West Virginia Coal Mine Disasters

Fairmont, West Virginia Newspaper, December 7, 1907

Fairmont, West Virginia Newspaper, December 7, 1907, headline for the worst mining disaster in U.S. History. 

Coal mining in West Virginia has always been a risky profession, especially before 1920, when laws had not been created to improve and monitor mine safety. During those years, working as a coal miner was an extremely unhealthy and dangerous occupation.

Mining accidents occurred from a variety of causes, including leaks of poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulfide or explosive natural gases, especially firedamp or methane, dust explosions, collapsing of mine stopes, mining-induced earthquakes, flooding, and general mechanical errors from improperly used or malfunctioning mining equipment, such as safety lamps or electrical equipment. The use of improper explosives underground also could cause methane and coal dust explosions.

Fallen coal miner about 1920.

Fallen coal miner about 1920.

Other accidents occurred due to fire and smoke, cave-ins, snowslides, gas inhalation, and machinery/equipment failures such as cage falls, mine car and hoisting accidents, and others.

Once the miner was down to his working level, he contended with moving tram cars, steam lines, electric wiring, various types of machinery, and the heavy, hot, and massively vibrating drills. Supporting timber if poorly positioned, or if the wood became water-soaked and rotten, or with minor shifts in the earth’s crust, tons of rock would suddenly fall, trapping or crushing the miners.

Coal mines were often filled with odorless and tasteless methane gas. Canaries, birds that were sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane, were used until the 1980s when handheld electronic detectors replaced them.

In general, early mine accidents were blamed on God or the carelessness of the miner. These attitudes on the part of the mine owners, the courts, and government agencies continued well into the 20th century.

Coal Mine Canary

Coal Mine Canary

In 1883 the West Virginia Legislature passed the first law regarding coal mining in the state. The law provided a qualified mine inspector to be appointed by the governor who appointed Oscar A. Veazey.

His job required him to prepare an annual report on the number of mines, employees, and a summary of his activities. It also required the reporting of all mine fatalities and the names of the victims, which was completed in 1883. The following year, Veazey proposed the first comprehensive mine safety laws.

Since 1883, when fatality records began to be kept, more than 21,000 miners have lost their lives in the West Virginia coal mines. In the early years, most of these deaths were single fatalities, and many were not investigated. However, in 1883, when 20 miners lost their lives, the legislature established the West Virginia Department of Mines and appointed Oscar Veazey as the first mine inspector. That year the first Annual Report was prepared, and the following year, Veazey proposed the first comprehensive mine safety laws. However, nothing was enacted.

On January 21, 1886, West Virginia’s first significant mining accident occurred at the Mountain Brook mine in Newburg. The methane gas and dust explosion ignited by an open light killed 39 men and was classified as the first mining “disaster” in the state. This would be the first in a long line of “disasters” in the following years.

West Virginia Mine Safety Bulletins

West Virginia Mine Safety Bulletins

In 1887, the Legislature passed the first significant mine safety laws; however, they were not published until 1897.

In the next decade, coal production increased from slightly more than two million tons in 1883 to more than 11 million tons by  1894. That year, the United Mine Works went on strike in West Virginia.

The next disaster occurred in Standard, West Virginia, on November 20, 1894. When coal was blasted using a dangerous method called “shooting from the solid,” meaning that they blasted the coal loose without first undercutting it, eight men lost their lives. Just two years earlier, three men had been killed there in the same manner.

By 1900, coal production had doubled to more than 22 million tons. The boom ushered in a period of great danger. Three months into the 20th century, a miner’s open light ignited methane gas at the Red Ash mine in Fayette County on March 6, 1900. The resulting explosion killed 46 men, many of whom were descendants of slaves, who had been lured from the South by the promise of good jobs.

In the early 1900s, over 18 months, a mine worker’s chance of being crushed, asphyxiated, burned, blasted, drowned, or similarly maimed or killed was more than 100%.

In 1905 the West Virginia Department of Mines was created. Two years later, a Mining Commission was appointed to propose new legislation. These laws were printed in the languages of the miners the same year. Though the laws were to improve and monitor mine safety, disasters would continue to occur.

Part of the problem was recruiting unskilled workers, including immigrants, who had never worked in the mines.

On January 29, 1907, at the Stuart Mine in Fayette County, an explosion was caused when an open light ignited gas. Occurring after disregarding safety rules, the explosion killed 85 men, most of whom were unskilled workers.

Monongah, West Virginia Mining Disaster.

Monongah, West Virginia Mining Disaster.

On December 6, 1907, the Fairmont Coal Company’s interconnected Number 6 and 8 mines at Monongah exploded, killing 361 miners, the worst coal mining disaster in U.S. history. People could feel the impacts from the explosions as far as eight miles away. Some people and animals were violently thrown by the force of the event, and many buildings were destroyed. To this day, officials aren’t sure of the cause. Many believe an equipment spark may have ignited dust or gasses in the air. Of those killed, only 74 were classified as “Americans.”

The resulting public outcry brought Congressional action, culminating in creating the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910. However, it would not be quick enough.

Mine Rescue Train Car

Mine Rescue Train Car

In that year, the largest number of major mine disaster events occurred in the United States. At this time, the Pullman Company made the first mine rescue railroad cars for the U.S. Bureau of Mines. These cars were former Pullman sleeping cars that were remodeled. The chief work of the car personnel was to investigate the cause of a mine disaster as quickly as possible, assist in the rescue of miners, and give first aid.

In the subsequent years, the cars continuously visited mining centers all over the nation to present demonstrations, lectures, and training. When a mine disaster occurred, the car was moved by a special locomotive or connected to the first train available.

In the first five years, 300 mine accidents, including explosions, fires, and cave-ins, were investigated, 230,000 attended lectures or demonstrations, 34,000 were given training in rescue and first-aid methods, and 11,700 training certificates were issued, increasing continuously from 509 in 1911 to 4,258 in 1915.

The Eccles mine disaster was an explosion of coal-seam methane that took place on April 28, 1914, in Eccles, West Virginia. The explosion took the lives of at least 180 men and boys.

The Eccles mine disaster was an explosion of coal-seam methane on April 28, 1914, in Eccles, West Virginia. The explosion took the lives of at least 180 men and boys.

The second worst mine explosion in the state occurred on April 28, 1914, at the New River Collieries Company’s Number 5 mine in Eccles, West Virginia. The gas explosion occurred when a miner decided to eliminate a wall of coal to create a shortcut. However, the controlled explosion cut off ventilation to the mining areas, and an open flame headlamp or lantern ignited the buildup of methane gas, triggering a tremendous explosion. In the tragedy, 183 miners lost their lives, and many of the bodies were trapped in the rubble for four days.

Eccles No. 5 mine disaster

Eccles No. 5 mine disaster on April 28, 1914.

Of the 4,260 miners killed in West Virginia between 1910 and 1920, 579 died in massive explosions and fires.

In the 1920s, new state and federal regulations and insistence for improved safety from the United Mine Workers began to create a safer environment. But disasters still occurred, some of them with significant losses of life. In 1924, the Benwood Mine in Marshall County exploded, killing 119. Three years later, the Federal No. 3 mine at Everettville blew up, killing 111.

On January 10, 1940, 91 died in a methane explosion at the Pond Creek No. 1 mine at Bartley, McDowell County, shattering any illusion that major mine disasters had become a thing of the past.

In the 1950s, ten disasters were added to the terrible total. Notable among these were two explosions at the Pocahontas Fuel Company’s No. 35 mine in Bishop in 1957 and 1958, killing a total of 59 miners.

Burying the dead after the Benwood Mine Explosion.

Burying the dead after the Benwood Mine Explosion.

In the early 1960s, fires, roof falls, and flooding took their toll, but it was nowhere near the numbers in previous years. For instance, a July 23, 1966 explosion at the Siltix Mine near Mount Hope killed seven miners, while 39 escaped.

But just two years later, another explosion occurred on November 20, 1968, when the vast Consolidated No. 9  mine at Farmington exploded, killing 78. Apparent that significant changes still needed to be made, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. West Virginia also tightened its rules and regulations. These changes at the state and federal levels finally made a major change in coal mine safety and significantly reduced mine disasters.

On July 22, 1972, at the Blacksville No. 1 mine in Monongalia County, a fire occurred while a continuous mining machine was moved to a new working section. Nine men working deep in the mine perished due to smoke and fumes that carried through the mine’s ventilation system.

Dola Mine Disaster, 1963.

Dola Mine Disaster, 1963.

Twenty years later, on March 19, 1992, another disaster occurred at the Blacksville No. 1 Mine. By that time, the mine was closed was being sealed. When drainage pipes were welded together and placed into the production shaft, a spark fell into the shaft, igniting methane gas, and four miners were killed.

The last coal mining disaster occurred on April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch Montcoal Eagle Mine in Naoma. The worst mine disaster in 40 years, the explosion killed 29 people.

To date, there have been 119 disasters at mines in West Virginia. Many more miners suffered disabling and lifelong injuries in nonfatal accidents.

Though the mining history in West Virginia is tragic, the state has furnished our nation and the world with the finest bituminous coal found anywhere. Today, the coal industry exhibits a sense of responsibility – social, health, safety, and environmental – that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

There are more people killed in farming accidents in the U.S. today than in coal mining accidents.

West Virginia Coal Mine Disasters:

Date Company  Mine Location  Accident Type # of Victims
January 21, 1886 Orrel Coal Company Mountain Brook Newburg Gas & Dust Explosion ignited by open light. This was classified as the first mining “disaster” in the state. 39
November 20, 1894 Blanch Coal Co. Blanch Standard Explosion 8
March 06, 1900 Red Ash Coal Company Red Ash Red Ash Gas Explosion ignited by open light 46
November 2, 1900 SO. Coal & Transportation Co. Berryburg Berryburg Powder Explosion 15
May 15, 1901 George’s Creek Coal & Iron Co Chatham Farmington Explosion 10
September 15, 1902 Algoma Coal and Coke Algoma No. 7 Algoma Explosion 17
September 22, 1902 New Central Coal Co. Stafford Stafford Explosion  6
February 26, 1905 Grapevine Coal Co. Grapevine Wilcoe Explosion 7
March 19, 1905 New River Smokeless Coal Co. Rush Run/Red Ash Red Ash Explosion 24
April 20, 1905 Cabin Creek Mining Co. Cabin Creek Kayford Powder Explosion 6
July 05, 1905 Tidewater Coal & Coke Co. Tidewater Vivian Explosion 5
November 04, 1905 Tidewater Coal & Coke Co. Tidewater Vivian Explosion  7
December 04, 1905 Cardiff Coal Co. Horton Cabin Creek Mine Fire 7
January 04, 1906 Coaldale Coal & Coke Co. Coaldale Coaldale Explosion 22
January 18, 1906 Detroit & Kanawha Coal Co. Detroit Paint Creek Explosion 18
February 08, 1906 Stuart Colliery Co. Parral Parral Explosion 23
March 22, 1906 Century Coal Co. Century Century Explosion 23
December 14, 1906 Pulaski Iron Co Pulaski Eckman Powder Explosion 6
January 26, 1907 Lorentz Lorentz Penco Powder Explosion 12
January 29, 1907 Stuart Colliery Co. Stuart Stuart Gas Explosion ignited by open light 85
February 4, 1907 Davis Coal & Coke Co. Thomas Thomas Explosion 25
May 01, 1907 White Oak Fuel Co. Wipple Scarbro Explosion 46
December 6, 1907 Fairmont Coal Co. Monongah 6 & 8 Monongah Explosion. This is the worst mining disaster in U.S. history. 361
January 30, 1908 New River Valley Coal Co. Backman Hawks Nest Explosion 9
December 29, 1908 Pocahontas Colleries Co. Lick Branch Switchback Dust explosion ignited by
excessive black powder
January 12, 1909 Pocahontas Colleries Co. Lick Branch Switchback Overcharged shot ignited coal dust, causing an explosion. 67
March 31, 1909  Beury Brothers Coal Co. Echo Beury Dynamite Explosion 16
December 31, 1910 Red Jacket Consolidated Lick Fork Thacker Haulage 10
April 24, 1911 Davis Coal & Coke Co. OTT No. 20 Elk Garden Explosion 23
August 01, 1911 Standard Pocahontas Fuel Co. Standard Caples Explosion 6
November 18, 1911 Bottom Creek Coal & Coke Co. Bottom Creek Vivian Explosion 18
March 26, 1912 Jed Coal & Coke Co. Jed Jed Gas Explosion ignited by an open light. 80
July 11, 1912 Ben Franklin Coal Co. Panama Moundsville Explosion 8
April 28, 1914 New River Collieries Co. Eccles No. 5 & 6 Eccles Gas Explosion ignited by an open light. It is the second-worst disaster in the state’s history. 183
June 30, 1914 Sycamore Coal Co. Cinderella Cinderella Suffocation 5
February 6, 1915 New River Co. Carlisle Carlisle Explosion 22
March 2, 1915 New River & Pocahontas Consolidated. Co. Layland No. 3 Layland Gas Explosion ignited by an open light. Survivors included 47 men who were trapped underground for five days. 112
March 30, 1915 Hanna Coal Co. Boomer No. 2 Boomer Explosion 23
March 28, 1916  King Coal Co. King No. 28 Vivian Explosion 10
October 19, 1916 Jamison Coal & Coke Co. Jamison No. 7 Barrackville Explosion 10
April 18, 1917 Hutchinson Coal Co. Lynden Mason Explosion 5
December 15, 1917 Yukon Pocahontas Coal Co. Yukon No. 1 Susanna Explosion 18
May 20, 1918 Mill Creek Cannel Mining Co. Villa Charleston Mine Fire 13
July 18, 1919 Houston Collieries Co. Carswell Kimball Explosion 7
August 6, 1919 New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Weirwood Weirwood Explosion 7
May 22, 1920 Mallory Coal Co. Mallory No. 3 Mallory Roof Fall 5
September 23, 1922 Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Co. Glen Rogers #2 Glen Rogers Falling Cage 5
March 2, 1923 Weyanoke Coal & Coke Co. Arista Arista Explosion 10
November 06, 1923 Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Co. Glen Rogers Beckley Explosion ignited by an arc from an electric drill 27
March 28, 1924 Yukon Pocahontas Coal Co. Yukon No. 2 Yukon Gas Explosion ignited by open lights. 24
April  28, 1924 Wheeling Steel Corp. Benwood Benwood Gas Explosion ignited by an open light. 119
March 17, 1925 Bethlehem Mines Corp. Barracksville Barracksville Explosion 33
January 14, 1926 Jamison Coal & Coke Co. Jamison No. 8 Farmington Explosion 19
 March 8, 1926 Crab Orchard Improvement Co. Eccles No. 5 Eccles Explosion 19
November  15, 1926 Glendale Gas Coal Co. Mound Shaft Moundsville Explosion 5
April 30, 1927 New England Fuel & Trans. Co. Federal No. 3 Everttville Locomotive ignited a gas explosion 97
May 13, 1927 Central Pocahontas Coal Co. Shannon Br. 3 Capels Explosion 8
April  2, 1928 Keystone Coal & Coke Co. Keystone No. 2 Keystone Explosion 8
May  22, 1928 Yukon Pocahontas Coal Co. Yukon No. 1 Yukon Explosion 17
June  20, 1928 National Fuel Co. No. 1 National Explosion 7
October 22, 1928 Macalpin Coal Co McCalpin McCalpin Explosion 6
November 30, 1928 Princess Pocahontas Coal Corp. Princess Pocahontas Roderfield Explosion 6
January  26, 1929 Kingston Pocahontas Coal Co. Inc. Kingston No. 5 Kingston Explosion 14
January 19, 1930 Lillybrook Coal Co. No. 1 Lillybrook Explosion 8
March 26, 1930 Crown Coal Co. Yukon Arnettsville Explosion 12
January 6, 1931 Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Co. Glen Rogers #2 Glen Rogers Explosion 8
November 3, 1931 Island Creek Coal Co. No. 20 Whitman Explosion 5
May 12, 1935 Bethlehem Mines Corp. No. 41 Barracksville Fire in Shaft 6
September 2, 1936 Hutchinson Coal Co. MacBeth MacBeth Explosion 10
March 11, 1937 Hutchinson Coal Co. MacBeth MacBeth Explosion 18
January 10. 1940 Pond Creek Pocahontas Coal Co. No. 1 Bartley Gas Explosion ignited by an electric arc. 91
December 17, 1940 Raleigh Coal & Coke Co. No. 4 Raleigh Explosion 9
January 22, 1941 Koppers Coal Co. Carswell Carswell Explosion 6
May 12, 1942 Christopher Coal Co. Christopher #3 Osage Gas Explosion ignited by arc in cutting machine
control box.
May 18, 1942 Hitchman Coal & Coke Co. Hitchman Benwood Explosion 5
July 9, 1942 Pursglove Coal Mining Co. Pursglove No. 2 Pursglove Explosion 20
December 15, 1942 Wyatt Coal Co. Laing No. 1 Laing Runaway Trip 5
January 8, 1943 Pursglove Coal Mining Co. Pursglove No. 15 Pursglove Mine Fire Suffocation 13
November 8, 1943 American Rolling Mill Co. Nellis No. 3 Nellis Explosion 11
March 25, 1944 Kathrine Coal Mining Co. Kathrine No. 4 Lumberport Explosion 16
January 15, 1946 New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Co. Havaco No. 9 Havaco Explosion 15
August 6, 1948 New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Co. Berwind No. 11 Capels Roof Fall 6
January 18, 1951 Burning Springs Collieries Co. Burning Springs Kermit Gas Explosion 11
October 15, 1951 Trotter Coal Co. Bunker Cassville Gas Explosion 110
October 31, 1951 Truax-Traer Coal Co. United No. 1 Wevaco Dust Explosion 12
November 13, 1954 Jamison Coal & Coke Co. No. 9 Farmington Explosion 16
February 4, 1957 Pocahontas Fuel Co. No. 35 Bishop Gas Explosion 37
December 9, 1957 Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Co. Glen Rogers No.2 Glen Rogers Mountain Bump 5
December 27, 1957 Pocahontas Fuel Co. No. 31 Amonate Gas Explosion 11
February 12, 1958 Amherst Coal Co. Lundale Lundale Roof Fall 6
October 27, 1958 Pocahontas Fuel Co. No. 35 Bishop Gas Explosion 22
October 28, 1958 Oglebay Norton Coal Co. Burton Craigsville Gas Explosion 14
March 8, 1960 Island Creek Coal Co. No. 22 Holden Mine Fire 18
November 9, 1962 Island Creek Coal Co. No. 28 Verdunville Haulage 3
April 25, 1963 Clinchfield Coal Co. Compass No. 2 Dola Gas Explosion 22
September 28, 1964 Island Creek Coal Co. No. 6 Bartley Gas Explosion 3
April 30, 1965 Mountaineer Coal Co. (Division of Consolidation Coal Co.) Consolidation No. 9 Farmington Gas Explosion 4
May 3, 1965 Dorothy Coal Co. No. 1 Garrison Roof Fall 3
October 16, 1965 Clinchfield Coal Co. Mars No. 2 Sardis Mine Fire 7
July 23, 1966 New River Co. Siltix Mount Hope Gas Explosion 7
September 10, 1966 Valley Camp Coal No. 3 Triadelphia Haulage 4
May 06, 1968 Gauley Coal & Coke Co. No. 8 Hominy Falls Mine Inundation 4
August 14, 1968 Amherst Coal Co. Lundale No. 1 Logan Roof Fall 3
November 20, 1968 Mountaineer Coal Co. (Division of Consolidation Coal Co.) No. 9 Farmington Explosion 78
December 12, 1968 Buffalo Mining Co. No. 8B Lyburn Mine Fire 3
June 11, 1971 Eastern Associated Coal Corp. Federal No. 2 Fairview Roof Fall 3
July 22, 1972 Consolidation Coal Co. Blacksville Blacksville Mine Fire 9
December 16, 1972 Itmann Coal Co. Itmann No. 3 Itmann Gas Explosion 5
October 02, 1974 Cowin & Co. (Contractors) Maple Meadow Mine Fairdale Falling Material 3
October 07, 1974 Monty Bros. Const. Co. (Contractor) Bolt Sewell Bolt Fall in Shaft 3
June 05, 1975 Eastern Associated Coal Corp. Harris No. 2 Bald Knob Rib Fall 3
November 26, 1975 Bethlehem Mines Corp. No. 105 Century Roof Fall 3
November 07, 1980 Westmorel & Coal Co. Ferrell Uneeda Gas Explosion 5
December 03, 1981 Elk River Sewell Coal Co. Still House No. 1 Bergoo Roof Fall 3
February 06, 1986 Consolidation Coal Co. Loveridge No. 22 Fairview Coal Storage Entrapment 5
March 19, 1992 Consolidation Coal Co. Blacksville No. 1 Wana Explosion In Shaft 4
January 22, 2003 Central Cambria Drilling Co. (Contractor) McCelroy Mine Graysville Explosion in Shaft 3
January 2, 2006  Anker WV Mining Co., Inc. Sago Mine Tallmansville Explosion & Entrapment 12
 April 5, 2010  Performance Coal Co. UBBMC Montcoal Eagle Naoma Explosion 29

©Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, November 2021.

Also See:

Mining on the American Frontier

West Virginia Coal Mining

West Virginia Mine Wars

West Virginia – The Mountain State