Imagine, if you can, a world without worker’s compensation. If you were hurt on the job you had to generally rely on friends, family and charitable organizations for help. In 1911 that changed in Illinois as the State adopted a liability act, which later developed into the Illinois Workmens’ Compensation Act. This was a direct result of the public outrage over a mine disaster in the small town of Cherry, Illinois.
November 13, 1909 began like most days in the St. Paul Mine as approximately 481 men and boys climbed into the wooden cage that carried them down into the mine. The electrical system which lighted the tunnels was out of order, as it had been the past few weeks, so they were lit by kerosene torches that hung from the walls. There were about 40 mules working in the mine that day and after the workers finished lunch, around 12:30, the mine manager order six bundles of hay to be sent down to the mule stables. The car containing the hay was sent down to the second level and from there it was pushed toward the stables by Robert Deans and 15-year-old Matt Francesco. As they gave the car a final push toward the stables it rolled to a stop near the downward shaft. What they did not see, as they walked back to the main cage, was that the hay stacked high in the car was directly under one of the kerosene torches and soon caught on fire.
So began one of the worst coal mining disasters in U. S. history. In the end 259 men and boys perished, in spite of heroic rescue attempts. Only 20 men were rescued. They had walled themselves off (to avoid the “black damp” , the mixture of unbreathable gases that form when oxygen is removed from an enclosed atmosphere) 500 feet underground. They spent eight harrowing days in complete darkness with only a pool of water that trickled from a coal seam to drink.
On November 14-15, 2009 the Village of Cherry will commemorate the 100th anniversary of this tragic event. On their website about the disaster, The Illinois Labor History Society has provided information about the commemoration:
This November 14-15, the Village of Cherry will commemorate the disaster and the miners. A full weekend of ceremonies is planned, free and open to the public.
On both days, there will be walking and trolley tours of the town, mine site and cemetery. Videos on labor topics are scheduled, along with displays and genealogical workshops. On Saturday, November 14, a new monument will be dedicated at Cherry’s Village Hall. Chicago Fire Fighters’ Local 2’s color guard will lead the procession to the dedication. In 1909, Chicago fire fighters came to Cherry to help extinguish the blaze. Preceding the dedication, labor musician Bucky Halker will sing coal mining and labor songs.
Confirmed speakers for the dedication include Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, United Mine Workers Vice-President Steve Earl, Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, State Senator Gary Dahl and State Representative Frank Mautino. Confirmation is still pending on other speakers.
On Sunday, November 15, the tours and displays will continue. At 11:45 a.m., people will gather at the Cherry Grade School. For many years it was traditional for Cherry children to march to the cemetery on the disaster’s anniversary. After a march to the cemetery, there will be speeches from Italian representatives. Many of the immigrant miners who died were recent arrivals to the U.S. from Italy. Speakers include Italian Consul General Alessandro Motta, Charles Bernardini, immediate past-president of the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest – Chicago; and Silvia Bartolini, President of Emilia-Romagna Citizens Abroad.
Cherry is on Route 89, about five miles north of I-80, in Bureau County. The small village has kept alive the story of the workers who never came home.
For More Information about The Cherry Mine Disaster:
Eight Days in a Burning Mine
The narrative of Thomas White, who was trapped in the mine with nineteen others, as told to The World Magazine in 1911.
(Source: U. S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety & Health Administration)
Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster
In 1910 the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled a complete report on the Cherry Mine Disaster. It includes the story of the disaster; information about the miners who were killed (including their country of origin, families and children); the public response to the disaster; details of the settlement with the St. Paul Coal Company.
(Source: Illinois Digital Archives)
Tragedy in November: the Cherry Mine Disaster
Article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, v.72, no.1
(Source: Illinois Digital Archives)
Stout, Steve. Black Damp: the story of the Cherry mining disaster. Utica, Ill. : Utica House Pub. Co., 1979
Pauley, Jeffrey W. The Cherry Mine disaster and its impact on state and federal legislation. Thesis (M.A.)–Illinois State University, 1995
Tintori, Karen. Trapped: the 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster. New York : Atria Books, 2003
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