Andrew Roy's account of the Avondale Disaster

What follows is Andrew Roy's account of the disaster at Avondale. Read this description not just for the story of what happened, but for the emotions that underlay this account as well. The images that accompany this account were not in the original, but in an account of another mine disaster in the Gilded Age.
The great calamity of the Avondale shaft, furnishes another case where the whole population of the mine perished for want of means of escape, in time of accident, to the only opening of the mine. This shaft ... was divided into two compartments for ventilation, by means of a wooden partition, and had but one outlet.

The Avondale shaft is situated on the right bank of the Susquehanna river, four miles from Plymouth, in Luzerne county, in the heart of the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania. The catastrophe occurred on the morning of September 6th, 1869. The miners of the anthracite region had been on a long strike, and the men of this mine had gone down on this fatal morning, for the first time since the termination of the strike. One hundred and ten men and boys were in the shaft; they had resumed work with energy, in order to make up for the losses occasioned by the strike.

The catastrophe was caused by the ventilating furnace setting fire to the woodwork in the shaft. The fire was discovered about nine o'clock in the morning, by the stable boss of the mine, who had just gone down the pit with a load of hay for the hauling mules. On reaching the bottom, and discovering the fire, he immediately gave the alarm, and in a few minutes afterwards, a cloud of smoke, followed by a mass of living flame, rose through the upcast compartment of the mine. The flames set fire to the breaker, and spreading to the engine house, drove the engineer from his post. The people on top of the shaft became paralyzed with terror, knowing the fate of the miners in the distant chambers of the mine. Dispatches were sent to all the neighboring cities, and in a short time the fire departments of Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Kingston, and adjoining towns, were on their way to the scene of the conflagration. The news of the accident spread like wild-fire, and people rushed to the burning mine in thousands, to assist in rescuing the imperiled miners; but they were powerless before the burning elements.

The whole of the immense wooden structures covering and surrounding the shaft, was soon one vast volume of lurid flame, which rose for one hundred feet and upward, in the air, and swayed to and fro by the wind, formed a scene at once grand and terrific; while great volumes of smoke filled the air. The ponderous pulley wheels, ropes, and all the incombustible material above the pit's mouth, fell crashing through the shaft, followed by pieces of burning timbers and other debris.

On the arrival of the fire engines, streams of water were turned into the burning mine; but the monster volume of lurid flame appeared to bid defiance to the water, and for several hours the fire raged with unabated fury. When at length it had become subdued, a band of volunteers, fifty in number, composed of miners, mine superintendents and colliery proprietors, offered to go down into the shaft to rescue the imprisoned men, or perish in the attempt. The shaft was choked up for nearly forty feet with fallen debris, and it was half past five in the evening, before any attempt at descent could be made.

A dog and lamp were first let down as far as possible, and on being withdrawn, the dog was still alive, and the lamp still burning. An hour later a miner was lowered, who returned in a few minutes, nearly exhausted. Soon after, a shift of men went down with tools to clean out the rubbish. Having effected a landing on the bottom, they advanced for sixty yards along the main gallery of the mine, and came upon three dead mules in the stables. The main door, for directing forward the ventilating current of air, was found closed; they rapped on it with a club, and shouted with all their might, but on receiving no response, they returned to the bottom of the shaft, and were drawn up to day.

An exploring party was lowered, but were unable to withstand the influence of the deadly gases, and they soon returned. On being raised to the surface, they were nearly overcome. A ventilating fan with canvas hose leading into the shaft, was then erected and fresh air blown into the mine. The next explorers found the ventilating furnace still burning, and also a heap of loose coal lying near the fire. The gases from these fires had been driven forward into the interior of the mine by the ventilator, and it was found necessary to extinguish them before any further attempt was made to penetrate the interior of the mine. All night efforts were made to extinguish the furnace fires, but without success, as it was found impossible to get the water hose to play upon them. The miners, however, reported that the fires were dying out of their own accord.

During the second day several attempts were made to reach the entombed men, but the accumulated gases prevented any extended search. At midnight the air had become greatly improved, and at two o'clock in the morning an exploring party came upon two dead bodies, but they could not recognize their features, owing to their blackened and distorted appearance.

The explorers returned to communicate the fact to the people above-ground. Preparations were at once made for the descent of several bands of explorers, to be divided into groups of four each. At half-past six, as an exploring party was traversing the east side of the plane, they discovered the whole force of the mine lying behind an embankment which they had erected to shut off the deadly gases. Fathers and sons were found clasped in each other's arms. Some of the dead were kneeling, as if in the attitude of prayer; some lay on the ground with their faces downward, as if trying to extract a mouthful of fresh air from the floor of the mine; some were sitting with clasped hands, as if they had vowed to die with each other; and some appeared to have fallen while walking. In two hours, sixty dead bodies were sent to the surface, and by noon the last of the unfortunate one hundred and ten men who had gone down to work three days before, full of health and vigor, were sent up to find their last resting place in the tomb.