“A vivid flash of light” – An 1867 lightning strike electrocuted Wiconisco miners 1,000 feet below ground

On a balmy afternoon in June 1867, a line of thunderstorms boomed their way westward up Dauphin County’s Lykens Valley. When the thunderstorms reached the mining district of Wiconisco Township, lightning flashed across the sky. With a loud crash, a bolt of lightning flashed into the opening of a tunnel into the Short Mountain Colliery on the western edge of Bear Gap. The electricity blasted along the rails and arced from metal rails with a sound that reminded workers of fireworks.

Miners resting within the tunnel, more than 3,000 feet into the mountain, were suddenly jolted by an electric shock. The phenomenon fascinated the mine’s scientifically-minded superintendent, Gilliard Dock. He submitted the following letter to a renowned mining engineer from Wiconisco Township named Peter W. Sheafer.

Mr. P. W. Sheafer presented the following communication, – an account of the effects of lightning in the underground workings of the Short Mountain Company’s coal mines in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, by Gilliard Dock.

Wiconisco, PA., Sept. 5, 1867.

P.W. SHEAFER, ESQ.

DEAR SIR: On the 20th of June last, during a thunderstorm, the lightning struck the iron rails leading into the water-level drift, at Short Mountain Colliery, and passed into the mines.

A driver who was coming out with a train of coal-cars, distant about 450 yards from the mouth of the “drift,” saw a flash of light at a point near him, where the continuity of the rails was broken; there was also a loud report, described as resembling the noise of a large shooting-cracker.

At a distance of 900 yards from drift mouth, there is a timber “chute,” leading down to a counter-gangway, 102 yards below water level; this “chute” also ventilates the lower part of the mines, and on that day there was a strong current of air passing down.

There are no iron rails, nor any other metallic bodies in this “chute.”

The next appearance of the electric current was at the foot of this “chute,” where it was seen to strike on the iron rails laid in this gangway. There was a very distinct flash and report when the lightning touched this rail; the noise was so loud as to frighten two mules standing nearby, and they ran away from their driver.

It then followed the rails westward, still travelling in the direction of the ventilating current. At a point 250 yards west of the ” chute” there is a “turnout,” where cars pass; here the rails were not in close contact, and there was another flash and report.

Some miners sitting nearby, with their feet on the track, were startled by a very perceptible shock, and at the end of the gangway, 300 yards further west, the men saw the flash and heard the report, which was again compared to a shooting-cracker. The distance travelled by the fluid, from where it first struck to where it was last visible, was about 1550 yards.

On the same day, about 3 P.M., weather very warm and sultry, and raining very fast, the lightning struck the rails again at the slope-house, passed along through the building, and then down the main slope, 212 yards long; the men employed at the foot of the slope saw what they described as a ball of fire coming down, and when passing the switches at the foot of the slope, they heard a loud report, and saw a vivid flash of light.

At 70 yards from foot of slope, the men at the “turnout” saw the current flashing from one rail to another, with a noise as before described.

At 500 yards from foot of slope, at another “turnout,” the same thing occurred; at 900 yards again. At 1000 yards from slope, two men were sitting on the bumper of a car, with their feet on the track; they felt the shock distinctly, were very much frightened by the strange sensation. Beyond this point no men were at work, and it was not traced any farther.

While lightning strikes would seem to be an unlikely danger to miners deep within the earth, one of the deadliest mining disasters of the 21st century was caused by a bolt of lightning.

On January 2, 2006, a thunderstorm passed over the Sago Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia. A bolt of lightning struck a metal wire that led to an abandoned part of the mine. That section was filled with methane gas, and the subsequent explosion filled the mine with suffocating carbon monoxide. 12 miners died in the disaster that made headlines across the world.

sago3
The Sago Mine in West Virginia.

It seems the miners inside the Short Mountain Colliery were very lucky on that afternoon in June 1867.


Featured Image: The Short Mountain Colliery in Wiconisco Township, ca. 1860s. (Williamstown Historical Society). 

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