Like the grimy, black dust that coats coal mines, grief and misery blanketed a West Virginia town and two Western Pennsylvania communities in December 1907.
That was the U.S. coal mining industry's darkest month because during those 31 days, five disasters extinguished the lives of more than 700 men. In Pennsylvania, two separate explosions, one at the Darr Mine in Westmoreland County and another at the Naomi Mine in Fayette County, killed 273 men.
But the deadliest coal mine explosion in the United States occurred 50 miles south of Pittsburgh in Monongah, W.Va., where 361 men perished on the morning of Dec. 6, 1907. Some men were blown to bits; the dead included Fiorangelo DiSalvo, a 12-year-old boy. Two other explosions, one in an Alabama mine and another in New Mexico, added to the month's high body count.
"The Darkest Month," an exhibition about the grim side of America's Industrial Revolution, opens Saturday at the Senator John Heinz History Center. The show, which runs through June 8, features 65 photographs, miners' artifacts, illustrations, mementos from a Hungarian miner's home life and a 10-minute video about Monongah by Argentine Productions of Mt. Lebanon.
Also on Saturday, mine safety expert Davitt McAteer will participate in an educational symposium with two labor historians, a folklore expert and West Virginia state Democratic Sen. Roman Prezioso. From 1994 to 2000, Mr. McAteer served as assistant secretary for Mine Safety and Health in the U.S. Department of Labor.
Mining is as topical today as it was a century ago. Twelve men died on Jan. 2, 2006, in a mine explosion in Sago, W.Va., and six men perished earlier this year after a roof collapsed in the Crandall Canyon Mine in central Utah.
Mr. McAteer spent three decades researching and writing his book, "Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, The Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History." At the History Center symposium, he will sign copies of his book, published by West Virginia University Press. The Monongah explosion was significant because it prompted Congress to create the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910, Mr. McAteer said.
The men who died in Monongah left behind 250 widows and 1,000 children. Consolidation Coal Co. paid for funeral expenses and gave about $150 to each family. A relief commission worked with foreign consulates to send aid back to families that remained behind in Europe.
But in the aftermath, many widows were unable to support themselves.
"A lot of them packed up and returned to their country of origin," said Nicholas Ciotola, the Heinz History Center curator who organized the exhibition.
Many of the dead miners were immigrants who had left Italy, Poland or Hungary, passed through Ellis Island and into the dark, dangerous mines where they worked long, arduous hours.
Ironically, these men were three to four times more likely to die on the job in the United States than their counterparts who stayed behind to labor in European mines, Mr. Ciotola said. Overall, safety conditions were better in Europe.
At the start of the 20th century, America's appetite for coal was insatiable because it fueled railroads, steam ships, the steel industry and electricity. Demand for cheap labor was so high that coal companies dispatched brokers overseas to recruit immigrants to work in the mines.
Men often took their sons, nephews or uncles into the mines with them to increase their production and these workers were not forced to check in when they entered the mine. Coal was dug, blasted, loaded onto carts drawn by horses or mules and weighed at the tipple. Miners were paid based on how much clean coal they produced.
The practice of taking relatives into the mine, called working off the books, was common in Monongah. Mr. McAteer believes that as many as 500 or more men died in the 1907 disaster but that the number cannot be confirmed because many bodies or remains were never identified.
Another reason so many men died in Monongah is that No. 6 mine and No. 8 mine were connected by a wooden door.
"You doubled the number of people who were at risk in an explosion," Mr. McAteer said, adding that in 1907, allowing employees to work in connected mines was a practice already prohibited in Europe, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In 1907, Mr. McAteer said, "We didn't have any rescue system to rescue miners," adding that such systems were not established until the 1930s.
Thirteen days after the Monongah explosion, on the morning of Dec. 19, the earth rumbled, shaking clapboard homes in Jacob's Creek, just across the Youghiogheny River from Darr Mine in Van Meter. Gas and dust poured from the Westmoreland County mine's entrance and 261 men died. The poisonous gas, called afterdamp, killed many miners who survived the explosion.
The lives of several hundred Carpatho-Rusyn miners were spared because instead of reporting for work at the Darr Mine, they honored St. Nicholas by going to church. The same was true for Italian immigrants in Monongah, who followed a different calendar and observed the saint's feast day on Dec. 6.
Historically, advances in coal production have outpaced improvements in health and safety and this is still true today, Mr. McAteer said.
"The mining industry still uses telephones that are hard wired and were developed in the 1950s," Mr. McAteer said.
Since the Sago mine explosion, three new communication systems have been in development. Besides providing better protection for miners underground, Mr. McAteer said, the industry needs a better way to track miners. Many employees who go underground take a brass tag with a number, put it in their pocket and place another brass tag with the same number on a board. That system, employed at Monongah a century ago, was still in use at the Sago mine.
"When I find you, I know who you are. That system exists currently," Mr. McAteer said.
To register for the Dec. 1 symposium, call Nick Ciotola at 412-454-6433. The symposium fee is $19.07 (matching the year of the mine explosions) and includes admission to the museum for Dec. 1 and a breakfast from 8 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. The fee does not include lunch. The symposium concludes at 3:30 p.m.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 29, 2007) A 1908 photograph that appeared with this story as originally published on Nov. 28, 2007 on mining's darkest days showed a trapper boy from Turkey Knob Mine in Macdonald, W.Va. The location of the mine was misidentified in the caption.
Marylynne Pitz can be rached at email@example.com or 412-263-1648. First Published November 28, 2007 5:00 AM