The Williamstown Colliery Disaster of 1904

May 25, 2022 marks the 118th anniversary of Dauphin County’s deadliest mining disaster. Ten men were killed inside Williamstown Colliery, suffocated by fumes from locomotives inside the Williamstown Tunnel.

The afternoon of May 25, 1904 turned muggy and scorching hot, with temperatures soaring towards 90 degrees. In the mining district of Bear Valley, just north of Williamstown on the Dauphin-Schuylkill county line, workers at the Williamstown Colliery began wrapping up operations for the day at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Little signified that Dauphin County’s deadliest mining disaster was just moments away.

Williamstown Tunnel, south face

Across Pennsylvania, workers were suffering from the heat, including those working in the sawmills, breakers, and other outside labor connected to the Williamstown Colliery’s mining operation. For the miners and laborers deep within the colliery’s labyrinth of underground tunnels and passageways, nothing indicated how hot it was above their heads at the surface. Temperatures inside the colliery remained cool despite the outside heat and humidity.

As the workers inside the colliery began concluding their Wednesday afternoon tasks, a trainload of timbers used to prop up the passageways underground made its way from the southern mouth of Williamstown Tunnel to the No. 1 Shaft on the northern side of Big Lick Mountain. The shaft reached down hundreds of feet to the miners working at the face of the coal. An elevator carried coal and water up from the depths, while carrying down supplies needed by the miners.

Fans pumped fresh air into the mine and a complex series of doors and passageways regulated good air. Toxic gases were pushed out to be replaced by fresh air from outside. Much of this system relied on temperatures within the mine itself. You can feel this yourself on a warm day as cooler air from inside the mine comes out in a cool gust.

Bear Valley Side
The northern side of Williamstown Tunnel in Bear Valley.

On this muggy, hot afternoon, however, the usual flow of air into Williamstown Tunnel stopped. Instead, an inversion of air left stagnant, toxic gases trapped inside the tunnel.

As the small locomotive, known as a lokey, brought timber into the mine, it left behind a trail of toxic fumes with no where to go. As that locomotive prepared for a return trip to the mouth of Williamstown Tunnel loaded with dozens of workers returning to their homes after a day’s work, disaster began to slowly devour the miners and laborers.

Williamstown had about 5,000 residents in 1904, almost 1,000 of whom worked at the colliery.

These are accounts from what happened inside the tunnel that fateful day.

The Disaster Begins

About 3:00 PM, May 25, the No. 1 shaft locomotive on Bear Valley side ran into north end of tunnel with a trip of 10 or 12 loaded cars, a distance of about 150 feet, to pass the switch in order to run trip to Bear Valley slope… where all loaded cars are placed to make up trip for main line engine. While this engine was shifting a mine car loaded with plank, it jumped the track and dropped a distance of two or three feet to the track below. About this time there were some men waiting for an accommodation car… for transportation to the south end of the tunnel, on the line of route to their homes [in Williamstown].

Thinking that it would be some time before the car would be placed upon the track and would consequently be detained, they decided to walk through the tunnel. When they reached No. 7 or Skidmore vein, a point about 200 feet from the north end of the tunnel, they began to feel the effects of gas and commenced to stagger, some of them falling to the tunnel floor.

About this time the main line engine came close up to them from the south of Williamstown end of the tunnel, with empty trip and miners aboard. They received a signal to stop. In an instant after stopping his engine, the engineer and conductor became unconscious…

– Michael Brennan, Mine Inspector, 12th District in his report on the disaster

The Disaster Spreads

The men belonging to the crowd that were not overcome by the fumes, together with the men who arrived from south end of tunnel on empty trip, gathered together all the sick and unconscious persons and put them on board of the trip.

A miner by the name of Williams jumped in the engine cab, threw the throttle wide open and the ran the trip out through the north end of the tunnel. Walter Lewis, one of the men who had been picked up and placed upon the engine with the others, started back into the tunnel and came through to the south or Williamstown end and gave the alarm.

About the same time, a telephone message had been received from the north or Bear Valley end warning them of trouble in the tunnel.

– Michael Brennan, Mine Inspector, 12th District in his report on the disaster

“Enoch Morgan was found dead in the mine and was carried out on this trip.”

– Harrisburg Telegraph, May 26, 1904

The Rescue Attempt

Michael Golden, general inside foreman, Thomas Bond, inside foreman, with a number of men following, responded to the call for help and went to the rescue, immediately following empty trip from southern end of tunnel…

– Michael Brennan, Mine Inspector, 12th District in his report on the disaster

Before the train had gotten any great distance, the rescuers started to explore the mine and in a short while these men were tottering and fell to the ground either fatally stricken or seriously overcome. The lights which the miners carried were of little good, because of the large amount of gas, and in the death reeking atmosphere and with little light, a number of men partly overcome fell into a stream of water, which flows along the track, and what the gas left undone drowning completed.

– Harrisburg Telegraph, May 26, 1904

Altogether about 62 men were overcome… Mr. Golden was found lying in a ditch, face down, and no doubt met his death by drowning.

– Lykens Standard, May 27, 1904

Successful Rescue

In spite of the immense odds against which the rescuing party worked, the bodies of forty overcome victims and those of the dead were placed on the relief train and hurried to the mouth of the tunnel. The rescuers, covered with smoke and grime, eyes bloodshot and swaying from the awful effects of partial suffocation, were met with thousands of people to whom the news of the disaster had been communicated… Doctors were summoned from all nearby towns and by the middle of the evening, the men were so well cared for that further deaths were not expected…

– Harrisburg Telegraph, May 26, 1904

Interview with a survivor

It went black all around me and it felt as if a great big hand had a grip around my throat. My eyes smarted, and a little while later I couldn’t get enough air to breathe. I turned to some of the other men, but they were all lying around, some on their faces and some on their backs. I saw several men trying to get up, but they seemed too weak. The next thing I remember was waking up here at the end of the tunnel.

– Unknown survivor of the disaster, interviewed by the Miners’ Journal, May 26, 1904

Williamstown Responds

Willliamstown Colliery
An early photograph of Williamstown. The colliery is located at the top of the photograph.

The disaster has fallen like a pall on Williamstown. When the news of the casualty first circulated the townspeople ran to the tunnel…

– Miners’ Journal, May 26, 1904

The scenes at the mouth were most distressing. When the news first reached the centre of the town, which is nearly a mile away, there was a wild rush to the mouth of the tunnel, half-way up to the top of the mountain. The first word which came from the tunnel stated that the extent of the accident was small…

When in a few hours there were brought out the dead bodies of ten and the almost lifeless forms of 40 of the rescuing party, the scenes of widowed mothers and orphaned children, grief-stricken and frantic were most pathetic. They had nerved themselves to see the rescuers return in good health and instead were borne to them the blackened corpses of their heroes.

– Harrisburg Telegraph, May 26, 1904

There was much excitement in the entire Lykens Valley region last evening and the curious from miles around soon filled the town. There was no disorder at any time, but long into the night the streets were filled with miners and others trying explain the most singular accident which has ever occurred in the region…

– Harrisburg Telegraph, May 26, 1904

Williamstown in the early 20th century

The Dead

M.M. Golden, General Inside Foreman
George Radel, Master Mechanic
Enoch Morgan, Miner
John Kinney, Miner
Joseph Punch, Miner
Bert James, Miner
Albert Nau, Conductor
Henry Frederick, Trackman
Aaron Koppenhaver, Trackman
Torpus Koppenhaver, Trackman

In the days after the disaster that claimed the lives of 10 men on May 25, 1904, an investigation was launched by Mine Inspector Michael Brennan.

The Investigation’s Finding

It would appear to us, after making a thorough inquiry into the cause of the accident, that the first cause of trouble was that some of the miners coming from north end to Williamstown, rode out on outgoing trip and one or two of them being overcome by the fumes from the locomotive fell from the trip, causing commotion among the remainder, who in turn spread the alarm which caused the rescuers to run in haste without taking any precaution on their part.

In our opinion, if the mine foreman had taken the situation at a glance and realized the possible consequences, he would or could have placed a temporary obstruction, such as canvas curtain, at the south end of the tunnel, and compelled the two fans to draw their air from north end of tunnel, and immediately relieved the situation and prevented the unnecessary loss of life. But in the excitement of the moment and his anxiety to relieve the sufferers, he underestimated the danger that he had to contend with.

We feel satisfied that the victims were suffocated by coal gas from the locomotive, the accumulation of which at this particular time was due to high temperature on the surface, the effect of which caused the air to reverse, nullifying the action of the fan.

Michael Brennan, Mine Inspector, 12th District in his report on the disaster 

The May 25, 1904 disaster was the deadliest mine accident in history in Dauphin County. In Williams Valley, it is second only to the August 2, 1913 explosions at the East Brookside Colliery in Tower City, Schuylkill County that claimed the lives of 20 workers.

Featured Image: “Lokey” engines like these were responsible for the fumes at the Williamstown Tunnel. These engines were likely from the Williamstown Colliery. (Williamstown Historical Society)

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