“In the mines of Avondale” – A Coal Region ballad

The tragedy at Avondale on September 6, 1869 gripped the imaginations of people throughout the Coal Region and across America.

Illustrations of the disaster were splayed across the front pages of national magazines and headlines blared about the horrors of a mine disaster that killed 110 men and boys in the anthracite coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania.

Harpers Weekly Cover
Harper’s Weekly of September 25, 1869

And like many disasters, the Avondale Mine Disaster spawned other vivid depictions in folk culture. The nightmarish events of September 6, 1869 were captured in a ballad called “The Avondale Mine Disaster.”

This song documents the horrors of the Coal Region’s deadliest mining disaster and paints a haunting picture of suffocating miners, brave rescuers, and the grieving families left behind.

These are the lyrics documented by Coal Region folklorist George Korson in the 1940s, and preserved by the Library of Congress:

1. Good Christians all, both great and small,
I pray you lend an ear,
And listen with attention while
The truth I will declare;
When you hear this lamentation,
I will cause you to weep and wail,
About the suffocation
In the mines of Avondale.

2. On the sixth day of September,
Eighteen sixty-nine,
Those miners all then got a call
To go work in the mine;
But little did they think that [day]
That death would soon prevail
Before they would return again
From the mines of Avondale.

3. The women and their children,
Their hearts were filled with joy,
To see their men go to their work
Likewise every boy;
But a dismal sight in broad daylight,
Soon made them turn pale,
When they saw the breaker burning
O’er the mines of Avondale.

4. From here and there , and everywhere,
They gathered in a crowd,
Some tearing off their clothes and hair,
And crying out aloud¬
“Get out our husbands and our sons,
Death He’s going to steal
Their lives away without delay
In the mines of Avondale.”

5. But all in vain, there was no hope
One single soul to save,
For there is no second outlet
From the subterranean cave.
No pen can write the awful fright
And horror that prevailed,
Among those dying victims,
In the mines of Avondale.

6. A consultation then was held,
Twas asked who’d volunteer
For to go down this dismal shaft,
To seek their comrades dear;
Two Welshmen brave, without dismay,
And courage without fail,
Went down the shaft, without delay,
In the mines of Avondale.

7. When at the bottom they arrived,
And thought to make their way.
One of them died for want of air,
While the other in great dismay,
He gave a sign to hoist him up,
To tell the dreadful tale,
That all was lost forever
In the mines of Avondale.

8. Every effort then took place
To send down some fresh air;
The men that next went down again
They took of them good care;
They traversed through the chambers,
And this time did” not fail
In finding those dead bodies
In the mines of Avondale.

9. Sixty-seven was the number
That in a heap were found.
It seemed that they were bewailing
Their fate underneath the ground;
They found the father with his son
Clasped in his arms so pale.
It was a heart rendering scene
In the mines of Avondale.

10. Now to conclude, and make an end,
Their number I’ll pen down
A hundred and ten of brave strong men
Were smothered underground;
They’re in their graves till this last day,
Their widows may bewail,
And the orphans’ cries they rend the skies
All round through Avondale!

Korson also had the ballad recorded at a Wilkes-Barre recording studio in 1946. Singer John Quinn belted out the account of the Avondale Disaster.

Listen to John Quinn’s “The Avondale Mine Disaster”

YouTube also has an excellent modern interpretation of the ballad as well by folk singer Jay Smar.

Personally, these kinds of ballads have always fascinated me. Tunes like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot have always been a part of my music library and now I’ve added the “Avondale Mine Disaster” to the list.

Featured Image: A family identifying a victim of the Avondale Mine Disaster in September 1869. 

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