Radical miner and labor journalist Tom Tippett gives us the haunting and terrible story of Mrs. Daves, a widow who every day for 23 years went to the site of her husband’s death at the Monongah mine explosion, coming home with a lump of coal to be piled in her yard as a ‘monument’ to him and to her grief. The number who died is unknown, but perhaps 500 workers were killed in the 1907 catastrophe, the worst mine disaster in US history.
‘Black Star Mothers’ by Tom Tippett from Labor Age. Vol. 19 No. 9. September, 1930.
WHILE traveling through the coal fields of West Virginia this summer, we ran across what I suppose is the most extraordinary coal pile in the world. We saw it first in the yard of a mining camp. The house was small and looked like any one of a thousand drab cottages where coal diggers live. The pile was in the back yard and towered so high that it surrounded three sides of the cottage and was massed up eight or ten feet above it. At first we thought a steam shovel was at work and that the next load would completely cover the house. There was enough coal already in that pile to load several large railroad cars—hundreds of tons heaped up covering windows and doors.
We could see that the house was occupied, and that it was not a coal yard as at first we supposed. There was a fence all around, no rails or any other road in the yard, not even a gate of any kind. How was the coal hauled into the miner’s yard? How could it be piled so high? Why is it there, and does a miner’s family intend all of it for the kitchen stove? These questions we asked one another.
Just over the hill from where we stood there was a mine at work that day. We could see the tipple and feel the shaker’s steady jar. All the earth where we stood was covered with the inevitable dust. It was easy to associate the coal pile with the mine, but this association did not explain how the coal could be transported half a mile over the hill to the miner’s cottage in front of which we were standing.
As we stood watching, a woman appeared on the scene; an old woman, ragged and bent. She walked toward us—up over the hill from the mine. She carried a sack of coal on her back, swaying a little under its weight, as she trudged along. She did not notice us. We drew back in the shade of a tree to let her pass. It was August. There had been no rain for months, and the sun beat down a terrific heat cooking the earth. The old woman drew near, mumbling inaudible words to herself. She dropped the sack over the fence, crawled through the wire, lifted it on her back again and climbed on hands and knees up the mountain of coal. On top she stood up and emptied the sack. The black pieces fell tumbling down the sides of the coal pile. The woman bent over with a steady gaze, shook the sack out to the last speck of dust, then she bent over still lower and scratched about, obviously looking for some object she could not find. Presently she climbed down the pile and went, muttering, into the house and slammed the door.
“A crazy woman,” we all said simultaneously after we gained our breath, for we had stood speechless during the strange performance. But we knew there was more to the story than mere insanity, and meeting a young miner further down the row of houses we inquired what it all meant.
“Oh, that. Why that’s old Mrs. Daves,” he said. “She’s crazy, you know. Still looking for her man who was lost in the big blow-up at number eight quite a while ago.”
He didn’t know the details, but from his lead we got the story. In the office of the Fairmont Times we asked about the mine accident. The editor remembered, and ushered us into the room where the files were kept. We turned the pages backward to December 6, 1907. There it was in screaming headlines—an explosion story that at the time shook the community to its foundations. Now safely tucked away in musty newspaper records it is forgotten, except by old Mrs. Daves who has lived with the horrors for twenty-three years.
It happened in a forenoon of the first week in December; the miners were commencing their Christmas pay. Between four and six hundred coal diggers were at work in number six and number eight, two non-union mines, operated side by side by the Consolidation Coal Company. The place was Monongah, a coal camp sixteen miles out of Fairmont, where King Coal occupies his throne in West Virginia. Monongah is a camp inhabited by Poles and Italians who made up the working force on that December morning when the mines blew up. In their homes, that day, the miners’ wives and children thought of Christmas. A Catholic church covered with coal soot was preparing to bring out the image of the little Christ, and to put him in the manger with Mary. Bells rang out from the dirty church steeple. Monongah priests were reminding their flock that joy and peace had come to the world; a Savior had been born. It is all recorded in the columns of the Fairmont Times.
In the midst of pre-Christmas bells, another sound broke the air. The earth reverberated, houses shook, window panes shattered, fell in pieces from their frames. Then followed another tremor of the earth, chimneys toppled from house-tops; children fled from school—an earthquake as at home in Italy. Once outside the frightened people met the truth. The mine. The mine! Pouring out of the slope, where hundreds of men had walked in to their work a few hours before, were huge columns of smoke. The tipple, fan house, and all that had been a coal! mine that morning, was now a tangled mass of flames. Both mines had blown up—fathers, husbands, sweethearts, sons, were inside dying. Away sped Monongah’s women to the inferno in which their men were burning.
Then follow, recorded hour after hour, day after day, in the newspaper file, the horrible details. So terrific was the double explosion that the street cars running from Fairmont to the camps were put out of com- mission. Automobiles were not as plentiful then as now, so doctors and nurses could not reach the mine. But their services were not necessary. Every man and boy in both mines was dead. In the end 425 bodies were recovered, many others not properly recorded at the mine were never found, but not one man that went into either mine on December 6 came out alive. America has never before or since had a mine accident as great as this one.
Press correspondents from the whole nation hurried to Monongah. Once again the plight of coal diggers was reported to the country. Theodore Roosevelt was president of the United States. He sent Monongah the customary message, Italy and Poland despatched attachés from their embassies in Washington to the stricken mining camp. John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America, urged mine-workers to organize to lessen future accidents. Mr. Andrew Carnegie sent his sympathy and $35,000 to feed the widows and orphans.
A dozen different local civic bodies set up committees to administer mercy. All eyes turned to Monongah and all hearts beat sympathetically. The officers of the Consolidation Coal Company stayed at the mine and wrung their hands in unison with every body else. Newspaper men waxed eloquent with vivid heart-rending accounts of the catastrophe to jar the holiday news.
However in this kaleidoscopic jumble of people vying with one another to bring comfort to the stricken mining camps, a few were cautious. The second paragraph of the first extra announcing the explosion says in bold type that:
“From the meager details which can be secured it is impossible to state the exact cause of the explosion, but itis certain that it is not due in any way to the carelessness of the mine Officials.”
In every following issue the same sentiment appears. Four days after the accident Colonel McDermott, president of the West Virginia Senate came to investigate. His report said: “It is just one of those things that happen.” In the next session of the West Virginia legislature a mine safety bill was defeated. It was common knowledge then as now that all explosions in coal mines are unnecessary if Operators care to spend enough money to prevent them.
Many bodies were never identified— perhaps one-half of them. Fire following the explosion blocked rescue work. Days went into weeks before the work of bringing the dead out of the mine was finished. The newspaper files report in one issue, six days after the blast, “one hundred and thirty-eight bodies out,’ and in another column, “fifty men at work digging graves day and night.’ And again the following day, “two hundred and thirty-four bodies recovered,’ and so on one day after another. The dead men were laid in the blacksmith shop at the mine. Unless someone identified them within an hour they were buried—the unknown dead. The December 12 issue of the files says: “One hundred and forty-one bodies, over which no services were held, were buried today in the potters field.”
In some such group of dead men was Mrs. Daves’ husband. He had left their home the morning of the explosion for work in number eight— the same home in which she still lives, and where she piles up the coal. She was one of the frantic women who was held by force from running into the fire. She was there day by day, week by week, rushing from one burnt body to another trying to find her man. Of these women the newspaper correspondent said:
“All day long frantic women grouped around the mine, held at bay by tightly drawn ropes. One Italian woman whose husband, son or brother was among the doomed, tore out her hair, and with her nails cut gashes in her face… friends carried her home.”
Scenes back in the camp were described too. A woman reporter says: ‘A Christmas wedding has been postponed. A lovely young Polish girl fondles her bridal finery and clutches her heart. Her sweetheart was carried out a lump of mangled flesh yesterday.”
And further in the same story the record continues: “A baby was born in Monongah this morning. Its mother saw her oldest son carried out of the mine yesterday. The body of her father is still to be recovered.”
By December 17, the story was off the front page; by Christmas the theatres opened again; by New Year’s Day the Catholic Sisters had placed most of the one thousand children in or- phan asylums. Number six and number eight were being prepared for operation again. The cause of the ex- plosion was never published although it was certain, the newspaper said, that the Coal Company was in no wise to blame. The record does not say what became of the three hundred widows— or the other women.
The numbers of the mines were changed, coal began to come from their slopes once more, and Fairmont set about to forget the accident.
The Monongah cemetery is full of graves. Uniform markers give the name, the number of bodies in the grave, and then this inscription: “Killed in Monongah mine disaster— December 6, 1907.”’ Adjoining the cemetery is a plot of ground fenced off where the unidentified men are buried—those unnamed dead who are so eloquently mentioned in the newspaper files. From reading the account of their death and the outpouring of America’s sympathy at the time of the explosion, we naturally thought we would see a memorial to the men for whom all the tears had been shed.
In this we were mistaken. We found the place where “fifty men had been at work digging graves” twenty years back. In every way it resembles a cow lot. There isn’t a monument of any kind, not one printed word to indicate that men are buried there—not even a mound to suggest a grave. Just be- low the hill is the old number eight mine showering its grime and dirt on the ground underneath which lie the bones of that unknown number of coal diggers blown to bits in its tunnels.
The place is overrun with weeds and wild berry bushes. All that remains to suggest the explosion is a small wooden grave marker, rotted and fallen away from its original mooring. It is warped and twisted by the sun of twenty-three summers. It might be any bit of wood one kicks around in any common cow pasture. Fairmont has forgotten.
But Mrs. Daves could not forget. She kept looking for her husband. When the mine began operating again she watched every car go over the tipple. Her eyes followed the coal through the shaker into the railroad cars. The coal company, as well as the priest, kindly enough tried to divert her. “She, like everybody else, must forget.” Then she began carrying the coal home to her own yard where she could look for her man unmolested. From that time on, every day, rain or shine, winter or summer, she has gone to the old number eight mine, picked up a sack of coal, slung it on her shoulder and climbed up the hill to her yard. And for twenty-three years she has been hunting there for the body of the man who had walked out of her house to his work and never came back. The coal pile has grown by her labors, up and up, until it stands now ready to bury her, house, and all —a bleak and terrible monument to the suffering of all coal miners’ women wherever coal is mined.
Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v19n09-Sep-1930-Labor-Age.pdf