“A Blazing Coal Mine” – Susan Dickinson’s account of the 1874 Empire Mine Fire

In March 1874, writer and poet Susan Dickinson made a visit to West Pittston, Pennsylvania to visit friends. But while she was there, she also made an expedition to cover a breaking news story that had gotten widespread attention in the major newspapers of the Northeast.

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Susan Evelyn Dickinson (History of Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming counties, Pa)

On December 31, 1873, miners discovered a serious fire in the Empire Colliery’s #5 Slope near Wilkes-Barre about 300 feet below ground. Within hours, the flames had grown so severe as to threaten the entire colliery complex.

Efforts to fight the fire were largely unsuccessful and a strategy of containment had been decided upon by the owners of the mine, the Lehigh and Wilkesbarre Coal and Iron Company.

On her visit to Luzerne County, Dickinson explored the story. She wrote the following story for the New York Herald after her visit and explorations of the Empire Mine Fire. Her writing paints a vivid picture of the scene and its consequences for the owners and the miners who fought the fire. Her description of a raging mine fire are incredibly valuable, though they likely came from interviewing the miners themselves, as opposed to witnessing the fire firsthand. She tells the story as a gripping first-person account. The article was published in the Herald on March 29, 1874.

A Blazing Coal Mine

The Empire Mine in Pennsylvania on Fire

Exciting Scenes at the Seat of the Conflagration

How the Fire Originated and How Far It Extends

The Men Who Combat the Flames – Their Looks and Apparatus.

Empire Mine,

Near Wilkesbarre, Pa., March 27, 1874

There is no grander, and certainly no wilder, ride than that over the coal mountains of Pennsylvania. The beauty and picturesqueness of the trip depend, however, very much upon the hour in which it is made, and, unless by means of those fearful and circuitous railway grades one ascends and descends the mountains after nightfall, and the greater part of the beauty is lost. During the day one sees nothing but rugged, steep, rough valleys, towering pine trees, and a vegetation which, while being dry and withered, serves for no other purpose than to recall reminiscences of a dead and disastrous year.

Pennsylvania’s Flaming Mountains

At night, however, all these elements, which at this season appear so dreary and uninteresting by day, play no unimportant part in the weird scene which everywhere greets the traveller’s eye. The grandest outlook lying between the two great cities and the Wyoming Valley is afforded from the summit of Wilkesbarre Mountain, adown the sides of which hurries with almost reckless speed the evening train. You are on the top of a range of high hills thousands of feet above the level of the broad ravines underneath. Miles upon miles beyond the valley are other high mountains, which in the distance seem like banks of clouds cleared by lightning. Below you are smaller hills, and every hill is ablaze with fire. Adown the mountain side run, as it were, rivers of flame, whose sources can be traced from the dead vegetation back to the fire spark of the locomotive which fell in its midst. The sight is unearthly, but at the same time it is grand. The current of air caused by the rush and roar of the locomotive hits from the their beds millions of dead leaves which whirl rapidly behind like myriads of sportive butterflies.

The Firebrands from the engine do not shape themselves in simple sparks; but it seems as if at every puff great globules of fire were hurled out, which wherever they strike kindle a conflagration. The ravines below look like so many burning villages, and broad serpents of flame seem creeping up every hill. The scene is such as no other neighborhood would afford – grand at one moment and at the next appalling. The rude pine trees, towering aloft in their rugged strength, preside over the smouldering ashes, like dark and somber genti, while the locomotive shrieks now and then as if it were another fiend bidding defiance alike to fire and flame.

Location

From the point at which I take my outlook, Wilkesbarre is only three miles, but so winding and circuitous is this railway that to me, riding in the car, it is twenty.

I arrived late in the evening, and I set out for the Burning Empire Mine at five o’clock in the morning. The mine is about ten miles from the city, and is in a mountain side from which the spires and housetops cannot be seen. To reach it one must climb and descend several disagreeable steeps, and after he has proceeded as far as a horse can carry him he is obliged to wade through mud, mire, and coal dust, mixed to that stiff consistency which is likely to pull off a shoe at every step. After leaving the carriage and passing through a little village of miners, despite the mud, one soon arrives at the opening. There is nothing on the outside, save a mass of smoking ashes, to indicate the immense fire raging within.

The Descent is not made by means of a shaft, but by a broad roadway which descends gradually underground to the depth of nearly 300 feet. At the mouth of the cavern there is an immense fan which supplies air to those who are compelled to work in the sulphurous and deadly poisonous gasses below. Should that fan pause for one moment in its revolutions all the miners would expire almost instantly. Once inhale that deadly air, unmixed with the pure air outside, and human life could do naught but succumb. On the side of the ascent there is nothing of interest; the eye falls upon naught but dead vegetation, unbroken coal and masses of indescribably rubbish. There is a railway running up from the Empire breaker below, but no cars are passing over its track now, and the breaker itself is silent.

The still breaker is the first evidence that something about the mine is wrong. Under ordinary circumstances the machinery, now motionless, would be turning into the market hundreds of tons of coal per day.

A Rugged Guidance

Let us descend the mine. An old man precedes us, carrying a burning lantern. He is rudely attired, in rough shoes, coarse breeches, gray shirt, and he wears a glistening leather cap, in which is fastened a smoking and flaming torch. A few steps, and only a few, and daylight disappears there is a marked change in the atmosphere, and the only thing one seems certain about is that he is gradually going down. This underground descent, unlike a moral decline, has no glittering attractions to gently lure one on. One feels constantly like turning back, for he can see nothing save his guide and the lantern, nor can he hear anything but the faint echo of coal and dirt crushing underneath his tread. The cavern, however, is very commodious, and one has no need to crawl. The descent is not straight but winding and occasionally one can recognize above and upon either side of him solid masses of black glistening rock. As the journey proceeds, the air thickens and seems to become foul, as if the immense fan outside were gradually slackening the speed of its revolutions. One cannot help feeling an uncomfortable sort of a sensation; for, as he goes on, the atmosphere seems to grow thicker and thicker and at the same time the heat seems to increase at every step.

Hotter and hotter grows the air, hotter and hotter, until seems that one is surrounded by blazing furnaces. Every stride onward appears to intensify the warmth and human apparel seems more than human nature is able to bear. The perspiration begins to start from the pores, and the current of air constantly pouring in from outside appears to be caught and subdued by that dreadful and infernal heat which almost chokes and stifles you. There is no let up to it; no relief; but each and every moment one seems to be surely and inevitably approaching hell. Suddenly there falls upon the air a peculiar noise, like the muttering of infernal spirits, away down in the deepest depths of the universe. Still on, and these mutterings increase to a mighty roar, until by and by one can detect certain sounds above all others. There is a sound as if made by falling waters, which gains and increases on the ear as to the traveler does the rushing of a cataract.

Louder and louder echo the voices, and intenser and intenser becomes the atmosphere. Humanity ordinarily clad could bear but a few moments a warmth a degree or two hotter than this. The old guide continues slowly on the way; clouds of smoke envelop our heads, until the cavern, taking a peculiar curve brings us under a mighty arch, the floor and sides of which seem to be a mass of hissing, crackling, flames. It may be a wicked expression, but it looks like a hell.

The distance is between 200 and 300 feet underground. The fire extends over this immense area of 1,200 yards, dread, awful and appalling, but indescribably beautiful nevertheless. It looks like an immense sea of glittering gold, across the heaving breast of which pass and repass the softest and richest combinations of colors. Blue, green, purple, crimson, mingling and intermingling, passing and repassing, disappearing here and suddenly flashing up again there, torture the senses, confuse the vision and leave one doubtful of the place whereon he stands. Such is the fire which your correspondent gazed upon, such the almighty king of these dreadful subterranean realms. It hisses, it roars, it flashes up and smokes, driving back the men and befouling the air.

Firemen.

There are persons down there, human beings like ourselves, who have spent many months of their past in fighting this fire, and who will spend many months of their lives yet to come. They are terrible looking creatures when thus engaged in their work, whose besmeared faces and rough blackened forms give them the appearance of devils rather of men. They spend but a few hours here, for so intense is the heat that new men must come very frequently to their relief. As it is, scarcely a day passes during which some poor fellow does not yield to these underground elements and is carried out insensible. It must be an awful life to lead, and awful, indeed, the circumstances which compel so many to endure it.

Apparatus

From the outside of the mine run down to these dreary depths large iron pipes filled with volumes of water. When they reach a certain point below they divide into other pipes of smaller capacity, to each of which are connected large pieces of hoses. With these hose the men attack the fire at the edges with the hope that they may extinguish it inch by inch. It is a slow and painful work, and a process that to the observer appears hopeless of any future success. Contemplate it. A fire larger than any you have ever seen, not formed of timber or of loose combustible material, but of solid rock. It extends over 1,200 yards, and represents millions of dollars worth of coal. The arches above it, the avenues leading from it, fraught with poisonous gases, stifling to the senses and ruinous to the health – a mighty conflagration, to be fought with water inch by inch for years and years to come; for, while its edges may be cooled, its roaring center is gradually finding its way downward, no one knows to what unheard of depth.

Ravages of the flame

To accurately describe the full extent, or to express in detail the disastrous effects of this burning coal mine, one must needs spend many an hour … underground, which to one who is not used to it is impossible. One can only hurry down for a moment, because even in summer apparel he would be obliged to quickly return to get a breath of air. The following figures represent the extent of the fire, the number of men required to fight it, the loss to the company (the Lehigh and Wilkes-barre Coal and Iron Company), and the amount of coal which, were the men at work in the mines, they could give to the market.

Startling facts

There are at present engaged in battling the flames two large companies of men, each of which is made up of four different and distinct gangs. These gangs, or shifts, as the miners call them, relieve each other at different periods of the day and night, at least two gangs always being at work and approaching each other from various points. Four shift comprehend 80 men each, and four others 52 men each; so that in the first company there are 320 individuals, and in the second 208, making in all a total of 528 persons. These men are employed upon salaries which vary from two to three dollars per day. Two dollars and a half is about the average rate. Hence to contend with the flames it costs the company $1,320 daily. In one week it costs $9,240; in one month, $36960; while in one year, and from the present condition of affairs I am safe in assuming that the fire will last three times that long, the company will have spent $443,520 at the lowest possible estimate. The capital stock of the company is generally conceded to be $10,000,000, but it would only require a few years; fighting of the fires in this Empire Mine to totally consume it. Nor is this all. Were these 528 men, instead of plying the hose, engaged in mining coal they would each turn out three tons per day, or a total per diem of 1,584 tons.

I understand that every ton of coal is here valued at $3, so that in contending with their misfortune the company not only pay $1,320 per day, but also leaves $4,752 worth of black diamonds slumbering in the mines; hence in one week the company, through the fire, loses in coal alone, which were it not for the fire might be exhumed, $33,264; in one month, $132,956; in one year, the immense sum of $1,595,472.

The fire has been raging since January; therefore by the end of March the company will have spent in quenching the flames $110,880, while at the same time it will have lost $398,868 in coal which, had the fire not broken out, the miners would have taken from the earth.

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Map of the Empire Colliery workings, with those highlight in red on fire (Reports of the Inspectors of Mines… 1874)

Susan Dickinson wasn’t done with the Empire Mine Fire. On November 1, 1874, the Herald published yet another story from the pen of Dickinson, detailing how the effort to fight the fire had been successful. Using a combination of new techniques, millions of gallons of water, and courage, the fire had been isolated and stifled. Here’s how Dickinson told the story:

THE BURNING COAL-MINE.

How the Fire Was Quenched.

 West Pittston, Pa. (Nov. 1) Correspondence of the New York Herald.

The fire in the “burning mine” (reference to which, in the daily papers, drew more or less attention in the early part of the year) is at last conquered. The agent which has gained the victory, after months of valiant, persistent battle with the flames, bringing into play almost every resource of engineering skill, is a new one, which henceforth takes its place as the fire-destroyer, whenever that most-to-be-dreaded foe enters the mines. The employment of steam, by the Lehigh and Wilkesbarre Coal Company, in extinguishing the Empire Mine fire has proved a success, which must be of incalculable value, not alone in Pennsylvania, but in mining districts everywhere. The name of the foreman of the Empire Mine, Lewis S. Jones, through whose sagacious and persistent endeavors the trial by steam was made, is certainly worthy of record and remembrance.

Seeking information on this and some matters of kindred interest, your correspondent was referred by the President of the Company to its Assistant Superintendent, on whom had chiefly devolved the daily supervision and practical carrying out of all efforts for saving the mine. “It is impossible to enter the scene of the late fire,” was the reply to my first query, “as it is entirely walled up and filled with steam; but I think that with the aid of our maps I can explain to you all you wish to know.”

On the hillside, perhaps a mile from where we stood, was the mouth of a slope from which mines, now abandoned, were formerly worked; afterward used as an up-cast for purposes of ventilation in connection with boilers below. These boilers were placed near the head of Empire slope No. 5, which leads still further down into newer workings. Near the entrance to the slope stood a wooden stack which, at 1 a. m. on the 31st of last December, was discovered to be in flames, doubtless carried up to it almost instantaneously from fire originating at the boilers. The open spaces on each side of the slope had been walled up with stone, but with doorways for occasional necessary entrance to the old workings; and the fire then communicated at once through these doors with the timber supports, stretching in all directions through the abandoned chambers. So that, although officers and men were promptly on the spot, they were met at the very first by a torrent of flame like that which the lake winds swept over Chicago, carried up through a diagonal chimney of 1,200 feet, from what was already a solid stream of fire on a level of 256 feet, as a plumbline might fall, below the spot where they stood.

Water was poured into the slope from a reservoir above, and turned on below from the water-pipe that fed the boilers so soon as they could be reached through, the nearest shaft with its connecting gangway, while every effort was used to cut off air from the fire without destroying the ventilation necessary for the workers. But at the end of three hours the slope fell in, shutting the fire in from above and disabling the boiler-pipe below. A steam pump worked from the mine engine was speedily substituted, but a few hours made it evident that the campaign needful for subduing the fire was to be both prolonged and dangerous. Plans were rapidly laid and promptly carried out to save the engine-house and the pillars on the gangway by which the boilers were reached, as to lose this way into the mine was to lose all.

And the enormous work was then before them of not only conquering the fire in its present stronghold, but of heading it off in all directions to prevent its communicating through open passageways with other workings.

From above a slope was to be driven down for a distance of 160 feet through tough clay, divided into downcast and upcast, to reach the fire from the surface. A fan, needed for the downcast, to keep back smoke and gases that the men might enter, was taken apart, removed two miles, refitted and at work within thirty-six hours; and in fifteen days from the time the slope was begun, the old slope was reached and water poured in. But it was necessary to cross the slope, and a plank “manway” was held by playing on it continually – until one of stone could be built and pushed through in sections.

Below “manways” were to be built and held beside every-pillar, and through old falls from the roof, to enable the men to hold a position from which they could bring the hose to bear upon the beds of fire in every chamber, caused by the crumbling under the intense heat of the outside portions of the pillars, which fell, keeping the masses of glowing coal perpetually supplied. These “manways” could be held only by turning water continually upon them, the lower end of the planks being often on fire before the upper could be put securely in place, so that the man worked in heat ranging from 160 degrees to 176 degrees, and, as the black damp was also steadily rising, one man could rarely work for more than from three to five minutes at a time. Relays were ready to bring them out promptly if overcome, and carry them to the office in the main gangway, where a physician, with three assistants and all needed remedies, was in attendance day and night. During all the terrible conflict, while there were 800 men continually at work, but one life was lost, and that was by a black damp, when a fan finally broke down. As the fans could not be stopped a moment for repairs, a system of signals was devised and successfully carried out, to give warning instantly through all the mine if one gave way. This was all the more needful, as the draught of air had 2 miles to travel before it emerged, bringing smoke and gases with it.

The severe winter rendered the campaign more arduous. Heavy machinery, and all the lumber and stone needed for manways and supports, and later, for walls were to be brought over mountain roads and carried into the mine. All waters that had been available from outside were frozen solid for three weeks; and the mine-water, which ate out the machinery with fearful rapidity,–the hose not bearing it more than one or two days,–had to be depended upon, and used over sometimes thrice. But probably the heaviest work of the officers through all the time was the organizing, drilling, and especially the inspiriting of the men in the face of their fearful foe.

At the close of February the fire, save for about 200 feet, had been securely enclosed, and the end seemed near, when sound and sign gave token that the roof of the old workings to the west was about to fall. This had been so provided for as to insure its coming quietly, but the men, fearing the concussion of air which results from violent falls, and which drives even loaded cars like playthings before it out of the mines, refused to remain. Watchers were stationed at safe distances, but the fall came so gently that they were unaware of it. On March 1 the officers found that it was over, but, while the men were absent, the fire had swept through the open space and covered a field far beyond its original dimensions; air-currents were reversed; connecting passages closed or flooded. To stop the fans was certain death to the men; to keep them going was to feed the fire.

It was at this time, when new measures were imperative, that the mine boss, Lewis S. Jones, urged the trial of steam. From the 12th to the 18th of March it was tested in spaces still enclosed. A wall entirely surrounding the old workings was completed with eager haste; all cave-holes above were tightly packed with clay, a single air-way, to be afterwards gradually closed, alone remaining. The steam from eighteen boilers was driven down through pipes already inserted, and early in May all eyes looked their joyful farewell to the fire. At that time the thermometer attached to the test-pipes registered 176 degrees. A month later the lower stratum was cold. The steam, however, will be kept confined until the first of January next, to provide against any possibility of lurking danger.

These accounts of the Empire Mine Fire cemented Susan Dickinson’s reputation as a reporter covering the Coal Region. She continued returning in the 1870s to tell stories of the people and places of the Wyoming Valley, and later made West Pittston her home in 1878.


Featured Image: The breaker at Empire Colliery (History of Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming counties, Pa)

Read our profile of Susan Dickinson 


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