On May 25, 1904, fumes from a locomotive filled the Williamstown Tunnel and caused the deadliest mining disaster in the history of Dauphin County. Ten men perished in the disaster, which received headlines across America.
In the days after the disaster, a reporter from the Harrisburg Telegraph interviewed a survivor of the disaster. David Watkeys was interviewed after his recovery from the gassing he received inside Williamstown Tunnel. He provides the most vivid eyewitness account of the disastrous event that shook the small community of Williamstown to its foundation.
About 2:30 o’ clock a party of about twenty of us, after finishing the day’s work on the Bear Valley side, started to walk along the tunnel to our homes in Williamstown. As we walked along cracking jokes we did not notice that anything was wrong and as we kept up our jolly conversation our lights showed us the prostrate form of George Kramer lying across the tracks. A loaded coal train went through the tunnel just, ahead of us, and we supposed that Kramer had been hit by the train. Of course there was a lot of steam in the tunnel, but there always is, and we didn’t think anything of that.
We knew that it would not do to let Kramer lie in there, wounded as we supposed he was, and decided that some four or six or us should carry him to the Bear Valley side, while the rest would walk through to the Williamstown end and have an ambulance ready, when Kramer should be brought over on the next train. Everything was dark and murky and we did not pay any attention to Kramer and supposed that he was unconscious from his injuries.
Well, four or six of the boys picked Kramer up and walked to the Bear Valley side, while the rest of us in twos, threes and fives walked on towards the southern end of the tunnel. I was well in the rear with Enoch Morgan, and before we got very far we saw a number of miners’ lights flickering ahead of us, and finally saw several of the men tumble over. I turned to Morgan and said “Enoch, there’s something wrong in here. Look at those fellows dropping ahead there.”
I noticed that Enoch was turning pale and began to totter and about the same time I became so lightheaded I could hardly stand. At that Morgan fell over, while fellows all around me were tottering.
I told Morgan to roll himself over into the ditch, for I was too weak to help him and he did so, his face striding the water in the ditch with a splash. From all I know, he was drowned there. I looked up the track and saw pretty nearly all my companions either swaying or lying – prostrate on the ground. Except for their presence of mind, all might have been killed by the nest train which came along, but they all had presence of mind to roll themselves off the track.
About that time I was so very weak that I could not stand and that is about all I know of it.
Watkeys and more than 40 other men were pulled from the Williamstown Tunnel and were revived. His friend Enoch Morgan and nine other men died inside the tunnel.
Featured Image: The Bear Valley opening of the Williamstown Tunnel