During this year 3,197 Americans died in the coal mines. December was the bleakest month: on the sixth occurred the worst accident in the history of American mining—362 men and children dead at Monongah, West Virginia; on the nineteenth, 239 dead at Jacob’s Creek, Pennsylvania; and on the twentieth, 91 dead at Yolande, Alabama.
At Monongah a team of “fire bosses” had gone into the pits at 3:00 A.M. to check for dangerous gases. They found all safe: at 5:00 A.M. a crew of 350 to 370 men entered the mines. There was no roll call; no one knows the exact number. Among them were some visitors, some twelve-year-old apprentices, and one life insurance agent. Shortly after 10:00 A.M. one of two things happened: either someone or something short-circuited the electrical system, causing sparks that ignited huge quantities of methane gas, or a blasting charge of powder, tamped in the coal wall, exploded backward instead of into the coal deposits. This too, of course, would have ignited the methane. The explosion rattled windows six miles away. Rescue attempts, in the heart of an inferno, were futile.
About 60 percent of the shift was immigrant labor. Some of the surviving relatives, the breadwinner gone, talked of returning to the old country. One journalist asked a local, “What’s the matter with foreign miners?” “They can handle a pick alright,” was the reply, “but when something happens, they lose their heads.”
Congress, a sleeping dwarf, awoke slowly to the cries of the public. It took three years, but in July 1910 the U.S. Bureau of Mines was established “to make diligent investigation of the methods of mining, especially in relation to the safety of miners and the appliances best adapted to prevent accidents. …” Between 1910 and 1940 there was some improvement; the average for that span was 1,900 deaths a year.