Avondale – The Coal Region’s deadliest mining disaster

The morning of September 6, 1869 dawned like any other in the mining village of Avondale, a tiny community built on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Luzerne County. Mineworkers left their homes and walked to the Avondale Colliery, a towering coal breaker situated directly atop the Steuben Shaft. The shaft descended vertically more than 300 feet to a vein of anthracite coal.

Like any Monday morning in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields, machinery roared to life and mineworkers descended into inky darkness. On that September morning, more than 100 workers made the 300-foot descent into the Steuben Shaft. They had no idea they had seen the light of day for the final time.

As the shift began and work extracting coal got underway, a fire broke out in the lattice of wood running up and down the shaft that helped carry fresh air into the mines. Speculation over the cause of the fire, and whether or not sabotage was involved, has continued for more than a century and a half. Regardless of the source of ignition, the results were fatal. Fire raced to the top of the shaft and then ignited the towering Avondale breaker that stood directly atop the shaft.

The only escape route for the miners of Avondale had been cut-off by fire. And their only source of fresh air was gone with it. In the chaos below ground, workers desperately tried to put up barriers to block the flow of toxic gasses from reach them. But without a supply of fresh air, nothing could survive in the web of underground passageways.

Above ground, calamity reigned. The Avondale breaker became a towering inferno, spreading flames to surrounding buildings.

The fire rapidly consumed everything and the fire’s ravenous appetite was described by a local reporter:

The flames seized upon the ‘cribbing’ or timbers, which surrounded the inside the shaft and climbed their way, seething and whirling, into the engine-room, and from thence to the breaker, boiler room, and another building attached to the engine room proper. So light and dry was the material that in a moment’s space the conflagration spread to all parts of the building, enveloping all in one common ruin.

Outside, the citizens of Avondale, Plymouth, and other nearby communities were gripped by the horror and descended upon the hellish scene.

Charred Rubble - Avondale
Rescuers standing in the rubble of the Avondale Colliery’s breaker
Breaker Ruins
Masses of people from around Luzerne County standing near the charred ruins of the Avondale Colliery breaker. Within hours of the disaster, thousands of people swarmed the site.

A reporter from The Luzerne Union documented the sights he witnessed after arriving at the Avondale Colliery:

When we reached the scene of disaster, the devouring element had most thoroughly done its work. Not a vestige of the stately pile scarcely remained. The smoking ruins, the stone walls of the engine room, and the warped iron of the engine alone remaining to tell the sad tale of sudden and swift destruction.

Scores of men were at work in clearing away the debris around the mouth of the shaft. Engines were playing on the walls of the engine room in order to render them sufficiently cool for the operations which were going forward to open communication with the mine. Hundreds of people were watching the proceedings with anxious looks and still more anxious hearts. Women and children by hundreds were gazing in blank dismay at the overwhelming ruin which surrounds them.

And well might the women moan in despair and the children cry in terror. Under that mass of smoldering ruins away down fathoms deep in the bowels of the earth, shut out from the sweet light of Heaven, and no as completely cut off from their fellow men as though a fiery sword of an angel of vengeance waved between them and succor, were two hundred human beings – men and boys – whose fate could only be known to Him who, for his own good purposed, had chastened his children by this awful visitation, but in regard to whom the liveliest apprehensions could not fail to exist.

The gravest fears were entertained about the men in the mine, and all sorts of theories were discussed to foster hope or engender despair; and still the men were working away with a will and finally the mouth of the shaft was cleared and preparations were made to explore the depths below.

In attempts to explore the shaft and search for the missing men, a derrick was constructed and volunteers were lowered into the smoldering shaft. Two men died in an initial attempt to locate the miners, killed by a combination of carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels. This event destroyed all hope that miners could be found alive in the labyrinth below the smoking ruins of Avondale Colliery.

Miners Descending the Shaft
Rescuers descending into the “Steuben Shaft” in search of victims.
Removing the Bodies
The derrick that was constructed to access the shaft began bringing bodies to the surface.
Reviving the Miners
Workers attempt to revive the rescuers who succumbed to the low oxygen levels inside the mine. Two volunteer rescuers died after an early attempt to access the shaft.

As has happened in hundreds, if not thousands, of mine disasters since Avondale, the rescue operation became one of recovering the remains of those who died 300 feet below the surface. Initial reports put the number of workers at Avondale in excess of 200. In the hours and days that followed, however, that number shrank to 108 men and boys trapped by the roaring inferno on the morning of September 6, 1869.

Bringing Out Exhausted Miners
Volunteer rescuers supporting a colleague who collapsed while looking for victims inside the mine.

When rescuers successfully entered the mine, they followed the meager light of their oil lamps in search of victims. Here and there, they recovered bodies of those who had collapsed and suffocated. But the true horrors were hidden behind makeshift barriers built by the mineworkers in an attempt to keep a reserve of fresh air until rescue could arrive.

Men and boys were huddled together and looked as though they had fallen asleep in a tangled mass. Fathers held their young sons, door boys and mule drivers as young as 12, in their arms. The scene brought veteran miners to tears in depths of the Avondale mine.

Bodies Behind the Barrier
Bodies behind one of the makeshift barriers meant to keep a supply of fresh air for the trapped miners. Carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels ultimately doomed them to suffocation. Artist Theodore Davis, who sketched these scenes, had been a sketch artist during the Civil War and this compares to several of his war-time sketches of the aftermath of battle in its horrors.

Slowly, bodies were brought to the surface in a seemingly endless stream. Bodies were washed, identified, and then returned to families for burial.

Washing the Faces of the Miners
Cleaning the faces of the dead in preparation for identification by family members.
Identifying the Dead
Family members after identifying the remains of a dead loved one from the Avondale mine.

Over the following days, funerals became an hourly occurrence in Avondale, Plymouth, and other neighboring communities.

Street in Avondale
A funeral procession through Avondale in the aftermath of the disaster.

The Avondale Mine Disaster’s final toll came to 110 men – the deadliest mining disaster to occur in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields. The disaster led to a change in mining laws, forcing coal operators to ensure mines were properly ventilated and ending the dangerous practice of building fire-prone coal breakers directly atop mine openings. The disaster also led to an influx of mineworkers into the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), an early union led by John Siney.

Siney gave a speech to the masses of people gathered near the charred remains of the Avondale Colliery that September. Terence Powderly heard Siney’s speech and remembered:

I was just a boy then, but as I looked at John Siney standing on the desolate hillside at Avondale, with his back toward a moss grown rock the grim, silent witness to that awful tragedy of ignorance, indifference, thoughtlessness, and greed, and listened to his low, earnest voice, I saw the travail of ages struggling for expression on his stern, pale face… I realized for the first time that day that death, awful death such as lay around me at Avondale, was a call to the living to neglect no duty to fellow man. John Siney gave expression to a great thought at Avondale when he said: “You can do nothing to win these dead back to life, but you can help me to win fair treatment and justice for living men who risk life and health in their daily toil.”

WBA leader John Siney

Mining eventually returned to Avondale and miners would again descend into the darkness where 110 men and boys met their death. The Great Depression ultimately doomed the Avondale Colliery. Today, the Plymouth Historical Society has preserved the ruins on the site of the Avondale Colliery and has signs detailing the events of September 6, 1869.

The Avondale Mine Disaster captured the imagination of the public across the nation and around the world and brought attention to the conditions facing miners in the Coal Region. Some of the nation’s first mine-safety regulations were put in place in the aftermath of the disaster. It also inspired laborers to consider joining together to seek better working conditions and higher pay. But as we think about the legacy of the Avondale Disaster, we must remember the families who were left mourning and destitute and their struggles in the wake of the Coal Region’s deadliest mining accident.

Graves at Plymouth - Shupps Hill
A mass funeral in the aftermath of the Avondale Mine Disaster. This scene captures not only the funeral, but a view over the Wyoming Valley with a coal breaker in background beneath a rainbow, with a storm looming on the horizon.

Featured Image: Masses of people gathered at the site of the burned remnants of the Avondale Colliery in September 1869 (Harper’s Weekly)

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