Facing the dangers of early coal mining in Pennsylvania’s Williams Valley

These stories from 1869 show the danger present in working the anthracite mines of the Coal Region. These are a sample of gruesome cases that illustrate several problems inherent in the industry during this early era where safety came second to profit. These will be addressed below the article.

“Harrisburg Telegraph, April 17, 1869

Upper End Affairs. – The Upper Dauphin Register contains the following items of interest:

Boiler Explosion – Between 7 and 8 o’clock on Tuesday morning, one of the boilers connected with the engine at the breaker of the Williamstown colliery burst, the end over the fire box being blown out, carrying windows, sash and all, with it. William Dowen, a boy about 12 years old, employed as a slate picker, who was warming himself at the time of the explosion, was so badly scalded that he died on Wednesday afternoon.

The engineer, Daniel Chester, had a moment before stepped into the oil house, and thus probably saved his life. The old boilers were worn out, and it was the intention of the company to soon replace them with new ones, having already reeived the boilers for that purpose. A gang of men were at once set to work at removing the old boilers, and it is expected that the new ones will be put in position and the necessary repairs made so as to commence running the breaker again on Monday next. 

It is almost a marvel that this accident was not attended by more serious results, as we are informed that there were usually from three to half a dozen [people] in the room, and frequently a large number. The loss to the company is slight. 

Accident in the Mines – Man Killed – A frightful accident occurred on Wednesday morning, about 8 o’clock, in the Lykens Valley East colliery [Big Lick], in the following manner: Two empty wagons were being taken out of the slope, accompanied by a man for the purpose of cautioning the man at the head of the slope, whose duty it is to detach the wagons as they pass over the knuckle, not to unhook the chain until the second wagon was up; not hearing the warning, the cable was detached as the first one came over the knuckle, and the weight of the other carried the former back over the plane, and both went to the bottom. Mr. John Shively, passing the gangway at the foot of the plane, was instantly killed, being crushed in a frightful manner. He was at once taken out and conveyed to his home at Coal Dale. Mr. Shively was 40 years old, an old resident, and leaves a widow and a large family of children, by whom his loss will be keenly felt. 

The man who accompanied the wagons, noticing the danger in time, jumped off, escaping uninjured. The wagons were demolished.

Another – About an hour after the accident noted above, Frank Fiddler, a carpenter in the employ of Messrs. J. Savage & Co., at work on the inside of the breaker at the above [Big Lick] colliery, fell a distance of about 13 feet, receiving severe injuries. He was taken to his home in Gratz.” 

The first issue we can address is child labor. William Dowen is not the exception, but the rule. Children as young as 10 were brought into the industry to pick slate from the finished coal. This was a necessary and dirty job, which required these boys working shifts that could range from 10 to 12 hour days. It was a bleak life, clouded by coal dust, and fraught with dangers like the one that killed poor William.

Another issue is the low importance put on the safety of the workers in the collieries. The boiler that exploded was slated for replacement, yet, it continued use until it failed spectacularly. After explaining the circumstances of the accident in which a young worker was killed, the report goes on to tell how the company had lost little money in the accident. “Loss to the company is slight” sums up the company’s opinion of its worker’s safety.

Anthracite mining was about as dangerous a job as someone could have in these days. Three accidents in the space of two days was high, but could be considered relatively normal. Another aspect to keep in mind; the mines of the Williams Valley were the safest in the entire coal region. That is some food for thought.

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One thought on “Facing the dangers of early coal mining in Pennsylvania’s Williams Valley

  1. On April 18, 1955, John Thomas Pluswick, 39, my father, & Neb Keen lost their lives in a mining accident in the Williamstown Mountain. I know of others since then too. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and even though I am 73, I still miss my Dad.

    Liked by 1 person

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