The Avondale Mine Disaster
September 6, 1869

Part I: Description of the Mine and Accident



Below you will find a transcription of a research paper written by James M. Corrigary regarding the Avondale Mine Disaster (Plymouth, Luzerne Co., Pa.) of 6 Sept 1869, an accident that claimed the lives of 110 men and boys, miners and mine laborers. The report is found at the Mine Safety and Health Administration Library in Denver, Colorado, and provides fascinating eyewitness accounts of the accident and its aftermath, along with testimony from the official inquest. At times the eyewitness accounts are heart-wrenching and gruesome, particularly when the corner describes the condition of the bodies as they were recovered from the mine. The testimony at the official inquest into the accident makes for compelling reading as well, as witness made varying statements regarding the safety of the mine, and the precautions taken to prevent just such a disaster. Due to its length, I have broken the paper into five parts contained on five separate pages. There is a sixth page featuring illustrations of the Avondale Disaster and it's aftermath, from the September 24, 1869 issue of Harper's Weekly. I have also used these drawings throughout the other five pages to better illustrate the story of the disaster.

  • Part I:
  • Physical description of the mine and details of the accident
  • Part II:
  • Initial recovery efforts
  • Part III:
  • Recovery of the miner's bodies
  • Part IV:
  • The funerals, widows and orphaned children
  • Part V:
  • The official inquest into the accident
  • Part VI:
  • Harper's Weekly illustrations of the Avondale Disaster

    In the days when miners had few rights, and mine owners were rarely held accountable for injuries suffered by their workers, it is probable that most contemporary commentators assigned little blame for the disaster to the mining company itself. Nevertheless, the Avondale Disaster caused new mining regulations to be enacted, including the mandating of double-shaft mines, and the prohibition against collieries being built directly over the mine shaft. It is unfortunate, however, that such measures were taken only after a disaster of this magnitude.

    Jeffrey L. Thomas
    jltbalt1@verizon.net


    Part I: Description of the Mine and Accident

    THE
    GREAT DISASTER
    AT
    AVONDALE COLLIERY
    SEPTEMBER 6, 1869

    Subject: Mine disaster, Avondale Colliery, Delaware, Western, and Western Railroad Company, Plymouth, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, September 6, 1869, 179 killed.

    A wooden breaker constructed over the shaft opening to the underground workings caught on fire. The shaft was the sole means of exit from the mine; consequently, the men working underground were trapped and died of suffocation.

    Although gas hazards were due mainly to poor ventilation, many of the mines in (the) early days had but one shaft to the surface. One morning, in September, 1869, in an Avondale, Pa. mine, the wooden beams and planking lining the shaft were set afire by sparks from the ventilating furnace. Flames quickly made the shaft a roaring inferno which no man could approach. For hours, water was pumped into the shaft, and along towards evening rescue parties were able to ascend.

    Catastrophes of the nature aroused tremendous public indignation. One result was the formation of a group known as the Molly Maguires, who raised havoc in the anthracite fields, being charged with the deaths of a large number of mine bosses. Although it is doubtful that the Mollys had much effect on improving hazardous conditions, they kept the subject of safety and demonstrated how poor accident experience could be made an excuse for mob violence.

    AVONDALE CONTRADICTIONS
    BY JAMES M. CORRIGARY

    The author of the accompanying article on the Avondale Disaster, in research on that historic and tragical event, was amazed at the mis-statements he found in frequently accepted versions of the Plymouth tragedy.

    To show how far some of numerous historical references to the Avondale Disaster have strayed from the truth, Corrigan cites these "authorities":---

    The U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Mines, in publications on "Coal Mining Fatalities," and Coal Mining Disasters in the United States," issued in 1916 and 1946, gave the Avondale total fatality figure as 179.

    Even the generally historically reliable volume on the anthracite mining industry prepared at the insistence of the Hudson Coal Co. and published in 1932, titled The Story of Anthracite," asserted erroneously (on page 168): "The greatest mine fire disaster in the anthracite industry occurred at the Avondale Colliery at Plymouth, Penn., on September 6, 1869, when 179 men lost their lives."

    THE AVONDALE DISASTER
    STARTLING ANNOUNCEMENT

    Monday morning, September 6th, 1869, the entire coal mining region of Pennsylvania, and in fact, the whole country, was startled by the telegraphic announcement that the coal breaker head house and other buildings over the shaft of the Avondale mine (formerly known as Steuben), situated in the Wyoming Valley, one mine below Plymouth, were on fire, and that "two hundred and two" human beings were thereby confined in the recesses of the mine, with little prospect of ever again seeing the light of day.

    THE MINE PROPERTY

    The Avondale mine property was leased by Mr. J. C. Phelps, of Wilkes-Barre, June 13, 1863, of William C. Reynolds, Henderson Gaylord, and others. In January 1866, Mr. Phelps assigned it to the Steuben Coal Company, which was subsequently merged with the Nanticoke Coal & Iron Company, who built the destroyed works.

    The mine is driven into what are known as the Shawnee Hills, which overlook the valley on the north. The hills rise abruptly to a great height behind the ruins of the breaker, etc., and are thickly covered with primeval forest trees. Standing on the made ground on which the breaker was situated, and looking southerly, a most beautiful view presents itself. Immediately below and on either hand are streets of miner's houses, all neatly whitewashed. Still lower down is the Bloomsburg Railroad track. Lower still, looking over the Shawnee Flats, and nearly half a mile distant, silently flows the placid Susquehanna river, while luxuriant meadows, broad in extent, make from either side. The Dundee Shaft and other coal works and numerous hamlets dot the landscape, and in the distance the Wilkes-Barre mountains loom up, completing a picture which for variety and beauty can hardly be surpassed.

    The works were built for Moses Taylor of New York, and were finished in September, 1867, being considered the finest in the valley. The size of the shaft was 10 x 22 feet 4 inches, with hoisting ways 7 feet wide for coal, and an air way 7 feet wide. The top of the breaker was 60 feet above the mouth of the shaft. Four hundred and fifty thousand feet of lumber was required for the buildings and the brattice work of the shaft. The plans and specifications for the breaker were made at the Dickson Manufacturing Works, Sevantoe, where the machinery was also built, under the supervision of the late Mr. John A. Dickson, it being the last work pleased by him. The machinery was as follows: One 40-horse power engine for driving breakers, screens, and side planes; one pair of 40-horse power engine each, for hoisting coal from the pit, and one 80-horse power engine carrying 18-inch plunger pumps, 9 feet stroke. All the above machinery was supplied with steam from six boilers, 34 inches in diameter and 40 feet long. The breakers consisted of one pair, 16 x 36 inches, for breaking down the large coal as it comes from the mine, and one pair, 18 x 30 inches, for rebreaking the grate coal. There was one 6 foot, two 5 foot, and two 4 foot screens for separating the various kinds of coal. The breaker and buildings burned several above half an acre of ground. The capacity of the breaker was between 800 and 400, one of lump, and between 800 and 900 tons of prepared coal.

    On the preceding page will be found a plan of the interior of the mine which represents the later exactly as it was the morning of the disaster.

    (Note: This drawing was not included in he report that I viewed.)

    The drawing for it was made by Mining Engineer John F. Sayder, of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company, from the original working plan of the mine, to which has been added, by Mr. Henry J. Phillips, also a mining engineer of the Company, the latest workings of the mine. Letters (on bottom of map) refer to foot notes, indicating toe position of the shaft, (furnaces) ventilation fans, stable, all gangways, airways, cross-cuts, doors, planes, etc., together with the parties of the east gangway in which were found huddled together sixty-seven unfortunate miners. The black portions represent the coal left for pillars, and the white chambers which are worked. The drawing is made to scale, 990 feet to the inch.

    DISCOVERY AND PROGRESS OF FIRE

    The fire was first discovered by people outside, issuing from the top of the head house, but before that time, Mr. Alexander Weir, the engineer, had been startled by its rushing up the shaft with great fury and with a sound not unlike that of an explosion or pouff. So rapidly did it carry on its work that he was merely enabled to blow out the whistle and arrange matters to prevent a boiler explosion, being obliged finally to make his exit without (securing) his hat. In an almost incredibly short space of time everything combustible about the entire works was in flames - a line of fire extending from the Bloomsburg Railroad track below, to the head house above, a distance of not less than three hundred feet. When (seen) in full progress, the night was grand beyond description. Imagine a plane of fire running up at an angle of about thirty-three degrees toward the hill above, and after it has accomplished that distance, see it shoot up in one immense column into the air, while dense clouds of smoke envelope all surrounding objects, and the reader can have a faint idea of the spectacle.

    But there was another phase of the scene at this time which harrowed the very soul. Surrounding the fire on every side were hundreds of men, women and children, the female portion of whom were making the air resound with their terrible cries of distress. Wives were wringing their hands and wailing "Oh! my goodness," "God have mercy," "Who'll take care of my children?" and using ..... of endearment and woe. Mothers were crying out for their children as only mothers can cry, and feeling only as mothers can feel. Fathers were mourning the loss of their first born or the sons of their later years. Brothers were mourning the loss brothers, and sweethearts were frantic over their lost fond lovers, who only the evening previous, perhaps, had ..... bosoms and whose kisses were yet burning on their lips. ..... advice or consolation served to quiet them. The state of ..... when most of the bereaved relatives became more calm ..... effort making to extinguish the fire. During the ..... were much less frequent, although individual ..... might have been frequently seen in the neighborhood ..... from the cabins of the miners.

    ..... great fears were entertained that all the ..... side hill, both ways from the fire, would ..... household goods were removed to a place of ..... providentially the wind blew up the hill ..... burning only the forest trees, which blazed and ..... scorching heat like very.....

    ..... to be visible to the surrounding country and to the neighboring collieries, men began to flock toward the burning breaker, and (when) a large crown assembled, which ..... By noon ..... thousands every ..... place thronging with ..... The first thought of the mine was to remove the blasting powder from the magazines to the ..... He then ..... to ..... Wilkes-Barre for fire engines. Mssrs. ..... immediately set themselves about organizing a bucket brigade from a large water tank on the hill to the fire. Throwing water upon it until the arrival of the first fire apparatus - head engine ..... from Kingston. This engine was Accompanied by Master Mechanic Graham of the I & ..... and a large force of shop men, and was placed on the hill near the head of the shaft. It was supplied from the buckets until a trough was laid from the bank on the hill above, through which is was thenceforth furnished with a constant supply of water. Good Will engine No. I, of Wilkes-Barre accompanied Chief Engineer Woodward and a large company of men arrived next. (Nay Aug) steam fire engine of Scranton (S. B. Bulwell, Foreman), reached the ground about one o'clock. This was accompanied by about four hundred foot of hose and by a company of men. Supt. Starre, Mining Engineer Sayder, and others, were on the main which carried Nay Aug down. A line of hose was stretched up the hill, and drawn above a wall of stone thirty-five feet high, at the top of which was loaded the upper portion of the breaker and the head hoses of the works. After being supplied for a time by Good Will engine, the steamer took suction in a stream below the railroad, and sent a powerful volume of water into the mouth of the shaft, which was covered with a seething mass of burning timbers. About the middle of the afternoon the two streams form the Kingston and Scranton engines had subdued the fire in a great measure, and Nay Aug's was then removed to a distant tunnel, the mouth of which is situated at the foot of the high wall mentioned. When the rubbish which encumbered the shaft was cleared away, the stream of water was carried into the tunnel to an opening in the side of the shaft, down which the flood was poured until all fire was extinguished. This opening is about thirty feet below the head of the shaft and about fifty feet from the mouth of the tunnel. Good Will engine all this time had a constant stream of water upon a huge mass of burning coal which was in the chutes between the railroad and the head house above when the fire broke out.


    Continue with Part II: The initial recovery efforts
    Harper's Weekly illustrations of the Avondale Disaster
    Learn more about the Avondale Disaster victims buried in the Washburn Street cemetery.
    View a survey of the Washburn Street cemetery, Hyde Park/Scranton
    Read more about the history of Hyde Park with an emphasis on mining
    Read more about Benjamin Hughes, brother of Avondale Mine Boss Evan Hughes
    Return to the main page at the Thomas family web site

    Web site copyright 2005 by Jeffrey L. Thomas, with all rights reserved
    e-mail: jltbalt1@verizon.net