Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters
Southern Illinois University Press, 2006
Paper: 978-0-8093-2706-5 | eISBN: 978-0-8093-8799-1
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ABOUT THIS BOOK
Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters examines two of the most devastating coal mine disasters in United States history since 1928. In two southern Illinois towns only forty miles apart, explosions killed 111 men at the Centralia No. 5 mine in 1947 and 119 men at the New Orient No. 2 mine in West Frankfort in 1951. Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney explain the causes of the accidents, identify who was to blame, and detail the emotional impact the disasters had on the survivors, their families, and their communities.
Politics at the highest level of Illinois government played a critical role in the conditions that led to the accidents. Hartley and Kenney address how safety was compromised when inspection reports were widely ignored by state mining officials and mine company supervisors. Highlighted is the role of Driscoll Scanlan, a state inspector at Centralia, who warned of an impending disaster but whose political enemies shifted the blame to him, ruining his career. Hartley and Kenney also detail the New Orient No. 2 mine explosion, the attempts at rescue, and the resulting political spin circulated by labor, management, and the state bureaucracy. They outline the investigation, the subsequent hearings, and the efforts in Congress to legislate greater mine safety.
Hartley and Kenney include interviews with the survivors, a summary of the investigative records, and an analysis of the causes of both mine accidents. They place responsibility for the disasters on individual mine owners, labor unions, and state officials, providing new interpretations not previously presented in the literature. Augmented by twenty-nine illustrations, the volume also covers the history, culture, and ethnic pluralism of coal mining in Illinois and the United States.
Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney are the authors of An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818–2003. Robert E. Hartley, a journalist for the Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers in Illinois from 1962 to 1979, is the author of Lewis and Clark in Illinois Country: The Little-Told Story and Paul Powell of Illinois: A Lifelong Democrat. David Kenney served in the cabinet of Illinois Governor James Thompson and has taught political science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is the author of A Political Passage: The Career of Stratton of Illinois and the coauthor of Basic Illinois Government: A Systematic Explanation.
Illinois possesses a fascinating labor history that offers historians an opportunity to explore the working lives of men and women in a variety of trades and industries over the course of many decades. Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney have made a useful addition to that history in their collaborative monograph Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters. Hartley and Kenney present a detailed account of these two mine tragedies of the mid-twentieth century when coal mining was still a major industry and trade for the state's working class. The authors take the reader on a journey into the mines, the state bureaucracy of mine inspections and party politics, and into the lives of the miners and their families. This comprehensive history is both academically sound and interesting to read. The voices of the historical actors are present throughout the narrative, making this a work of history that could appeal to a popular audience as well as to students of Illinois and labor history.
The authors set the context for the Centralia and West Frankfort mine disasters with a brief history of mining in the United States, but most appropriately in Illinois. They examine the early coal industry in the state, its first workers and communities, mining accidents, and union organization. John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) feature prominently in this introductory chapter and in later sections of the book. In part one, the local history of mining really begins. Centralia's origins as an important rail stop for the Illinois
Central and an early coal source as railroads transitioned from wood to coal as locomotive fuel demonstrates the town's long association with coal mining. Quickly, the authors move to the issue of mine safety, a major theme of Death Underground. Centralia's mine No. 5 had serious safety problems, particularly regarding combustible coal dust. The miners realized that there was a serious problem with coal dust and sought assistance from the state. Mine inspector Driscoll Scanlan -- according to the authors -- tried to warn his superiors in the Department of Mines and Minerals and on the State Mining Board, but to no avail.
The death and destruction at the mine in March 1947 left deep anguish for families of the victims and devastating political consequences in its wake. Hartley and Kenney delve into the fallout of the mine disaster with a detailed examination of the political process to determine why the disaster took place and who was to blame. As intense investigations and testimony ensued, Scanlan and his superior, Robert Medill, locked horn's over culpability. The authors paint a rather sympathetic portrait of Scanlan, though they do mention that he did have the power to close the mine. Moreover, Hartley and Kenney thoroughly evaluate the competence of the state and management of the mine in relation to the issue of mine safety. But what makes this monograph more than an academic treatment of, mine disasters and political intrigue is the authors' moving portrayal of the lives of miners and their families. Hartley and Kenney narrate the stories of how some miners lost their lives even down to their last moments in which they left brief notes for their families before they succumbed to the poisoned air in the mine following the explosion. The authors also treat the lives of the family members who lost loved ones as well as those who survived the tragedy.
The final portion of Death Underground focuses on the 1951 disaster at West Frankfort. Here, 119 men lost their lives in an explosion at the New Orient No. 2 mine. Again, the authors bring forth the human cost of the tragedy while simultaneously analyzing the political ramifications of yet another major Illinois coal-mine catastrophe. Hartley and Kenney take a balanced approach in trying to determine culpability for the explosion. Was it methane gas or coal dust that fueled the explosion? Was the miners' poor attention to safety to blame, or did faulty ventilation and inadequate rock-dusting procedures point the blame at management? Could Governor Adlai Stevenson's mine-safety legislation, which was held up by a reluctant General Assembly, have made a difference? In other words, was the problem party politics? And where did the UMWA fit into this story? Did the union fail to protect its members? The authors try to answer these questions with a thorough analysis of the historical record. They do not take a partisan stand, nor do they have a particular agenda other than to create good scholarship. Ultimately, Death Underground is a significant contribution to a troubling yet highly significant part of the history of Illinois and of America's working class.
— Greg Hall, Journal of Illinois History
TABLE OF CONTENTS
List of Illustrations 000
Map of Illinois 000
Part One. Centralia, March 25, 1947: 111 Dead
1. More Than a Coal Town 000
2. "Please Save Our Lives" 000
3. Day of Reckoning 000
4. Years of Strife 000
5. A Pox on All Houses 000
6. Miners' Lives 000
7. The Reality of Coal Politics 000
Part Two. West Frankfort, December 21, 1951: 119 Dead
8. "It's All Blown to Hell" 000
9. Burying the Dead 000
10. Seeking the Cause and Greater Safety 000
11. Affected Lives 000
Conclusion: After the Disasters 000
Appendix 1. Miners Killed in the Centralia Mine Disaster 000
Appendix 2. Miners Killed in the West Frankfort Mine Disaster
Glossary of Coal Mining Terms 000
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