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from American Experience, “The Mine Wars,” copyright 1996–2019 WGBH Educational Foundation
Day of Disaster

A 14-year-old boy. A dangerous coal mine. And a horrific accident that would change America forever.

By Kristin Lewis
From the November 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to identify key ideas from an article about a historical disaster and to write a speech commemorating the anniversary

Lexiles: 790L, 930L
Other Key Skills: mood, author’s craft, literary devices, text structure, key ideas and supporting details
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about what life was like for children who worked in coal mines.

Fourteen-year-old Albert Buckle was staring at death itself. Thick smoke billowed toward him. Flames licked at the ceiling. With each passing second, the heat grew more unbearable.

But Albert couldn’t run away from the roaring fire. He was trapped deep underground in the coal mine where he worked.

As the inferno blazed hotter and stronger, people were starting to panic.

“Everyone is going to die!” someone shouted.

It was November 13, 1909, at the Cherry Mine—a coal mine about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, Illinois. Hundreds of feet underground, the Cherry Mine is where Albert—and nearly 500 other miners—spent their days, digging out coal from deep inside the earth.

But today, disaster had struck. Albert and the other miners were caught in the middle of one of the most devastating coal mine fires in American history.

Fourteen-year-old Albert Buckle was staring at death. Thick smoke billowed toward him. Flames licked at the ceiling. With each passing second, the heat got worse.

But Albert couldn’t run away from the fire. He was trapped deep underground in the coal mine where he worked.

The fire grew hotter. People started to panic.

“Everyone is going to die!” someone shouted.

It was November 13, 1909. Albert was at the Cherry Mine, a coal mine about 100 miles from Chicago, Illinois. At the mine, Albert and nearly 500 other miners spent their days digging out coal from deep inside the earth.

But today, disaster had struck. Albert and the other miners were caught in the middle of one of the most devastating coal mine fires in American history.

Bright and Brisk

Just a few hours earlier, the day had dawned bright and brisk in the small town of Cherry. Albert, his 16-year-old brother, Richard, and 478 other coal miners pulled on their overalls and boots, grabbed their lunch pails, and said goodbye to their families. Then they headed off for what they thought would be an ordinary day at the Cherry Mine.

Around 6:30 a.m., a whistle blared, signaling that it was time to start work. To enter the mine, Albert crowded into a small metal cage with a group of other miners. The cage was then lowered down a shaft—kind of like an elevator. There were two air shafts at the Cherry Mine, and they were lifelines—the only way to get in and out of the mine.

After a 30-second drop into pitch blackness, the cage clanked to a stop 317 feet below the surface and the miners stepped out into the damp, cold air. They had arrived in the Cherry Mine. Like a vast underground city, the mine had three main levels from which a maze of tunnels and passageways extended for miles and miles.

Hazards at the Cherry Mine—as in any coal mine at the time—were everywhere. Cave-ins were constant threats. So were the underground gases that could kill a person in minutes. Perhaps most terrifying of all was the risk of explosions and fires.

But Albert probably didn’t spend much time thinking about the many ways a coal miner could be killed. Instead, he probably focused on the pay, which was higher than what he would have earned working on a farm or in a factory.

Besides, the Cherry Mine was new and modern. Many said it was the safest mine in America—that it was basically fireproof.

As Albert would soon find out, they could not have been more wrong. 

Just a few hours earlier, the day had dawned bright and brisk in the small town of Cherry. Albert, his 16-year-old brother, Richard, and 478 other miners pulled on their overalls and boots, grabbed their lunch pails, and said goodbye to their families. Then they headed off for what they thought would be a normal day at the mine.

Around 6:30 a.m., a whistle blared, signaling that it was time to start work. To enter the mine, Albert crowded into a small metal cage with a group of other miners. The cage was then lowered down a shaft—kind of like an elevator. There were two air shafts at the Cherry Mine. They were the only way to get in and out of the mine.

After a 30-second drop into pitch blackness, the cage clanked to a stop 317 feet below the surface and the miners stepped out. They had arrived in the Cherry Mine. The mine had three main levels from which a maze of tunnels and passageways extended for miles and miles.

The Cherry Mine, like all coal mines at the time, was a dangerous place. Cave-ins were constant threats. So were the underground gases that could kill a person in minutes. Perhaps most terrifying of all was the risk of explosions and fires.

But Albert probably didn’t spend much time thinking about the many ways a coal miner could die. He probably focused on the pay, which was more than he would have earned working on a farm or in a factory.

Besides, the Cherry Mine was new and modern. Many said it was the safest mine in America—that it was basically fireproof.

As Albert would soon find out, they were wrong.

The Protected Art Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Mule Driver

Mule drivers led the mules that pulled cars full of coal through the mines. Mule driving was often the job that kids wanted most.

Transforming America    

Coal is a rock-like substance found in the ground. It is known as a fossil fuel, like oil and gas. When you burn coal, heat and energy are released.

By the time Albert was born, coal was changing the lives of millions of Americans. Indeed, Albert was growing up in a period of great technological advancement known as the Industrial Revolution. And coal was the power behind it.

Coal was powering the trains speeding across America, making it possible to travel faster and farther than ever before. Coal was fueling the giant new ships churning across the ocean. And coal was being used in factories to make the iron and steel that were becoming America’s bridges and skyscrapers.

During this period, thousands of coal mines were blasted into the ground, especially in Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where vast deposits of coal had been discovered. Some of these mines were 1,200 feet underground—as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

People came from all over the United States to work in these mines. They also came from all the way across the Atlantic Ocean— from Italy, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. Down in the Cherry Mine, Albert would have heard at least 10 languages spoken.

But America’s love of coal had a dark side. Using coal creates enormous pollution, poisoning rivers and filling the air with toxins. Today we know it also contributes to climate change.

By the end of the 19th century, a stomach-churning brew of soot and grime hung over many American cities. As one journalist observed in Chicago, “Pedestrians had to pass through an atmosphere that was simply choking.”

Coal is a rock-like substance found in the ground. It is known as a fossil fuel, like oil and gas. When you burn coal, heat and energy are released.

By the time Albert was born, coal was changing the lives of millions of Americans. Indeed, Albert was growing up in a time of great change known as the Industrial Revolution. And coal was the power behind it.

Coal powered the trains speeding across America, making it possible to travel faster and farther than ever before. Coal fueled the giant new ships churning across the ocean. And coal was used in factories to make the iron and steel that were becoming America’s bridges and skyscrapers.

During this period, thousands of coal mines were blasted into the ground, especially in Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where large deposits of coal had been discovered. Some of these mines were 1,200 feet underground—as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

People came from all over the United States to work in these mines. They also came from Italy, Ireland, and Eastern Europe. Down in the Cherry Mine, Albert would have heard at least 10 languages spoken.

But America’s love of coal had a dark side. Using coal creates pollution, poisoning rivers and filling the air with toxins. Today we know it also contributes to climate change.

By the end of the 19th century, a stomach-churning brew of soot and grime hung over many American cities. As one journalist observed in Chicago, “Pedestrians had to pass through an atmosphere that was simply choking.”

Adam J/Shutterstock.com    

WHAT TO KNOW: What Is Coal?


The story of coal begins long before Albert was born. It begins before Illinois was a state. It begins before human beings even existed.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, parts of Earth were covered with hot, swampy forests. The plants in these forests absorbed energy from the sun. After they died, the plants were slowly crushed over millions and millions of years, eventually becoming coal. When you burn coal, all the energy those ancient plants absorbed from the sun is released.

Difficult and Dangerous

Mining coal was a tough and dirty job, as Albert well knew. Day after day, miners blasted through rock with dynamite. They cut out the coal with heavy tools, their backs aching. They shoveled the coal into cars that looked like giant metal buckets. Then they used mules to pull the coal cars along metal tracks—like the tracks on a roller coaster—to an air shaft. From there, the coal was hoisted up the shaft to the surface.

And it wasn’t just grown men who toiled in the mines. In the early 1900s, thousands of children like Albert did too—some as young as 8 years old.

Since 1885, the U.S. government had required children to be at least 12 to work in a mine. In Illinois, the law set the minimum age at 16. But these laws were often ignored.

It might be hard to imagine why parents would let their kids work in dangerous mines when they should have been in school. But many families were so poor that they faced a terrible choice: send their children to work or watch them starve.

In fact, Albert and Richard likely felt proud to work at the mine. Their father had passed away a few years earlier, and it was up to them to help support their mother and little sister. 

Mining coal was a tough and dirty job. Miners blasted through rock with dynamite. They cut out the coal with heavy tools. They shoveled the coal into cars that looked like giant metal buckets. Then they used mules to pull the coal cars along metal tracks—like the tracks on a roller coaster—to an air shaft. From there, the coal was hoisted up the shaft to the surface.

And it wasn’t just grown men who worked in the mines. In the early 1900s, thousands of kids like Albert did too—some as young as 8 years old.

Since 1885, the U.S. government had required kids to be at least 12 to work in a mine. In Illinois, the law set the minimum age at 16. But these laws were often ignored.

It might be hard to imagine why parents would let their kids work in dangerous mines when they should have been in school. But many families were so poor that they faced a terrible choice: send their kids to work or watch them starve.

In fact, Albert and Richard likely felt proud to work at the mine. Their father had passed away a few years earlier, and it was up to them to help support their mother and little sister.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images    

Trapper

A trapper opened and shut doors to let mules and coal cars through. These doors were part of a mine’s ventilation system. The doors kept fresh air in and bad air out.

Lonely and Boring

Around 11:30 a.m., Albert finished eating lunch with his brother and headed back to work. As a trapper, Albert’s job was to sit by a door and open it only to let miners and mules pass through. The door was part of the mine’s ventilation system, which kept fresh air in the places where people were working and prevented the buildup of dangerous gases.

A trapper’s job was important.

It was also boring.

Imagine sitting alone in the dark all day every day, just opening and closing a door. Sometimes you might not see another person for hours. But you couldn’t fall asleep. If a mule team came speeding along and you didn’t open the door, they could crash—crushing the mules, the driver, maybe even you.

What was Albert thinking about that November morning as he sat alone, guarding the door? Was he looking forward to the next day? It would be Sunday, his only day off. Was he thinking about his birthday, which was just two weeks away?

Whatever his thoughts were, they would soon vanish.

Catastrophe was coming.

Around 11:30 a.m., Albert finished eating lunch with his brother and headed back to work. As a trapper, Albert’s job was to sit by a door and open it only to let miners and mules pass through. The door was part of the mine’s ventilation system, which kept fresh air in the places where people were working and prevented the buildup of dangerous gases.

A trapper’s job was important.

It was also boring.

Imagine sitting alone in the dark all day every day, just opening and closing a door. Sometimes you might not see another person for hours. But you couldn’t fall asleep. If a mule team came speeding along and you didn’t open the door, they could crash—crushing the mules, the driver, maybe even you.

What was Albert thinking about that November morning as he sat alone, guarding the door? Was he looking forward to the next day? It would be Sunday, his only day off. Was he thinking about his birthday, which was just two weeks away?

Whatever his thoughts were, they would soon vanish.

Catastrophe was coming.

Library of Congress    

Breaker Boy

Outside the mine was a large, noisy building called a breaker. This is where coal was broken up and sorted by big machines. Some mines also employed breaker boys. Their job was to pick out small pieces of rock from the precious coal. They sat hunched over for hours, their fingers often frozen and bloody. 

Scorching Heat

Not long after lunch, Albert opened the door for a car filled with hay—food for the mules.

A few moments later, another miner came running up to Albert.

“Fire!” he shouted.

It turns out that the mine’s electric lights were broken, so that day, miners were using oil lamps. Somehow, oil from one of these lamps had dripped onto the hay car, setting the hay on fire.

Albert was ordered to fetch some water. He ran to the mule stables and filled up his pail. Still, he probably didn’t fear for his safety. Small fires could usually be put out without much trouble.

But by the time Albert returned, it was clear that this fire was different. The smoke was already so thick he could barely see.

Albert tossed his pail of water onto the blaze. It did nothing.

Worse, the car was stuck under the air shaft. Fresh air was fanning the flames. Soon they were licking at the ceiling.

It became clear that Albert needed to get out. He and a few others headed for the shaft to take a cage to the surface. Maddeningly, the cage operator stopped them. He said the fire would soon be extinguished and they could get back to work.

And so for the next 30 minutes, Albert watched coal—not people—lifted up through the shaft.

All the while, the scorching heat grew more intense.

At last, a few miners managed to extinguish the burning hay. But it was too late. The flames had ignited the wooden beams that supported the tunnels.

The mine itself was on fire.

Now, like a ravenous monster, the fire was consuming everything in its path.

“If you don’t give us a cage, we’re all going to choke!” someone screamed.

Finally, nearly an hour after the fire started, a call went out to evacuate the mine. Albert climbed into the cage. As he was lifted to safety, he shouted down to a friend to go warn the others, including Richard.

But there were hundreds of men scattered throughout the tunnels. How would they know they needed to get out—fast? There were no alarms. No cell phones. For many, the only warning was the smell of smoke. 

Not long after lunch, Albert opened the door for a car filled with hay—food for the mules.

A few moments later, another miner came running up to Albert.

“Fire!” he shouted.

The mine’s electric lights were broken that day, so the miners were using oil lamps. Oil from one of these lamps had dripped onto the hay car, setting the hay on fire.

Albert was ordered to fetch some water. He ran to the mule stables and filled up his pail. Still, he probably didn’t fear for his safety. Small fires could usually be put out without much trouble.

But by the time Albert returned, it was clear that this fire was different. The smoke was so thick he could barely see.

Albert tossed his pail of water onto the blaze. It did nothing.

Worse, the car was stuck under the air shaft. Fresh air was fanning the flames. Soon they were licking at the ceiling.

Albert knew he had to get out. He and a few others headed for the shaft to take a cage to the surface. But the cage operator stopped them. He said the fire would soon be extinguished and they could get back to work.

And so for the next 30 minutes, Albert watched coal—not people—lifted up through the shaft.

All the while, the heat grew more intense.

At last, a few miners managed to extinguish the burning hay. But it was too late. The flames had ignited the wooden beams that supported the tunnels.

The mine itself was on fire.

Like a ravenous monster, the fire was consuming everything in its path.

“If you don’t give us a cage, we’re all going to choke!” someone screamed.

Finally, nearly an hour after the fire started, a call went out to evacuate the mine. Albert climbed into the cage. As he was lifted to safety, he shouted down to a friend to go warn the others.

But there were hundreds of men scattered throughout the tunnels. How would they know they needed to get out—fast? There were no alarms. No cell phones. For many, the only warning was the smell of smoke.

Lewis W. Hine/George Eastman Museum/Getty Images    

TIME FOR LUNCH

A miner takes a break to eat. 

Scrambling to Get Out 

What relief Albert must have felt as he was lifted to safety. But what he found at the surface was chaos. Smoke poured up out of the mine. Women and children were rushing to the scene, desperate to find their husbands and sons and brothers. Meanwhile, down below, miners were scrambling to get out—only to find tunnels blocked by flames, mules, and coal cars.

Over the next few hours, more than 200 men and boys would escape. Some, like Albert, went up in the cage. Others climbed the stairs and ladders that lined the air shafts.

One brave group began taking the cage up and down, plucking their fellow miners from the flames. They made six trips and rescued dozens of men before they were finally overtaken by the fire. History would remember them as the 12 Heroes.

Around 4:00 p.m., mine company leaders made a brutal decision: to seal off the air shaft. This would choke the fire out, they hoped; fires need oxygen to keep burning.

To many, this decision was a terrible act of cruelty. Without fresh air flowing into the mine, anyone still alive wouldn’t last long. Many accused the mine company of caring more about its coal than the human beings below.

When the sun set that day, the fire showed little sign of dissipating. More than 200 miners were still trapped.

What relief Albert must have felt as he was lifted to safety. But what he found at the surface was chaos. Smoke poured up from the mine. Women and children were rushing to the scene, desperate to find their loved ones. Meanwhile, down below, miners were scrambling to get out—only to find tunnels blocked by flames, mules, and coal cars.

Over the next few hours, more than 200 men and boys would escape. Some, like Albert, went up in the cage. Others climbed the stairs and ladders that lined the air shafts.

One brave group began taking the cage up and down, plucking their fellow miners from the flames. They made six trips and rescued dozens of men before they were overtaken by the fire. History would remember them as the 12 Heroes.

Around 4:00 p.m., mine company leaders made a brutal decision: to seal off the air shaft. They hoped this would choke the fire out. Fires need oxygen to keep burning.

To many, this decision was a terrible act of cruelty. Without fresh air flowing into the mine, anyone still alive wouldn’t last long. Many accused the mine company of caring more about its coal than about the human beings below.

When the sun set that day, the fire showed little sign of dissipating. More than 200 miners were still trapped.

xpixel/Shutterstock.com

Canary in the Coal Mine

Miners often brought canaries into coal mines. If lethal gases were present, the gases would kill the canary before the miners, giving them enough time to get out. Today, “canary in the coal mine” means a warning of danger.

Trapped Below