2)

Harper's Weekly illustration of the aftermath of the Avondale Colliery disaster, which devastated the population of the small town of Ply­mouth, Pa. Credit: public domain.

The narrowly drafted 1869 law called “for the better regulation and ventilation of mines and for the protection of the miners” — but only in Schuylkill County. It outlined many requirements, including that mines possess ventilation in the form of furnaces or suction fans, that each mine employ a boss who would perform a safety inspection each morning before workers entered, and that systems be installed to enable communication between the mine and the surface. Under penalty of fine, it also prohibited mines from having workers ride to the surface in loaded cars and stipulated that the law would be enforced by newly designated inspectors authorized to enter and inspect the mines and machinery at “reasonable” times.

However, the law did not apply in neighboring Luzerne County, where the Avondale Colliery was located, and none of the new regulations accounted for that mine’s deadliest shortcoming: It was equipped with just one exit.

No Way Out

Catastrophe engulfed the Avondale Colliery at approximately 10 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1869 — the miners' first day back at work following a seven-day strike. The fire took hold in the coal breaker, which proved perilous. At Avondale, the breaker — where coal was sorted from rock and broken into various sizes — was built directly above the shaft that served as the sole opening to the mine. England had, by this time, banned mines from installing coal breakers above shafts, but the practice was still being implemented in the northeastern U.S. According to Explore PA History, it was the practice of the company that ran the Avondale mine — as well as other coal mining companies — to keep small fires “burning at the bottom of shafts to create drafts that promoted better air circulation for the working miners.”

According to the historical report on the fire, Alexander Weir, an engineer at the Avondale mine who was working aboveground that day, was the first to notice the flames shooting up the mine shaft. Sparks from the ventilating furnace had ignited the wooden breaker. The flames rushed “up the shaft with great fury and with a sound not unlike an explosion,” leaving Weir with just enough time to blow his whistle, alerting workers more than 60 meters below to “arrange matters to prevent a boiler explosion.” As the rapidly progressing blaze turned the shaft into “a roaring inferno which no man could approach,” Weir jumped out of the way. The burning breaker consumed the oxygen from the mine below and flooded it with carbon monoxide.

Soon, the area around the mine was engulfed by a line of fire that extended more than 90 meters from the mine’s head house, the structure enclosing the mine entrance, to the nearby railroad tracks. The historical report describes “a plane of fire” running toward the hill above, then shooting up “in one immense column into the air, while dense clouds of smoke envelop[ed] all surrounding objects.”

Recovering the Victims

As word of the fire spread, the families of the trapped miners rushed to the mine. A bucket brigade was organized to transport water from a tanker until fire engines arrived, first from neighboring Kingston and then from Scranton. By the middle of the afternoon — several hours after the blaze was first noticed — streams of water from the two engines had “subdued the fire in a great measure,” according to the report. But it would still be some time before the blaze and deadly fumes were controlled enough that the mine could be safely entered.

With the fire extinguished from above, men at the surface cleared debris — largely the remains of the breaker, which had collapsed into the shaft amid the fire — from the mouth of the shaft and installed a hoisting device powered by horses that could be used to descend into the mine. To ascertain the safety of the area below, they sent down a small dog and a lighted lantern. At 6 p.m., the canine and the lantern were hoisted back up. The dog survived but the lantern’s flame was snuffed out.

Confusion ensued. After calling down the shaft into the mine, some thought they heard miners below answer that they were alright. “Immediately, cheer after cheer went up from the assembled multitude, but the most experienced miners were not of the same mind. They could hear no answer,” the report notes.

Charles Vartue, 85, volunteered to descend into the mine’s shaft to investigate. He emerged unscathed but reported that more than one man would be needed to dig through the debris in the shaft to get into the mine. Next, two men — Charles Jones and Stephen Evans — went down together, discovering two dead mules and a closed door. After pounding on it and receiving no answer, they ascended.

Next, Thomas W. Williams and David Jones volunteered to enter the mine but died from lack of oxygen. “It took two days of clearing debris and poisonous gases from the mine before rescuers reached the first victims,” who had been asphyxiated and discovered in various states. “Some men had fallen while running, another was kneeling, and a father was found with his arm around his son,” Explore PA History notes.

The Molly Maguires

In the wake of the Avondale Colliery catastrophe, Siney implored miners: “You can do nothing to win these dead back to life, but you can help me to win fair treatment and justice for living men who risk life and health in their daily toil,” he said. The General Council of the WBA sent a committee of miners — formed by representatives from each county union — to the capital. Their lobbying resulted in the Mine Safety Act of 1870, which stipulated, among other things, that each mine had to have more than one exit.

Despite this modicum of progress, the mining industry remained rife with dangers and abuses, which the Molly Maguires worked to settle on their own terms. The group, which led riots in Ireland in the 1840s against exploitive English landowners, was purportedly brought to the U.S. by Irish coal miners who had immigrated to Pennsylvania.

Disputes between coal operators and their employees stemmed from many issues. Besides the dangerous working conditions, there were also child labor issues — with boys as young as 6 employed as “breaker boys” — as well as overcrowded and unsanitary company housing, exploitive company stores, and little or no money offered to the families of workers who were injured or killed on the job.

The Molly Maguires were accused of delivering “coffin notices” threatening to kill mining supervisors and strikebreakers. However, it is unknown whether they murdered anyone, or indeed if any such secret society existed in the U.S. In the 1860s and ‘70s, Schuylkill County recorded a dozen or more murders per year. In the 1870s, 24 victims were English and Welsh mine bosses. The arrest, conviction and hanging of alleged Molly Maguires for some of the murders was based on the questionable testimony of James McParland, a Pinkerton agent who infiltrated the group at the behest of Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

Gowen, who was known for starving striking workers into submission and other ruthless behavior, was attempting to break the WBA and establish a monopoly on the Pennsylvania anthracite mines. He was also a former district attorney for Schuylkill County, who then served as the special prosecutor in the trials of the 20 accused Molly Maguires, none of whom were permitted to testify on their own behalf and all of whom were found guilty.

On June 21, 1877, 10 of the convicted men were executed by hanging. On Dec. 18, 1878, the alleged leader, John “Jack” Kehoe, a local tavern owner and labor activist who had stymied Gowen’s political career, was executed for the murder of F.W. Langdon, a mine boss who had died 15 years earlier, three days after being involved in a bar fight. Langdon had never mentioned Kehoe as one of his attackers.

In 1979, the governor of Pennsylvania, Milton J. Shapp, posthumously pardoned Kehoe, officially recognizing Gowen’s subversion of the criminal justice system. “The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows,” wrote Carbon County Judge John P. Lavelle in his 1994 book, “The Hard Coal Docket.”

The Legacy of Avondale

The first federal mine safety statute wasn’t passed by Congress until 1891, 22 years after the Avondale Colliery fire. It only applied to coal mines. (Noncoal mines weren’t regulated by such statutes until the passage of the Federal Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act of 1966.) The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act — a more comprehensive law that covered both surface and underground mines, required inspections, increased enforcement power, set penalties for safety violations (including criminal penalties for willful violations), established health and safety standards, and provided compensation to miners who contracted black lung disease — was passed in 1969, a century after Avondale.

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FAQs

How did the mine fire affect the town of Centralia? ›

It has caused most of the town to be abandoned: by 2017 the population had dwindled to a mere five residents from around 1,500 at the time the fire is believed to have started, and most of the buildings have been razed.

What caused the Centralia mine fire? ›

No one quite knows how the Centralia fire started. The leading theory today is that burning trash near an old mine entrance accidentally ignited the coal beneath. Once it ignited, the fire began to spread. Coal burns when carbon inside it combines with oxygen.

Where was the Avondale mine? ›

Avondale Mine disaster

Where did the worst coal mining disaster in the United States occur? ›

In West Virginia's Marion County, an explosion in a network of mines owned by the Fairmont Coal Company in Monongah kills 361 coal miners. It was the worst mining disaster in American history.

What is the longest burning fire in history? ›

Fueled by coal seams

A coal seam-fueled eternal flame in Australia known as "Burning Mountain" is claimed to be the world's longest burning fire, at 6,000 years old. A coal mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, has been burning beneath the borough since 1962.

Where is town that always on fire? ›

Centralia is a borough and near-ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. Its population has declined from 1,000 in 1980 to 4 residents in 2020 because a coal mine fire has been burning beneath the borough since 1962.

Does anyone still live in Centralia PA? ›

Today, Centralia is the least-populated municipality in Pennsylvania. In 2017, there were just five permanent residents. The USPS discontinued Centralia's ZIP code in 2002.

How many people died in Centralia PA? ›

On March 25, 1947, workers at mine no. 5 in Centralia, Illinois were just ending their shift when a huge explosion shook the earth and killed 111 coal miners. Rescuers found a message scrawled on a wall: Look in everybody's pockets.

How long can a coal mine fire burn? ›

Coal seam fires can burn for years, and many of them span hectares underground, so if only part of one breaches the surface, it will likely be detected on the GFW platform.

Where did the Knox Mine disaster happen? ›

The Knox Mine Disaster

On January 22, 1959, the ice-laden Susquehanna River broke through the roof of the River Slope Mine of the Knox Coal Company in nearby Port Griffith in Jenkins Township.

Is mining a man made disaster? ›

The human activities include mining, deep quarrying, hydro-geological extraction or fluid disposal. Induced seismicity creates some earthquakes with different magnitudes. There are some published examples of induced earthquakes occurred since 1929 in the world.

What is the deepest mine in the world? ›

AngloGold Ashanti's Mponeng gold mine, located south-west of Johannesburg in South Africa, is currently the deepest mine in the world.

How much does a coal miner make? ›

Coal Miner Salaries

The national average salary for a Coal Miner is $36,143 in United States. Filter by location to see Coal Miner salaries in your area. Salary estimates are based on 8,866 salaries submitted anonymously to Glassdoor by Coal Miner employees.

Is there a fire that doesn't burn? ›

A cool flame or invisible flame is a flame having a maximal temperature below about 400 °C (752 °F). It is usually produced in a chemical reaction of a certain fuel-air mixture. In contrast to an ordinary flame, the reaction is not vigorous and releases little heat, light, or carbon dioxide.

What is the most deadliest fire in US history? ›

The largest community in the affected area was Peshtigo, Wisconsin which had a population of approximately 1,700 residents. The fire burned about 1.2 million acres and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, with the number of deaths estimated between 1,500 and 2,500.

What is the longest burning wood stove? ›

Longest Burning Wood Stoves, Insert, & Fireplaces

Typically catalytic or hybrid wood stoves produce the longest burn times. Catalytic stoves and inserts produce long-term stable heat outputs due to their design and the nature of a catalytic combustor.

Does anyone still live in Centralia PA 2022? ›

The Legacy Of Centralia

Fewer than five people still live in Centralia, PA. Experts estimate there is enough coal underneath Centralia to fuel the fire for another 250 years. But the story and infrastructure of the town has provided its own kind of fuel for creative endeavors.

Is Centralia PA illegal? ›

A few people have asked if it is legal to explore the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. In short, there is nothing stopping visitors from driving into the borough, parking, and walking around. A majority of Centralia is owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Why can't the Centralia fire be put out? ›

13) Q: Why can't the Centralia Mine Fire be excavated? A: The Centralia Mine Fire could feasibly be excavated, but would require a very large and expensive project. The cost for a project to completely extinguish the Centralia Mine Fire is currently beyond the capacity of Pennsylvania's AML Program to address.

How many houses are left in Centralia? ›

Today, according to the U.S. census, just nine remain.The people who abandoned Centralia had a very good reason. On May 27, 1962, someone started a fire in a trash dump on the edge of town.

Is Silent Hill still burning? ›

Silent Hill is a fictitious town largely based on Centralia, Pennsylvania. Is the mine fire still burning under Centralia? Yes, the mine fire started on May 27, 1962 and is still burning today. Estimates show there is enough coal for the fire to burn for 250 years.

Are there any ghost towns in Pennsylvania? ›

By far the most well-known ghost town in the entire state, Centralia has been nearly abandoned since the underground mine fire that broke out there in 1962.

Where is the abandoned neighborhood in Pennsylvania? ›

The Lincoln Way abandoned neighborhood is located near southern Pittsburgh. There were once 30 to 40 abandoned houses in this cul-de-sac neighborhood. In recent years, many have collapsed or mysteriously burned down.

Is Centralia fire still burning? ›

The fires in Centralia are still burning and now, the town exists as a tragic reminder of what happened 60 years ago. The story of Centralia is not a happy one.

Is Centralia worth visiting? ›

While it might be one of Pennsylvania's least likely and least publicized tourist attractions, a visit to Centralia, PA is definitely worthwhile, even with the loss of Graffiti Highway.

Can a tree stump burn underground? ›

You might think you could just light stumps on fire and let them burn until they disappear. But since they're underground, there's no source of oxygen to sustain the flame. Even with kerosene soaked into the wood, the part of the stump under the surface won't burn.

Why does coal burn so well? ›

Coal ignites at a temperature more than 100 degrees higher than wood, and it requires a hot bed of wood coals to get it started. Being far denser than wood, coal burns more steadily and longer.

Which states burn coal for electricity? ›

Coal-fired generation declined across the country over the past decade, but it still provides over half of the electricity in eight states: West Virginia, Wyoming, Missouri, Kentucky, Utah, North Dakota, Indiana, and Nebraska.

How much anthracite is left in Pennsylvania? ›

The Coal Region is a region of Northeastern Pennsylvania. It is known for being home to the largest known deposits of anthracite coal in the world with an estimated reserve of seven billion short tons.

Why do mines flood? ›

Flash floods (as in the case of Monday's incident) where heavy rainfall or swollen creeks and rivers dump large amounts of water into a mine entrance. This rapid inflow of water can trap miners by blocking escape routes. Water settles into the low areas of a mine tunnel or drift.

Who owned the Knox mine? ›

Aftermath and legacy. Ten people were indicted in the disaster's aftermath, including the mine superintendent, Robert Dougherty; owner Louis Fabrizio; secret owner August J. Lippi, who was also the president of District 1 of the United Mine Workers; and three union officials. Six served jail time.

How many men died in coal mines? ›

In 2020 there were five occupational fatalities in the United States coal mining industry, among 63,612 U.S. coal miners. In 1910, this figure was much higher, with 2,821 coal mining deaths reported in the U.S. that year.

Which is the biggest industrial disaster in the world? ›

Victims of Bhopal disaster march in September 2006 demanding the extradition of Warren Anderson from the United States. It is considered the worst industrial disaster in history.

Who is responsible for mine accident? ›

The role of the management holds the key in ensuring a safe work environment, but figures show that the responsibility for at least 63% of the documented accidents in coal mines over the last 3 years goes to the management and the supervisory staff.

How deep is gold in the ground? ›

There is no specific depth at which gold can be found. Examples of this are the Welcome Stranger – the largest gold nugget ever found – which was retrieved at only 3cm (1.18in) below the surface. Oppositely, gold mining operations today take place at a depth of around 3km (1.8 miles) under the Earth's surface.

What is the life expectancy of a coal miner? ›

The average life expectancy in the coal mines for those starting work at 15 y was found to be 58.91 y and 49.23 y for surface and underground workers respectively.

Where is the thickest coal seam in the world? ›

The thickest known coal seam in the world Is the Wyoming, near Twin Creek, in the Green river coal basin, Wyoming. It Is eighty feet thick, and upward of 300 feet of solid coal underlie 4000 acres.

What is the highest paying job? ›

Highest Paying Occupations
OCCUPATION2021 MEDIAN PAY
General internal medicine physiciansThis wage is equal to or greater than $208,000 per year
Family medicine physiciansThis wage is equal to or greater than $208,000 per year
Emergency medicine physiciansThis wage is equal to or greater than $208,000 per year
17 more rows

Do coal miners still get black lung? ›

Today, not only do coal miners still suffer from this lethal but preventable lung disease, they do so at younger ages, some even in their thirties, and they are contracting the most advanced form of black lung at the highest rates ever recorded.

How much do miners get paid? ›

Average wage in mining is $123,844. Again, the top average advertised salary was recorded in the Mining, Resources & Energy industry at $123,844.

Why can't they put out the fire in Centralia? ›

However, experts believe the fires under Centralia could burn another 250 years before they exhaust the coal supply that fuels them. Why don't firemen simply put them out? They can't! The fires are too deep and burn too hot to be fought effectively.

What were the main issues facing the residents of Centralia borough? ›

Numerous residents were having issues with deadly mine fire gases, like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, creeping into their homes. This was especially bad for John Coddington and his family. In 1979 his gas station, located in Centralia, was closed because of the mine fire heating the underground gasoline tank.

Is the fire in Centralia still burning? ›

The fires in Centralia are still burning and now, the town exists as a tragic reminder of what happened 60 years ago. The story of Centralia is not a happy one.

Why is Centralia PA abandoned? ›

Centralia, Pennsylvania once boasted 14 active coal mines and 2,500 residents in the early 20th century. But by the 1960s, its boomtown heyday had passed and most of its mines were abandoned. Still, over 1,000 people called it home, and Centralia was far from dying — until a coal mine fire began below.

Can a tree stump burn underground? ›

You might think you could just light stumps on fire and let them burn until they disappear. But since they're underground, there's no source of oxygen to sustain the flame. Even with kerosene soaked into the wood, the part of the stump under the surface won't burn.

Is anyone still living in Centralia? ›

Today, according to the U.S. census, just nine remain.The people who abandoned Centralia had a very good reason. On May 27, 1962, someone started a fire in a trash dump on the edge of town. It wasn't known at the time, but the fire was over an open coal seam.

How many people died in Centralia PA? ›

On March 25, 1947, workers at mine no. 5 in Centralia, Illinois were just ending their shift when a huge explosion shook the earth and killed 111 coal miners. Rescuers found a message scrawled on a wall: Look in everybody's pockets.

Why do people still live in Centralia? ›

The USPS discontinued Centralia's ZIP code in 2002. An agreement was reached with the remaining residents in 2013, allowing them to continue living in the town—with the stipulation that after they die, the rights to their houses would transfer to the state.

Can you drive through Centralia? ›

So entering Centralia is legal and it is not closed off to the public. However most of the properties that had been acquired by the Commonwealth of PA are owned by the state. Several of the properties that still are home to residents, though owned by the State as well, are personal property.

How much would it cost to put out Centralia fire? ›

In 1984, with the cost of putting out the fire estimated at $660 million, Congress passed a bill that would provide $42 million to relocate, on a voluntary basis, the families that wished to leave Centralia.

Can fire burn forever? ›

Nothing can last forever – including a fire. Eventually, the fuel source will be exhausted and the heat will radiate away. Even so, the truth about the world's longest burning fires is so strange that it's almost unbelievable. Under the right conditions, fires can burn throughout entire ages of history.

How long can a coal mine fire burn? ›

Coal seam fires can burn for years, and many of them span hectares underground, so if only part of one breaches the surface, it will likely be detected on the GFW platform.

Can you still visit Centralia? ›

Over the last two decades, many of Centralia's buildings have been torn down. However, there are still things to do in Centralia, PA. Driving over the mountains from nearby Ashland, you'll come over the crest of the hill to a marker that still welcomes you to the borough of Centralia.

Do people still live in Silent Hill? ›

While most people left, a few stayed, hoping that the fire would stop. One of the only remaining buildings is a church that is still in use. Silent Hill is very similar in this regard, as only a few citizens remain in the West Virginia town and continue to attend church services.

Where is the abandoned neighborhood in Pennsylvania? ›

The Lincoln Way abandoned neighborhood is located near southern Pittsburgh. There were once 30 to 40 abandoned houses in this cul-de-sac neighborhood. In recent years, many have collapsed or mysteriously burned down.

Are there any ghost towns in Pennsylvania? ›

By far the most well-known ghost town in the entire state, Centralia has been nearly abandoned since the underground mine fire that broke out there in 1962.

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