The Black Damp
November 12, 2011 4:47 PM   Subscribe

On the morning of November 13, 1909 there were around 500 men and boys working in the St. Paul mine in Cherry, IL. It would be more than six months before the last body was recovered. posted by timsteil (21 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Renoroc at 4:52 PM on November 12, 2011

Blackdamp (also known as stythe or choke damp) is an asphyxiant, reducing the available oxygen content of air to a level incapable of sustaining human or animal life. It is not a single gas but a mixture of unbreathable gasses left after oxygen is removed from the air and typically consists of nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide and water vapour. The suffix damp is believed to derive from the German word for vapours ("Dampf"). The word damp is used in similar mining terms such as white damp (carbon monoxide), fire damp (typically methane) and stink damp (hydrogen sulfide).
posted by Blasdelb at 5:23 PM on November 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

About half-past one o'clock in the afternoon a car of hay that was being pushed along a track between the shafts in the second vein took fire from a blazing oil torch stuck in the wall there. The men at work near by, with the carelessness born of long experience with small fires, at first regarded the conflagration without alarm. The car was run to the escapement shaft, and dumped down it to the third vein, where it was thought it would burn itself out on the bottom without igniting the timbers of the shaft. Left thus unheeded, the fire gained a foothold in the shaft before any effort was made to extinguish it. Then the officials and employees lost their heads, and wasted much valuable time in a futile effort to put out the fire, instead of warning the men and getting them out of the mine. Thus it happened that many of the men did not learn of the outbreak until they finished work after three o'clock and came to the shaft to be hoisted to the surface.

posted by swift at 5:28 PM on November 12, 2011

That story by Thomas White (the "sealed themselves off" link) is absolutely riveting.

May the dead be at peace.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:35 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

That's a crazy story I had never heard. Great link. Some of the associated links for other tragedies are equally riveting.

You can still the see the slag heaps from the mine on Google maps.

What a horrible way to go.
posted by lampshade at 6:38 PM on November 12, 2011

"In a few months I was quite recovered from the immediate effects of my week underground, but a pasty, whitish colour of the skin, sore eyes, a prematurely-aged appearance, and a sharp pain in my lungs at times while I am at work underground, with a lack of my previous energy and vitality, remain to remind me of those eight days of suffering and terror, over three hundred feet below the surface of the earth, imprisoned in the burning Cherry Mine."

I don't know what to say.
posted by longsleeves at 6:45 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I noticed he returned to working underground and had to marvel at his willpower to return everyday to what could have been, and could have still been, his grave.
posted by saucysault at 6:52 PM on November 12, 2011

That is just horrible. Just seeing the title "Eight Days In A Burning Mine" from the "sealed them selves off..." link gives me chills.

There's a detailed diagram of mine on the 7th page of this PDF.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:23 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have driven by this site dozens of times over the years. That slag heap was the signal to my sisters and me to start fishing around in the backseat of the old station wagon for our shoes, as the long drive to my grandma's house in La Moille was nearly done. The heap always fascinated me. The land right around it is flat as a table, an endless ocean of corn and soybeans. The wind farms that have sprung up in that area were decades away. It was like a miniature mountain that happened to have had rockslides on every side, and was an odd color too.

Over the years and road trips, the few scrubby plants multiplied and the heap, from the safe distance of the road, started to look rather green and pleasant. Almost like it was really a scaled-down mountain put there to give another small town some eminence, like the neighboring hamlets with their old cannons or a tank.

Then as I got older, I began to be interested in the history of these little towns I loved: La Moille, Mendota, and yes, eventually I read about the Cherry Mine disaster. It was unreal. One of my landmarks (and I don't have many) was a monument of death for many and suffering for those who continued to live nearby.

I am crying as I write this.

posted by clever sheep at 8:01 PM on November 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

"Even as we wrote, the "black-damp" overtook us and we were compelled to plunge deeper into the cave that we expected to be our grave. The gas was odourless, but caused a suffocating feeling, as though a weight was crushing the chest, and a weakening sensation throughout the body. Our one thought at that time was to get as far into the mine as possible, and thus avoid contact with the gas until we could retreat no farther."

So basically, trapped underground and waiting to die, if you have an anxiety attack it's POSSIBLE that it's actually just an invisible poison gas whose only symptom is having an anxiety attack. Great.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 8:27 PM on November 12, 2011

I got claustrophobic while reading that. I'm going to go outside, stand in the middle of the street, and breathe nice, clean fresh air.

Great post.
posted by book 'em dano at 8:31 PM on November 12, 2011

long drive to my grandma's house in La Moille

Small world clever. I grew up in Mendota.
posted by timsteil at 8:44 PM on November 12, 2011

If you are over fifty, you know where you were and what you were doing on 21 October 1966.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:41 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, what great links. The events leading to the fire sound almost comical in the way that people were madly trying to stop the disaster in ways that made it unstoppable - but that's what people do when they panic, that's why you need to have emergency procedures designed and practiced ahead of time. One thing that wasn't mentioned was the fate of mules - like British pit ponies, I presume that they had always been fated to live and die in the mines without ever seeing the sun again. Coal mining was an awful business; it ruined everything it touched.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:13 AM on November 13, 2011

Having grown up in the hills in Pennsylvania, we all knew the story of what happened to Centralia, which seemed damned terrifying to me when I first learned it. But at least you can, you know, pick up and leave town. Being stuck a few hundred feet underground and waiting for either rescue or certain death is one of my worst nightmares.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:12 AM on November 13, 2011

I grew up near there, and the worst part of the story for me was always this...

"Twelve of these miners, once they reached the surface, volunteered to go back down into the mine and rescue the trapped miners using the hoisting cage in the main shaft. There were some immediate heroes like miner John Bundy, who made six trips back down into the mine to rescue his fellow workers, perhaps some who were his friends.

However, on the seventh and final trip back down into the mine, the cage operator either got the signals mixed up or misunderstood them from one of the miners and brought the cage and the miners back up to the surface too late. The rescuers and the rescued miners were burnt to death to the horror of family members, miners, mining officials and others who had crowded around the shaft."

posted by timsteil at 6:19 AM on November 13, 2011

"If you are over fifty, you know where you were and what you were doing on 21 October 1966."
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:41 AM

I was not born then but read about this as a child. I was incredulous, even at that age, that the situation with the waste on the hill was allowed to happen.



posted by marienbad at 7:32 AM on November 13, 2011

.......remains one of the worst in US history..........

(fixed the link.....various newspaper accounts.)
posted by lampshade at 9:28 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Coal mining was an awful business; it ruined everything it touched.

It's funny, I was just driving through Haydock yesterday, which is about 15 miles from where I live.

But I remember those pits closing. The people who worked there were really unhappy about the loss of the work. It seemed strange to me then -- and still does, I suppose.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:43 AM on November 13, 2011

The 'sealed themselves off' link is chilling, especially as he was back working underground (probably no option to do anything else).

I grew up in a mining area in the UK, and remember the pits closing too - and it is definitely not the perception in those sorts of areas that coal mining was a bad thing. Compared to other manual labouring jobs mining was well-paid. Now those same areas are among the most deprived in the country.
posted by Coobeastie at 10:50 AM on November 13, 2011

I imagine he didn't want to go back down into that mine, but with the limited work options that drove him there in the first place, he really had no choice. Starve, or work. When a man has a family or is facing homelessness/starvation, he will consider many dangerous or unseemly jobs.

(Women too, but back then not very many women worked in mines.)
posted by Malice at 7:10 AM on November 14, 2011

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