Coal Tattoo

The Centralia Mine Disaster


“Coal is already saturated with the blood of too many men and drenched with the tears of too many surviving widows and orphans.”

John L. Lewis, UMWA President, after Centralia Mine Disaster

While we’re all debating the future of coal, let’s not forget painful past.

Sixty-two years ago today, an explosion ripped through the Centralia No. 5 Mine in Southern Illinois. At the time, 142 men were in the mine. Sixty-five were killed by burns and other injuries. Forty-five died from breathing the poison gases created by the blast. Eight miners were rescued, but one died later. Only 31 escaped.

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The Willow Grove Mine Disaster


Sixty-nine years ago today, an explosion at the Willow Grove Mine in Willow Grove, Ohio, killed 72 miners. (Thanks again to my UMWA calendar).

This Web site, has a poem and a bunch of photos, including the one posted above. This site also includes discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the mine five years earlier.

This one includes a list of the dead, apparently taken from the front page of the St. Clairsville Gazette.

Black lung anniversary

Forty years ago today, on March 8, 1969, the West Virginia Legislature passed a state black lung compensation bill after the United Mine Workers demonstrated to demand the legislation. (Thanks to my UMWA calendar for reminding me of the anniversary)

My colleague, Paul Nyden, wrote about this in his recent project about the Farmington Disaster. That’s still on the Gazette Web site.

Over at WVFILM, one of the Gazz blogs, Steve Fesenmaier wrote a while back about a three-part documentary on black lung. And one of my favorite blogs, The Daily Yonder, ran this piece by Betty Dotson-Lewis urging President Barack Obama to be the president who finally ends this deadly disease.

One of my journalism heroes, Ralph Dunlop, co-authored a major project last year for the Louisville Courier-Journal about black lung, and the C-J’s series, “Dust, Deception & Death” remains a classic (albeit depressing) piece of journalism.

Over at the Pump Handle, they’ve reported on the efforts of Nathan Fetty, a lawyer with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, and the folks at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky to force the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to tighten its limits on coal dust in underground mines. Nathan tells me oral arguments in that case are scheduled for April 29 before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Viking Mine Disaster

On March 2, 1961, an explosion killed 22 coal miners at Peabody’s Viking Mine near Terra Haute, Indiana.

I don’t have much information on this particular mining disaster, except for a note on the United Mine Workers of America’s calendar, and reference in an old Bureau of Mines Circular (helpfully collected into a great binder by the folks at the MSHA Library).

If you know anything about it, please comment below and share your information with readers, or drop me a private email to

The Smith Mine Disaster


Sixty-six years ago today, 74 miners died in an explosion at the Smith Mine No. 3 near Bearcreek, Mont. It was the worst coal-mining disaster in Montana history.

The photo above, from the town of Bearcreek’s Web site, shows the above-ground buildings of the Smith Mine as it appeared in the early days. The site also describes the disaster this way:

 February 27, 1943 began on an optimistic note for most families in Bearcreek, Washoe
and Red Lodge. The bright sun reflecting off a light covering of new snow gave most
people living in the shadows of the Beartooth Mountains a trusting
view of the world.
It was Saturday, and the kids were out from underfoot early that morning, not wanting to miss a minute of sunny escape from school. In addition, it was payday for the Smith Mine workers. The men would return home that evening with pay for their toil.

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Remembering Buffalo Creek


(A dog sits in Buffalo Creek hollow in the aftermath of the 1972 coal-slurry dam disaster in this photo by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce)

Thirty-seven years ago today, a coal-slurry dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, W.Va., broke. A wall of water and coal waste — 30 feet high and 550 feet across — burst from the impoundment, and rushed more than 15 miles down the hollow, toward the confluence of Buffalo Creek and the Guyandotte River at Man.

The disaster killed 125 people, injured 1,000 and left 4,000 homeless.

In 1997, the Gazette produced a special series, Voice of Buffalo Creek, to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster. The project included oral history-type interviews with survivors, a government inspector, a newspaper reporter, and others. We also published the full text of a citizens’ commission report on the disaster, and a Buffalo Creek chapter from my colleague Paul Nyden’s doctoral dissertation. And Gazette Editor James A. Haught wrote a story about his long investigation of Buffalo Creek including his quest to find out why then-Gov. Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement from Pittston Coal as complete payment for the state’s losses from the disaster.

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