Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields have long been known for long-lasting mine fires. The most famous of these environmental disasters continues burning today beneath the empty town lots known as Centralia in Columbia County.
Mine fires were a feared menace dating back to the first underground mines in the region. One of the early mine fires broke out in the mid-1850s in the coal mines east of Tamaqua on the property managed by the Little Schuylkill Navigation, Railroad and Coal Company. Though its exact start date remains unclear, sources from this time state that the fire likely started in 1853 or 1854. It became a well-known menace for miners working in the Tamaqua region, as were other fires burning in the vicinity of Tamaqua, Lansford, and Summit Hill.
But on February 15, 1858, “the burning mine” turned fatal, claiming the lives of two prominent Tamaqua mining officials. The two officials, the Little Schuylkill’s superintendent and a mining engineer, died while scoping out a plan to extinguish the underground inferno.
In a story copied from the Tamaqua Anthracite Gazette, the Lancaster Inquirer published the following on February 25, 1858.
A Burning Coal Mine
Two Men Smothered
The Tamaqua Anthracite Gazette gives the following particulars of the death of Mr. J. Ed. Barnes, the General Superintendent of the Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad and Coal Company, and Mr. Duncan Weir, their mining agent. They had gone down into a burning mine and were smothered with the gas:
The vein of coal known as the E East, is from thirty to forty feet in thickness, and has been burning near Tamaqua, on the property of the Company, nearly three years the fire now extending eastwardly. Sometime after the fire commenced, an effort was made to extinguish it but failed. It has since spread and consumed enormous quantities of coal. A gangway, formerly driven to work this vein of coal, extended more than a mile from the Little Schuylkill river, to Slope No. 4, at Greenwood. The gas generated by the burning coal above this gangway, descends through the old breasts, and renders the gangway itself dangerous. It is sometimes, however, much worse than at others.
The Company desiring to cut off the fire, and thus prevent its further spread, it became necessary for their mining agent to make some explorations, in order to determine the proper point to commence operations. Mr. Barnes being willing, at all times, to share the dangers of his subordinates, determined to accompany Mr. Wier in his examination. Having donned their mining dress, they left the office in Tamaqua, on Monday, Feb. 15th, 1858, about 3 o’clock P. M. They proceeded to Slope No. 4, descended the ladder about one hundred and sixty yards, and between 4 and 5 o’clock, entered the fatal gangway, traveling westwardly.
After passing along about 400 yards, they encountered what the miners term a brattis. This is an air-tight partition, erected in this case, for the purpose of confining the gas injected into the mines, when the effort was made to extinguish the fire. They passed through the brattis, passed along about 200 yards further and found a second one. They passed through this second brattis, but how far they traveled will never be known, but probably no great distance.
About 15 yards east of the second brattis, a stream of gas from the vast fire above, descends through the brattis, and moves westwardly, in the same direction they were going. Passing with the current, and it being likely not very strong at the time, they could not notice their extreme danger, but soon observing the fatal symptoms, they turned to retrace their steps and escape. They were, no doubt, soon overpowered the force of the current and their own exertions in the opposite direction, every moment filling their lungs with the fatal gas they dropped, in the full glow of life, into the arms of almost instant death.
Mr. Barnes lay on his face, about 20 yards within the brattis. Mr. Wier had made an effort to escape probably ran against the brattis, and fell also on his face, so near the brattis that one could reach and grasp his feet. As soon as the news came that they had not returned at the proper time, a party was organized to search for them.
The party passed through the first brattis stationed themselves east of the noxious currents, and three of them, Henry Thomas, Robert Carter and Richard Curnow, ventured on to the second brattis, where they found the body of Mr. Wier, and immediately carried him back to the first brattis. A fresh man, George Rowse, was then taken and a rope tied securely around him; he then started forward alone, passed through the second brattis, found the body of Mr. Barnes, grasped the upper portion of his clothing, gave the alarm, and was dragged out himself dragging the lifeless body.
The bodies were then raised on the truck, at the slope, and placed in a drift car, and removed to the outer air, through a tunnel and afterwards conveyed to their residences. We have been thus minute, to gratify the natural desire on the part of the friends of the deceased to have the fullest and most definite information. Our simple recital will, at the same time, show the constant dangers of the miners’ occupation. Verily, in the midst of life, they are in death.
A travel writer passing through Tamaqua in 1862 wrote of the “burning mine,” noting that residents all recognized the danger of the fire to miners and many feared this artificial “volcano.”
For decades, mine fires plagued mining operations in the area. In 1901, the Allentown Leader profiled this specific fire, noting that it was believed to have been accidentally sparked in the early 1850s by a mine operator kicking a burning log down an airhole just north of Tamaqua. Decades after the fire began, the Leader noted the outward appearance of the fire.
It was the Mammoth vein which was attacked, and it has been consumed from the Schuylkill River eastward about a mile, and from water level upward about 150 yards. Everything on the mountains are evidences of the awful combustion. Crevices, seams, and rented rocks – stones painted by the brush of intense heat – give a faint idea of [the fire’s consequences.]
Featured Image: Map of Schuylkill County, featuring Tamaqua in the 1850s. Library of Congress.