Fire at Kalmia Colliery in Schuylkill County nearly claimed lives – December 1871

In the early morning hours of December 1, 1871, flames roared to life inside the Philips & Sheafer Company’s Kalmia Colliery on the southwestern border of Schuylkill County near Tower City.

A night crew at the Williamstown Colliery in Dauphin County watched in awe as the bright light on the mountainside five miles away grew into a conflagration. 

Williams Valley 1878
An 1870s view of the Kalmia Colliery. The Williamstown Colliery is in the far distance at the other side of Williams Valley, smoke can just be seen in the sketch. Workers at Williamstown saw the glowing light from the fire just after it started from 5 miles away.

 

At the Kalmia Colliery, the fire grew out of control as the night watchman on duty had assisted another member of the work crew inside the mine’s tunnel. As he tried to emerge, smoke made him beat a hasty retreat into the depths of the mine. The Miners’ Journal newspaper of Pottsville recalls the full story. This particular article is copied from the New York Times edition of December 6, 1871. 

Burning of a Coal Mine Breaker – Fortunate Escape of the Miners

The Pottsville Miners’ Journal gives the following particulars of the destruction of the Kalmia Colliery breaker of Sheafer & Phillips, located in Williams Valley, near Tower City, Penn., on Friday morning:

“The man whose business it was to take the wagons into the tunnel did not arrive in time, so the watchman went in with them, and was absent about twenty minutes, when he started out again to blow the 6 o’clock whistle. As he neared the mouth of the tunnel smoke came in upon him and he was forced to retrace his steps.

Going back in great haste he climbed up through the air hole, and discovered the breaker in flames. He then alarmed the men who were working in one of the gangways, and they made a hasty exit. There were five men working in another gangway, and an attempt made to alarm them without success.

They, however, soon observed the smoke pouring in upon them, and attempted to escape, but were driven back by the density of the smoke, and compelled to remain in the gangway, which they did until the fire subsided. They report having suffered severely from the smoke, but are very thankful that they were so fortunate as to escape with their lives.

The breaker was considered one of the finest of its class in the region, the colliery was getting in good working condition, and the loss is particularly severe upon the proprietors at this time. The breaker was insured for $40,000, but that amount of money, as a matter of course, will not replace the breaker and cover the loss.”

The workers were extremely lucky to survive. Such a disaster had occurred elsewhere with much worse results – the burning of a breaker and its resulting fumes had killed an entire shift at the Avondale mine in Luzerne County in September 1869. That disaster and the 110 lives lost resulted in mine safety laws changing. 

Charred Rubble - Avondale
The remains of the Avondale mine breaker after the 1869 disaster there.

The workers inside the Kalmia Colliery’s tunnel were nearly doomed by the layout of the colliery. The mine entrance was located on the mountain just to the south and east of the breaker’s original location, meaning that as the breaker took light, the prevailing winds blew the smoke directly into the face of the tunnel. Fortunately for them, enough fresh, clean air was also conducted into the mine as to save their lives. 

Kalmia Colliery Layout (1)
An 1870s layout of the Kalmia Colliery. Flames and fumes blew from the burning breaker into the open mouth of the mine entrance.

In the days that followed, the cause of the blaze came under intense scrutiny and rumors spread widely. This lead the Upper Dauphin Register of Lykens to publish their belief that the fire may have been caused deliberately.

Burning of the Kalmia Colliery Coal Breaker

We have not been able to learn, from reliable authority, in what manner the breaker of the Kalmia Colliery of Messrs. Sheafer & Co., on Stony Mountain, took fire. Various rumors are afloat, but all of so contradictory a nature that it appears as though every one had his own story.

The most plausible is that one which leads to the supposition of incendiarism. As stated last week, the fire was first discovered at a little before 4 o’clock A.M., and before aid could arrive the whole building was in flames. The watchman had gone into the mines for some purpose and on attempting to come out was driven back by the smoke and the flames, and was compelled to come out through the air hole.

The building had only been completed last winter and every care was taken to make it as complete as possible. The saw mill, close by the breaker, was also destroyed. The entire loss in the destruction of the breaker and saw mill will probably amount to over $30,000, which is fully covered by insurance. A large number of hands are thrown out of employment, to whom the unfortunate occurrence may cause considerable distress, occurring just as the most inclement portion of the year is upon us.

The breaker will be rebuilt without unnecessary delay.

That there were rumors and stories of the colliery’s destruction being an act of arson should not come as a surprise. The fire had occurred in the era of Molly Maguire violence in Schuylkill County. Though Williams Valley was largely spared the worst of the violence, rumors often spread of Molly Maguire connections when fires or disasters took place that defied obvious explanation. In other cases, it was convenient for operators to claim malfeasance 

But it should not be noted that breaker fires were incredibly common in this era, as safety was still in its infancy and open flames were common amid flammable coal dust, grease, and wood. 

The Kalmia Colliery was fully rebuilt. We’ve written about the colliery and the mine patch that was built directly below the colliery previously here at Wynning History. 

Kalmia
The Kalmia Colliery and its patch town in the 1870s.
Kalmia Breaker
On the level above the town exists the remnants of the coal mining operation. Very little remains due to decay and erosion. This series of stone walls and foundations once made up part of Kalmia’s first coal breaker, where coal was processed and separated for sale.

Featured Image: Close up of the breaker at Kalmia Colliery (reconstructed), 1875


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