The Ernest Mining Plant

The story of the Ernest plant began in 1902, when officials of the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company started looking to Indiana County in search of new coal fields. In May 1903, the rails of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway reached the new town of Ernest, and the first coal was shipped the same month. From the early days of its existence, the Ernest plant was a marvel of engineering. In an era when most coal companies were dependent upon the lowly mule for motive power, the R&P’s new operation utilized electric motors to haul coal to the steel tipple where a system of endless chains hoisted it up a long incline into the plant for cleaning and grading.

cleaning plant
Cleaning plant, ca. 1910, featuring electric hauling system

Within three years of its opening, the plant underwent the first of several renovations as the R&P constantly searched for more efficient mining and preparation methods to produce, clean, size, and market coal. In 1906, Heyl and Patterson of Pittsburgh constructed the first washing plant. This firm had also built the original tipple and most of the buildings used for coal storage and preparation at Ernest. The Fairmont Machinery Company and McNally-Pittsburgh also did important work for the R&P as the complex at Ernest expanded.

The R&P also established a coke industry at Ernest and eventually built a battery of 278 beehive coke ovens at the plant. Coke production figures from the Ernest ovens reflect general economic trends of the first half of the twentieth century as well as the effects of the later development of more sophisticated methods of making coke. By the mid-1920s, lack of demand for coke caused the temporary shutdown of the line of coke ovens at Ernest. The plant began production again in 1929, with the addition of mechanical unloading to replace the old hand drawing method. Annual production ebbed and flowed until a World War II peak of 145,977 tons was reached.

While the manufacture of coke formed a significant part of the activities at the Ernest plant, the mining, processing, and sale of clean fuel remained the prime factor in the success of the operation. In the early days, railroads, primarily the B R & P, consumed the greatest percentage of Ernest’s coal. It was particularly desired as high grade stoker coal for passenger engines. By the mid-1920s, the original tipple had been remodeled, and a huge bin constructed for storage of clean, sized, coking coal. In the next decade, a “dry” plant for cleaning coal by air, and a “wet” plant for cleaning coal with water, were installed at Ernest to bring the operation up to date.

loaded cars
Loaded railroad cars at the coke ovens

By the beginning of World War II, the Ernest coal plant began to resemble the plant best remembered by most Indiana Countians. As the war effort increased, Ernest kept pace with a growing need for coal; and in 1945, the mining and preparation plant worked together to produce over a million tons of coal. In 1952, the McNally plant was built on the hillside behind the original site. Using a wet cleaning method to separate the coal from impurities, the McNally plant had a capacity of fifty tons per hour for coking coal. R&P later expanded this plant to clean four hundred tons per hour, and it contained all of the cleaning equipment used at Ernest.

By the early 1960s, R&P officials decided that coal could no longer be mined profitably at Ernest. In 1965, the plant was closed. Within a few years, equipment and buildings gradually disappeared from the landscape as scrap companies dismantled the mining operation that had taken over fifty years to construct. But the McNally preparation plant and the skeleton of the coking coal bin still remain on the blackened site. These, the foundations of the coke ovens, and a brick office and machine shop are all that survive of the R & P’s Ernest operations, an Indiana County landmark to remember with pride.

cleaning plant 50s
The Ernest cleaning plant operative in the 1950s

The Wehrum Mine Explosion

At the turn of the century, the Blacklick area prospered in a coal boom.  Yet within a few years, its fortunes reversed after a series of accidents and a large scale mining disaster.

wehrum
The town of Wehrum, c. 1918

The new coal towns on the eastern border of Indiana County appeared to be thriving at the turn of the century.  The June 22, 1904 issue of the Indiana Evening Gazette boasts, “Busy On the Blacklist, Prosperity Manifests Itself,” referring to the coal boom in that area.  The Gazette’s headline was no idle boast.  The Vinton Colliery Company of Vintondale was working at full capacity, and the Lackawanna Coal and Coke Company had recently opened its #4 mine in Wehrum and was in the process of constructing a huge, million dollar coal washing plant at its #3 mine between Vintondale and Wehrum.

Yet, within five years the Gazette had reversed its claim of prosperity for the Blacklick area and declared that the coal washing plant had never been a success.  Although it is impossible to isolate all the reasons for the more realistic appraisal of the coal fortunes along the Blacklick, mining accidents and large scale mine disasters, such as the Wehrum mine explosion of 1909, may have contributed to the new assessment.

The Lackawanna Coal and Coke Company had trouble with its #3 mine, which was to have been the center of its holdings, as early as 1904.  One May 11 of that year a “squad of foreigners,” lumped together in the 1904 Pennsylvania Department of Mines Annual Report as “Austrians,” went beyond the danger board placed at the mine heading because of poor ventilation.  The open flame quickly ignited a lethal methane explosion which instantly killed three men, John Vantroga, George Shippley, and Andrew Drubant, and fatally injured a fourth, Frantz Gresico.  According to the memory of the late Russell Dodson, a boyhood resident of the area, the #3 mine closed after the explosion, and it was still listed as idle in the state report of 1909, although the coal from it would be removed later through the Wehrum workings.  Number 3 was reopened in 1914 after the Wehrum washery burned.

By October 1904, due to an industrial slump, the #3 and #4 mines were closed.  Discharged notices were posted, and all operations but necessary maintenance were suspended.  About fifty miners of “foreign origin” found employment in Ernest, the new Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company mining town.  A few families remained in Wehrum.

wehrum plant
Lackawanna Mine #4 on the banks of Blacklick Creek, c. 1918

The town got a reprieve a year later.  The Lackawanna Coal and Coke Company abandoned its plans for making Wehrum a coking center in the Blacklick Valley because the coal was dirty and high in Sulphur even after being processed in the washery.  Instead, the coal mined at Wehrum was to be shipped to Buffalo and to be used as steam coal.  Lackawanna also sold back #1 and #2 mines in Vintondale to the Vinton Colliery Company which constructed 152 coke ovens and opened its #6 mine in 1906.  So it was that Vintondale, rather than Wehrum, became the coking center in the Blacklick valley.

In 1909, Lackawanna #4 mine employed a total of 142 inside workers, including miners, foremen, fire bosses, drivers, and runners.  Fifty-five were employed outside.  The superintendent, W.N. Johnson, was from Bernice, an eastern mining town owned by the father of Wehrum’s first superintendent, Clarence Claghorn.  A mining town named Claghorn near Heshbon was laid out in 1903-04 by Lackawana, but was abandoned in the 1904 shutdown.  Vinton Colliery reopened it in 1916, but it was a failure and closed permanently around 1924.

Wehrum’s #4 mine consisted of a shaft opening for loading and unloading the coal; the main opening was a slope of 35 percent.  The Miller (B) coal seam was about one hundred eighty feet below the surface.  The slope opening had a stairway of about five hundred steps and a rope haulway.  A second shaft opening nearby provided ventilation as a fan was placed on top of this opening.  Many miners and inspectors stated that this was one of the best ventilated mines in the area.

On April 4, 1909 the Johnstown Weekly Tribune reported that Wehrum was operating three days a week.  Due to depression in the market, a wage reduction of five percent for officials, monthly men, engineers, and pumpmen was posted on April 5.  Miners and dayment had their working time cut to three-fourth’s time.  By June the mine was working Tuesdays and Fridays.  Thus on that fateful day of June 23, 1909, the Wehrum mine was not officially working and no check was kept on the number of men entering the mine.  Men who went in were blasting down coal and getting things ready for work on Friday.  Company officials and time keepers estimated that eighty to one hundred men were in the mine on the morning of June 23.

At 7:30 a.m. a rumble shook the town.  A cloud of dust and debris was blown out of the slope.  The cage of the shaft which was sitting at the bottom was driven about one hundred feet to the top by the force of the explosion.  Miners standing outside were thrown to the ground.  The noise of the explosion was so loud that Russell Dodson heard it two miles away at #3.

John and Mike Orris, five year old twins, lived in the second house near the mine.  They said the explosion sounded like a cannon and that the women ran screaming down to the mine.  Their father, who had been given a permanent job at the mine after losing a leg in 1905, walked out about 11:30 without a scratch.

Rescue operations began immediately.  Superintendent Johnson was assisted by Charles Hower, former superintendent at Vintondale.  Joseph Williams, state mine inspector for the Tenth Bituminous District, arrived the same day to assist in the rescue and recovery of bodies.  Nine other mine inspectors were instructed to report at once to assist Mr. Williams.  Their job was to determine how many miners were killed and/or entombed in the mine and to inspect the mine thoroughly to locate the cause of the explosion.

The 9:51 train from Ebensburg had to put on extra cars to handle the rescuers and the curious.  About three hundred people gathered at the mine awaiting the news.  The Wehrum women provided baskets of sandwiches and buckets of coffee for the rescuers.  The local hotel, the Blacklick Inn, also provided excellent service for up to two hundred people during the crisis.

wehrum hotel
The hotel at Wehrum, 1926

By 1:30 p.m. most of the dead and injured had been removed from the mine.  Seventeen men were killed instantly, and sixteen others were injured, some critically.  A temporary hospital was set up in the machine shop.  Dr. Yearick, company physician, was assisted by Drs. Stricker of Nanty Glo, and Grubb of Armagh.

Most of the injured were unconscious when brought from the mine and were revived by oxygen.  The Johnstown Weekly Tribune credited Charles Hower, Frank Cloud of Cresson, and the doctors for heroically reviving almost all the miners who were not killed instantly.  Four tanks of oxygen had been rushed to Wehrum in a car driven by Frank Cook of the Johnstown Automobile Company.

A special train provided by Cresson Trainmaster Henry Taylor left Wehrum at 3:00 p.m. for Miner’s Hospital in Spangler.  The following men were sent to Spangler: P.F. Burns, William Burns, Clarence Huey, Christopher Frazier, Sam Koncha, Louis Koncha, Frank Delegram, Tony Martin, Fred Thomas, Nick Spelli, Tom Batest, and Joe Orwat.

Treated at home by Dr. Yearick were John Tobin, John Kessler, and Lee Johnson, the mine foreman and son of the superintendent.  Rose Akers, a private duty nurse from Johnstown, was hired to care for Lee Johnson.

Those killed instantly were: Lovey Louis, Italian, miner, 22 years old, married, two children; Ernest Barrochi, Italian, miner, 41, single; Domenick Lilton, Italian, miner, 21, single; Tony Batesta, Italian, miner, 20, single; Tony Totena, Italian, miner, 22, single; Charles Foldy, Slavonian, miner, 32, married, four children; A.D. Raymer, American, pumpman, 31, married, one child; George Kovac, Slavonian, trackman, 23, single; Simon Rominski, Russian, miner, 36, single; Steve Base, Polish, miner, 35, single; Kosti Sevick, Lithuanian, miner, 31, single; George Lenn, Lithuanian, miner, 34, married, three children; Joe Meniott, Italian, miner, 25, single; Mike Lilton, Italian, miner, 23, single; Alex Shaftock, Slavonian, miner, 46, married, two children; Charles Georda, Italian, miner, 22, married, one child; Charley Loray, Italian, miner, 20, single. (The spellings of the names of the miners vary from one source to another as often happened, for immigration officials and employers tended to spell the names as they sounded.)

The bodies of the dead were placed on the machine shop floor and then moved to the livery stable which became a temporary morgue.  The late Russell Dodson, age 11 at the time, recalled the rescue operation.  He said that bodies were hosed off at the stable and that the face of one Italian miner he knew was red as an apple.  This was due to the exposure to the blackdamp, a gas mixture remaining after an explosion of firedamp (combustible gas).  It is not explosive and will not support life or flame.  J.H. Krumbine, Vintondale undertaker, prepared the bodies for burial.  A wagon, making numerous trips, brought coffins from Johnstown.  The bodies were then removed to the victims’ homes for the funeral wakes.  These victims, who according to the Indiana Gazette were “all of the better class of workingmen,” were buried, for the most part, according to nationality.  The Italian miners were buried in the St. Charles Cemetery, Twin Rocks.  A marker in memory of the dead miners has been erected there by the people of Vintondale.  The rest of the victims were listed as “Hungarians” and were buried in the Roman Orthodox Cemetery on the hill above Wehrum.  A.D. Raymer, the only “American” killed, was a pumpman and also a pitcher for the local baseball team.  He was buried in Pittsburgh.  Another miner, Alex Sevecik (Kosta Sevick), was buried in Windber.

Four of the injured died later at the Spangler Hospital, raising the death toll to 21.  Frank Delegram died on June 25.  His left arm was broken in two places, and he had severe burns on his hands, face, and neck.  He had also breathed afterdamp, a toxic mixture of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen, which remains in the mine after a firedamp explosion.  William Burns, P.F. Burns, and Clarence Huey died from severe burns and exposure to afterdamp.  According to the June 25 Weekly Tribune, the injured miners in the hospital were not permitted any visitors, not even wives.

The slope entrance of the mine greatly aided in the rescue operation.  Several miners escaped through that entrance, and some lives were saved because rescuers were able to enter the mine immediately.  David Stutzman, a Vintondale miner aiding in the resuce, decided not to wait for a mine car to descend the slope.  He walked down and encountered Clarence Huey, who was exiting the mine when the explosion took place.  Huey was lying face down in one of the north headings.  He was conscious, but unable to help himself.  Other miners whom Stutzman found were George Penderd, Fred Thomas, and Lee Johnson; he helped these men to the foot of the slope.

The fan, a steam-operated Capell, was not seriously damaged; the pressure gauge chart showed that it had only stopped for a few seconds.  Consequently it was able to continue to clear the air in the five air splits in the mine, circulating 51,805 cubic feet of air per minute.

State mine inspectors examined the mine on June 24, 25 and 26.  As they entered the mine by the main slope, they found evidence of great force and flame.  At the foot of the slope was the main entry which was at a right angle to the slope and ran north and south.  The force of the explosion seemed to extend no further than one thousand feet in any direction except in #1 south entry, where it reached the heading.  The inspectors found that concrete overcasts had been blown apart, and that brick and wooden stoppings and doors had been shattered.  Mine cars were derailed, and hoses for compressed air mining machines and electric wires were scattered all over.  The force of the explosion seemed only to weaken in areas where the mine was damp.

In some areas of the mine, the water was too deep to conduct the investigation.  This was due to several of the pumps having been knocked out.  One pumpman, A.D. Raymer, died, but two others survived.  According to Russell Dodson, “old man Frazier,” the night pumpman, was coming off his twelve-hour shift.  A Mr. Wurm, also a pitcher on the baseball team, was coming on.  They were on the stairs of the slope when the mine exploded.  Mr. Dodson said that both Frazier’s and Wurm’s pants were burned off.  They recovered from their injuries, but Mr. Frazier did not return to the mine, deciding rather to run a boarding house in Wehrum.

The inspectors found evidence that dynamite had been used in the first north entry left to bring down the coal; unused dynamite and burnt fuses were found there.  They examined as much of the mine as possible and also interviewed mine personnel and survivors.  They came to an agreement as to the cause of the explosion and presented it at the formal inquest.

The Indiana Gazette reported that the mine was inspected by a group of “competent miners.”  Included in this group were John Roberts, George Blewett, and John Daly, all of Vintondale; other miners in the group were form Cardiff.  They told the Gazette that they believed that the explosion was a firedamp explosion. (Firedamp is a combustible gas, mainly methane, created by the decomposition of coal.)

The disaster attracted attention from all over the country.  The Indiana, Johnstown, and Pittsburgh daily newspapers kept staff correspondents on the scene.  Telegraphs requesting information were received from all over and a long distance telephone call was received from Toronto.

As the cleanup and mine inspections continued, rumors flew.  Many people believed that the explosion spelled the end of the mine and Wehrum.  To clear the air, Lackawanna Coal and Coke Company released a news bulletin stating that the company which constructed the washery would be developing a process to rid the Wehrum coal of its four percent sulphur handicap which hindered its coking qualities.  Also, because much of the mine was not seriously damaged in the explosion, it reopened on July 2.

Nine women were left widows and twenty-three children were orphans.  For their benefit, a large picnic was scheduled for July 5.  The December 8, 1909 Indiana Evening Gazette reports that the Lackawanna Coal and Coke Company made liberal settlements with the widows.  In addition, four lawsuits were filed in the United States Circuit Court in Pittsburgh by Attorney Lawrence B. Cook.  Tomaso and Pasquale DiBattista sued for $25,000 each for their injuries.  The widow and son of Carmine Giodamo (Charles Georda) each sued for $25,000.  The outcome of the suit is unknown.

coal washing plant
The coal washing plant at Wehrum, Lackawanna Mine #4, as it appeared c. 1910, before the fie which destroyed it in 1914.

The Indiana County coroner, Dr. J.S. Hammers, was at the scene by Wednesday evening and conducted a preliminary inquest.  Jurors viewed the bodies and rendered a verdict that the men died from injuries caused by the explosion and by suffocation from blackdamp.  A formal inquest was held on July 15 in Wehrum.  Conducting the inquest according to strict state guidelines, Dr. Hammers convened it at 8:30 p.m. in the mine offices.  The jury, by law, had to have a majority of experienced mine men.  These men were chosen early by the coroner, some having visited the scene the day after the explosion.  The jury was composed of Franklin Sansom, Indiana; Thomas Doberty, Graceton; Henry Kallaway, Edward McConville, Harry Dowler, all of Heilwood; and J. Dalton Johnson, Blacklick.

Six of the ten mine inspectors who assisted in the investigation were present.  They were Joseph Williams, Altoona; R.R. Blower, Scottdale; P.J. Walsh, Greensburg; E. Phillips, DuBois; N. Evans, Somerset; and I.S. Roby, Uniontown.  Dr. Hammers was assisted in the questioning by Mr. Roby, whose stenographer recorded the testimony.  Lackawanna Coal and Coke was represented by ex-judge Harry White in the absence of its lawyer, John Scott of Indiana.  W.A. James of Buffalo, Lackawanna’s chief engineer, was also present.

Testimony was give by approximately twenty-five mine officials, inspectors, and survivors.  Lee Johnson’s testimony was taken at his home due to his injuries.  One survivor, Mike Seafra, testified that he was blown one hundred feet through an open doorway from where he was working.  In the course of the testimony, mention was made of a small methane leak that had been discovered several months before.  S.N. Hazelett, engineer, said that it was unimportant and that the gas had dispersed before the fire bosses, whose job it is to check for gas, had reached a reading on a safety lamp.  Superintendent Johnson said that five years earlier there had been a discovery of methane when the fans had been shut down for thirteen hours.  Mine inspectors and company personnel were in agreement that this was a well-inspected mine.

The most important testimony came from Tom Batist who made a statement explaining how he and two other workers on June 22 tried to shoot down the coal with black powder.  The seam of coal was covered with fire clay, and the blast loosened a large piece of this.  Mr. Baptist used two and one-half sticks of dynamite in the same hole under the fire clay and inserted a six-foot fuse.  He, his cousin, and another miner then went fifteen to twenty yards away from the blast area to a crosscut.  When the shot went off, the room filled with flame.  Batist and his cousin somehow survived, though severely injured.  Tom Batist’s original statement was taken at the hospital by Alexander Montheith, mine inspector.  The third miner was killed instantly.

The inquest was adjourned at 11:30 p.m. and resumed the next morning.  The jury retired at 11:30 a.m. and returned with the following verdict at 2:30 p.m.: “We the jury impanel to determine the cause of death of the seventeen miners or employees of the Lackawanna Coal and Coke Co., find that their death was caused by an explosion, presumably dust in Mine #4, owned and operated by said company located at Wehrum, Indiana County, Pennsylvania on June twenty third, one thousand nine hundred nine.  Said explosion was caused by the carelessness of Thomas Bestesta [sic: Batist], a miner firing a dynamite shot, not tamped at the face of first left heading off north main heading.”

In his annual report to the state, Inspector Williams stressed that there was a lack of knowledge on the part of the miners in the proper use of explosives.  By 1909 inspectors were advocating the use of what they called permissible explosives instead of using black powder and dynamite.  Although the inspectors deplored the Wehrum disaster and Batist’s way of blasting the coal, they also commended him for his honesty in his evidence.  The inspectors believed that he was truly ignorant of what could happen after a blast like that; otherwise, he probably would not have confessed.

The mine inspectors made a list of recommendations for the Wehrum mine and any other mine in the state.  These were published on the July 19, 1909 front page of the Indiana Evening Gazette.  Some of these recommendations follow: “1. Use only permissible explosives. 2. Keep mine wet and/or dusted with calcium chloride; coal dust be removed at least once a week. 3. Non-combustible materials to be used in stemming shot holes. 4. Extreme caution should be used in handling and shooting explosives. 5. No shot should be laid deeper than the undercutting. 6. Safety lamps should be used when and where directed by law. 7. Rigid discipline should be enforced and maintained. 8. Sufficient fire bosses should be employed.”

This explosion and the loss of 21 lives continued to support the inspectors’ theory that a mine is not safe to work in “when black powder is used by ignorant men who know nothing of the dangers of coal dust.”

Although the official verdict was a dust explosion caused by the dynamite blast, there were many who believed that there was methane in that heading which was ignited by the blast.  The dust in the mine was then touched off by the methane’s exploding.

EPILOGUE

Perhaps the #3 and #4 mines were poor investments for the Lackawanna Coal and Coke Company.  Wehrum never developed as a coking center; its wooden frame washery burned in 1914.  Number 3 mine was reopened in 1915 to bring out the coal from #4 so that it could be cleaned in the large concrete washery which had been abandoned in 1904.  In 1922, the Bethlehem-Cuba Mining Company took over Wehrum when the Lackawana Steel Company merged with the Bethlehem Steel Company.  They operated the mine until 1929 when they unexpectedly closed the mine and sold the houses for the lumber.  By 1932, all that remained of Wehrum was a school, one house, a few mine sheds, a cemetery, a rock dump and a reservoir.  The reservoir was washed out in the 1977.  Wehrum is now but a memor

The Ernest Mine Disaster of 1916

Located just four miles north of Indiana, PA, lies the mining town of Ernest, established in 1903 by the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company.  In its infancy Ernest was known locally as a “model mining village” of 156 houses, 2 churches, a school, and a community center. During the first several years of development at the site the R&P opened four drift type mines in the upper Freeport E coal seam and built 274 beehive coke ovens which by 1909 had an annual production of 17,946 tons.  By the close of 1906 more than one thousand men worked at the operation.

Newspaper headlines today still attest that mining is a hazardous occupation.  In the early 1900s it was even more hazardous.  Modern attitudes toward mining safety were only slowly developing, and the inadequate mining technology of those days sometimes created dangerous conditions of its own.  Moreover, the advent of huge mining operations, such as the Ernest works, increased the potential for underground accidents.  With odds like those it is not surprising that Indiana County’s first major mining disaster happened in Ernest.  Nonetheless, by the standards of the day the Ernest mines were not regarded as particularly dangerous. In 1906, the Pennsylvania state mine inspector noted in his annual report that the mines at Ernest were in good condition and well ventilated by Capell, Robinson and Clark Fans.

On February 5, 1910, the town got a preview of the dangerous possibilities when an explosion of dust and accumulated gas occurred near the face of No. 5 room off No. 11 entry, resulting in the deaths of eleven men. County Coroner James S. Hammers held an inquest in the weeks that followed, and the jurors determined that the dead miners had succumbed to the “afterdamp,” a mixture of gases remaining in a mine after a fire or explosion of firedamp (methane). Families buried their dead; the town mourned.  The miners who remained went back to their underground livelihoods, and for the next six years the mines at Ernest produced coal without a major disaster.

tipple ernest
The town of Ernest stood to the left of this “Old Tipple,” replaced in the mid 1920s

On the morning of February 11, 1916, miners’ wives in Ernest rose early as usual, put pots of oatmeal on their stoves, and packed their husbands’ dinner pails.  The women filled the “buckets,” which resembled a double boiler with two compartments, with several thick sandwiches. Hot tea or coffee went in the bottom part. Miners habitually carried large quantities of food and drink into the mines in case of a cave-in which could imprison them for hours or even days.  While women performed morning chores and sleepy children ate their breakfasts, the Ernest miners on first shift gathered their tools together in preparation for the day’s work. Each man supplied his own pick and shovel, carbide for his lamp, and powder and squibs for “shooting down” the coal.

Several improvements in the years preceding 1916 had made mining somewhat easier and safer for the men working in Ernest No. 2. That year, the R&P purchased twenty-one electric cutting machines for the plant, greatly reducing the amount of work done by hand. With the increased availability of electric cap lamps, only certain portions of the mine were worked with open carbide lights.

Many of the miners who entered the No. 2 mine on the morning of Friday, February 11, 1916, were not, however, wearing the safer, battery-operated cap lamps.  The new electric cap lamps were cumbersome to wear and the batteries often leaked acid. Besides the men who worked in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four felt safe working with the older carbide lights; gas had never before been discovered in this part of the mine. Ordinarily, forty-three men mined coal in this area, but due to the funeral of one of the crew, the working force was reduced that day. Another miner, Amos Craven missed the man trip on Friday morning because his alarm clock had failed to go off. After waiting for him for a few minutes, the rest of the men climbed into the motorized man trip, and, setting their dinner pails on the floor between their feet, left the daylight behind them.

Back at home the miners’ wives did breakfast dishes, sent children off to school and began the day’s cleaning and washing. As early afternoon approached, clerks in the company store set out fresh fruits and vegetables; miners sometimes stopped on their way home to pick up something extra for supper. At school, children watched the clock restlessly, awaiting the dismissal hour. In Ernest No. 2 the men mined and loaded coal. By that evening, twenty-seven of them were dead.

ernest building
The original mine office in Ernest. The First Aid Team met in this building.

No one on the outside heard the sound of the explosion. “Butch” Tortella, a retired miner, was a small boy at the time of the tragedy, but he remembers it was Jimmy Moody, the motorman, who brought to news to the surface.   When he took his locomotive back into the mine late that afternoon to bring out the loaded mine cars, Moody discovered the body of one of the miners only about a mile from the entrance.  Hurrying back to the surface, he quickly summoned help. No whistle or siren blew to alert the rest of the town, for large crowds could have made rescue work more difficult. The miners were changing shifts at the time of the explosion, making it impossible at first to tell how many men had been in the mine. One of the men, Ben O’Hara, was just walking out of the mine when he felt the force of the explosion on his back. While on his way to the entrance of the mine he had passed George Bunton, Jr., going to work and as soon as O’Hara realized what had happened, he started back after his friend. Before he reached Bunton, however, O’Hara encountered two other men lying on the floor of the mine. He succeeded in dragging both fallen miners to safety and went back after Bunton, but was unable to reach him. Bunton’s body was brought to the surface shortly before 9:00 p.m. that evening. The exact time of the tragedy was later determined from a watch found hanging from a pocket of one of the dead men. The watch was smashed and the hands pointed to 3:20 p.m.

Rescue teams formed rapidly at the mouth of the mine as word of the explosion spread to Indiana. Crews from nearby mining towns arrived by automobile, and Thomas Lowther of Indiana took charge of the rescue attempts. All available doctors and nurses from the Indiana Hospital rushed to Ernest, together with Dr. C. Paul Reed of Homer City and Dr. F.F. Moore of Lucerne. Officials of the R&P and of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway hurried to the scene in a special train from Punxsutawney, arriving in Ernest shortly before 8:00 p.m. F.M. Fritchman, general superintendent of the coal company, was early on the scene and assisted in the direction of the mine rescuers. A specially equipped mine rescue care came from Pittsburgh on the tracks of the B.R.&P. and by night fall every mining town in the district was represented by a rescue team.

Pennsylvania state troopers were summoned and prevented families and friends of the trapped miners from passing over the bridge leading to the mouth of the mine. An Indiana newspaper reported that there was “no great excitement” at the site; only the “silently weeping women, wringing their hands and giving vent to little cries of despair, and the hushed whispers of the crowd” could be heard.

By nightfall on Friday the rescue teams were organized and working their way into the mine. The first crew to report back told of barriers of tangled debris, but fortunately there was little fire due to the lack of oxygen at the scene of the explosion. Teams dug through the debris after clearing part of the main road and rebuilding the mine brattices as they advanced. The first of the bodies was brought to the surface about 4:30 a.m. on Saturday and the others at various intervals until daylight. A special train carried the dead to Indiana where morticians prepared the bodies for burial.

By Saturday evening, little more than twenty-four hours after the explosion, three Indiana undertakers had finished embalming of the twenty-six dead miners. Reports later estimated that nearly three thousand people, some moved by the tragedy, others merely curious, viewed the bodies as they lay in three separate Indiana store buildings. “The condition of the bodies,” noted the Indiana Evening Gazette, “was remarkable; of course a few, who had been more severely burned…presented horrible sights.” On Monday afternoon funeral services were held according to the religious affiliations of the dead. A large trench was dug at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Indiana; twelve of the miners were laid there in a single grave. Two of the men were immigrants who had arrived alone in America. As they spoke little English and had few friends, their full names were never known. Later, the body of Pompia George was recovered from the mine, bringing the total number of dead to twenty-seven. The long grave at St. Bernard’s was reopened to receive his body.

By Monday morning, February 14, coal company officials and Pennsylvania state mine inspectors started the investigation of the Ernest explosion. James E. Roderick, chief of the Department of Mines at Harrisburg, arrived that evening to take charge personally. B.M. Clark of Punxsutawney, assistant to R&P President Lucius Waterman Robinson, stated publicly that at least half a dozen theories as to the cause of the explosion had been advanced. A miner named Nord, who survived the blast, stated that he was about fourteen hundred feet inside the mine when the first detonation occurred. He was knocked about twenty feet and landed against one of the mine ribs. Before Nord could get to his feet a second explosion erupted and knocked him unconscious. His proximity to the mouth of the mine prevented him from breathing the poisonous fumes caused by the blast. Nord seemed positive that two explosions took place in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four, about a mile and a quarter from the entrance.

first aid team
Ernest First Aid Team, pre-World War I. These men administered emergency treatment outside the mine to the victims of the disaster.

Investigations carried out by a five-man team of Pennsylvania state mine inspectors from five districts concurred with the account given by Nord from his hospital bed. On February 15, three days after the disaster, the inspection team submitted its findings to Roderick. Their document is printed in full in the Report of the Department of Mines of Pennsylvania for the year ending 1916. It states that the inspection team entered Ernest No. 2 on Monday, February 14, and made an investigation of all rooms, butts and entries. They found loaded mine cars blown off the track, a ventilation door forced through its frame and a badly wrecked mining machine. They also found evidence of intense heat and “considerable force” surrounding rooms No. 14 and No. 15 right entry, all the way to room No. 8, but not extending to any other area of the mine. After completely examining the section where the disaster happened and noting all conditions caused by the explosion, all members of the tam concluded that “a body of explosive gas, which had accumulated on a fall*…was forced down by another fall of the upper strata and was ignited by the open carbide lights of the miners working on the pillar of 14 ½ entry.” The report noted that “all persons working in the vicinity were burned and afterwards suffocated by the afterdamp.” Investigators had “no criticism to offer in regard to the work of the mine superintendent, the mine foreman and his assistants who were in charge…as no explosive gas was ever previously discovered in No. 14 ½ or No. 15 right entry…in this part of No. 2 mine.” The tam concluded by making some recommendations to aid in the prevention of similar accidents, including the use of locked safety lamps in any pillar working within a reasonable distance of places where falls could possibly occur.

Unfortunately, the Ernest disaster was only one of many tragedies of this type. Available records show that there were 170 gas and dust explosions in Pennsylvania bituminous mines from 1878 through 1932, resulting in 1984 fatalities or an average of about 12 fatalities in each explosion. Of this total, eight-five of the explosions are classified as being characterized by marked violence; of these eighty-five, forty explosions, or forty-seven percent of the total, were caused by open lights. In the thirteen years from 1920 to 1932, however, there were only seven explosions from this source. The widespread, if belated, use of electric cap lamps in Pennsylvania bituminous mines after 1920 undoubtedly contributed to the decrease of explosion of this type.

The problem of correctly designating mines are gaseous or nongaseous took longer to resolve. The first attempts at careful classification came in 1909, but over the next years, the records showed scores of cases in which so-called nongaseous mines experienced severe explosions. As a result, the United States Bureau of Mines in 1933 began to consider all coal mines, if not gaseous, at least potentially gaseous. With the continued increase of research directed toward the science of mine health and safety, especially in the last ten years, the mining industry can look forward to the day when major mining disasters will take their place with the Ernest explosion of 1916 – in the past.

*A “fall” results from a sudden dropping of rock from the roof, leaving in its place a gap or hollow which may be several feet in diameter. Any formation of gas in the area quickly rises to the roof filling the pocket left by the fall. (In the early 1900s it was a common practice for miners to burn up small gas deposits over falls by igniting them with their carbide lights).

Coal and Iron and the Badge

There’s an old adage that says a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out, but he’ll stay there till he’s cooked if the water’s heated slowly enough.  We humans can be that way about threats to our freedom, and Pennsylvanians are no exception.  We proudly shed our blood in the War to End Slavery, yet just six weeks before we won, our legislature authorized the next great threat to freedom – and almost no one objected.

Not many realized it was a threat at the time.  The need seemed genuine, and the solution obvious: train-bandits were better armed and organized than law enforcement in many Pennsylvania counties, so railroads asked for the right to create their own police units.  It seemed like a practical idea, so Act 228, An Act Empowering Railroad Companies to Employ Police Force, was passed in April 1865.

coal and iron police act

Rail police were to “possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the city of Philadelphia.”  Their authority extended not only to company property but throughout the county(s) in which they were commissioned.  A year later, the Act was amended to include two other giants of the Industrial Age: “all corporations, firms or individuals . . . in possession of any colliery, furnace or rolling mill within this Commonwealth.”  Badges were now to read “Coal and Iron Police” and show the company name.  And just what did it take to become a Coal and Iron Police officer?  The governor’s signature on a single-page application from the company, an oath and a badge.  No training, no background check, no security bond . . . and no accountability.  Answering only to his employer, each man was essentially a law unto himself.

Almost from the start, coalfield “C&Is” were used primarily as strikebreakers, economic enforcers and agents of social control in company towns.  They performed evictions and collected debts, kept up surveillance and shut down public gatherings, and above all prevented infiltration by union organizers.  They were not without legitimate functions;  many a murderer and thief was brought to justice by Coal and Iron Police, and the very lack of accountability that made C&Is such a threat to freedom gave would-be criminals reason to reconsider.  Though the Act stipulated that anyone arrested be “dealt with according to law,” in practice they were as likely to be beaten as brought to trial.

Accidents of geology and geography spared Indiana County some of the worst abuses.  We sit on the edge of three high, medium and low-volatile bituminous deposits; since coal companies tended to concentrate on a single type, no monopoly like those in Allegheny and Schuylkill counties controlled our land and people.  Lucky, too, that our miners weren’t recruited from the counties in Ireland where Molly Maguires were found.  In the 1870s, that underground society reacted to coal company abuses in eastern Pennsylvania with arson and murder, and the Coal and Iron Police responded in kind.

The relative peace here was reflected in our newspapers.  Coal and Iron Police were mentioned just three times in their first twenty years, and even then it was for their actions elsewhere in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.  But in 1894 the lid came off.

It happened as part of the biggest coal strike America had seen to date.  When Glen Campbell strikers threatened their non-union replacements, our County Recorder swore in sixty new Coal and Iron Police officers for the Berwind-White coal company.  “Foreigners” (as newspapers called immigrant miners) and “Cossacks” (as miners called C&Is) seemed eager to trade shots, and the latter had shoot-to-kill orders should gunfire erupt.  Why didn’t it?  Curiously, that credit goes to Jefferson County’s strikers.  They’d already become violent, so Governor Pattison sent in the National Guard.  One thousand uniformed men marched through Glen Campbell on their way to Walston, and trigger-fingers suddenly stopped itching . . . a close call.

Coal consumption was breaking records every year as the 20th century approached, and mine employment rose to meet it.  So did labor activism and the C&Is’ increasingly brutal response.  That the creation of the Coal and Iron Police had been a mistake was by now obvious to almost everyone – even other states’ producers!  An 1898 edition of The Coal and Trade Journal noted that “Pennsylvania has an institution peculiar to itself . . . a private standing army of irresponsible myrmidons apparently authorized by the laws of that state.

The first small changes to that army were set in motion by the Anthracite Strike of 1902.  When both sides refused even federally-mediated settlement for almost six months, America ran out of home heating coal; with winter approaching, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and replace strikers with soldiers.  The UMWA and Operators’ Association immediately split the difference and resumed production.  As part of the deal, a presidential commission investigated the strike’s root causes.  Among their recommendations was “discontinuance of the system of Coal and Iron Police . . . and resort to regularly constituted peace authorities in cases of necessity.

Though the first part of that recommendation would not soon be acted upon, Governor Pennypacker agreed to limit previously open-ended commissions to three years, and in 1905 signed a bill creating Pennsylvania’s State Police.  Troop D’s location in the heart of our medium-volatile bituminous region was no accident.  The writing was on the wall.

coal and iron police bage

Still, assaults kept increasing as coal production peaked.  More than 170 stories about C&Is appeared in Indiana County papers from 1910 to 1930 compared to those three in the first twenty years.  Yet even in places like Ernest and Creekside where “Cossacks” were ubiquitous, this county continued to see less labor violence than most.

During his first term in office, Governor Gifford Pinchot asked State Police to review all existing C&I commissions.  Their 1923 probe found cause to recommend that some 4,000 of them – the majority – be revoked, and the governor obliged.  He further announced that each future applicant must prove US citizenship and Pennsylvania residence, provide character references and employment history, and post a $2,000 bond.  Problem solved, right?  Well . . . not quite.

A 1928 US Senate Report on events here in the bituminous field was not well received in Harrisburg.  Its 3,400 pages detailing Coal and Iron Police beatings, warrantless searches and property seizures “endangered the peace of the Commonwealth,” said Governor John S. Fisher.  He claimed to mistrust the C&Is but thought that to eliminate them altogether was folly.  A single death the following year made it all academic.

In 1929, officers of the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s police force responded to a miner’s drunken rampage by beating and torturing and finally killing him.  All three were acquitted of John Borkovski’s murder; when retried, two of the three C&Is were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not before public outrage had spawned two bills further restricting the Coal and Iron Police.  Governor Fisher’s choice to sign the weaker Mansfield Bill and veto the stronger Musmanno Bill contributed to his defeat in the next election.  Gifford Pinchot was returned to office in 1931.

Making good on his campaign promise to abolish the Coal and Iron Police (announced at Indiana County Courthouse!), Pinchot turned Act 228 against itself.  Its 1866 amendment said “the governor shall have the power to decline to make any such appointment . . . and at any time to revoke the commission of any policeman appointed hereunder.”  He did just that, to all of them.  At midnight on June 30, 1931, Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police ceased to exist.

Some C&Is found employment as “real” police.  Jack Stroble of the Keystone Coal unit served briefly as Indiana’s Police Chief in the 1930s.  And in a final irony, Homer City’s policemen are nowadays represented by United Mine Workers of America!

 

Blue Spruce History

Located in Ernest, PA is a popular Indiana County Park, Blue Spruce Park. This ever-popular park has some great history behind it, linked to the railroad that ran through town. Because Ernest was also known for its coal mine, the railroad was an ever-important mode of transportation, but the locomotives were damaged by the acid mine water and created a large expense to the railroad. In this area Crooked Creek was polluted by the acid mine water. The solution to this problem was to purchase large quantities of land to protect watersheds to provide a pure source of water. Hence, Cummins Dam was built (also known locally as Cummings Dam with a “g”). The dam was constructed by the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway (BR&P) on Getty Run in 1908 and named after an early landowner, J.D. Cummins. The Dam was enlarged in 1912 due to water leaking through the shall rock at the bottom of the lake bed, this caused an inadequate water supply for the railroad. The work in 1912 included capping the existing dam by adding eight feet in height. 

Once the Dam was completed it became a place for people to visit for swimming, fishing, and picnicking.  It is reported that the BR&P Railway even stopped at the nearby Cummings Railroad Yard to allow passengers to disembark the train and take a short walk to the dam to picnic and enjoy the day. 

Cummings Yard was located between Creekside and Chambersville and had a large water tower that was gravity fed by a pipeline from the dam. The Yard had its own volunteer fire company. There was also a collection of houses, on what is the current park property, that housed the railroad yard workers. 

In 1932, BR&P was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. This railroad hauled coal from the mines and coke from the coke ovens, primarily to markets in Buffalo and Rochester, New York. There was also passenger train service to distant cities and to vacation spots like Niagara Falls. An advertisement from the time offered two 5-day excursion trips to Niagara Falls for $5.00. 

Train Excursion Ad
Advertisement for an train excursion to Niagara Falls

Many people from the area will remember the Hoodlebug, the gas-powered motor car, that ran on the B&O line and offered service between Indiana and Punxsutawney which ran until 1952. The Hoodlebug also transported mail and supplies in a separate attached car. There was another Hoodlebug that ran on the Pennsylvania Railroad line between Indiana and Blairsville. 

The story behind Cummins Dam is not without tragedy. On Sunday August 18, 1940, James Kendrick, a fourteen-year-old from Chevy Chase, drowned on an afternoon outing. A large crowd gathered at the site to watch the four-hour search and recovery of the body. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Living God in Chevy Chase and burial took place at the Greenwood Cemetery. 

It was during World War II that there was a concern during the war that the dam, along with other industrial sites in Western PA, could be blown up. Therefore, night watchmen were employed at these sites throughout western, PA because this region was so important in supplying coal, steel, and industrial products for the war effort. 

The railroad company was always trying to keep people away from Cummins Dam. The property had been posted with “No Trespassing” signs, and vandals were constantly tearing down the old signs down. The company routinely issued notices and published warnings in the local papers requesting trespassers stay off the property. However, people continually came onto the property despite the warnings. 

There was a severe tornado passed over the area on June 23, 1944. There were many trees on the property that were destroyed. The railroad also suffered damage when a railroad caboose car was blown off the tracks near Chambersville. Two B&O employees, David Potts and Lewis Grube, were slightly injured while riding in the caboose. Mr. Potts suffered a head and back injury and Mr. Grube was not seriously injured except for some lacerations of the body. 

It was in 1965 that Indiana County became involved with the site when funds were secured to acquire 377 acres for a county park, 143 of these acres were originally owned by the railroad, by this time it was Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company (R&P). In 2001 an additional 230 acres were acquired from R&P. The park today totals 650 acres.  The park was originally known as Rayne Township Park until Blue Spruce Park was chosen by the Indiana County Park Boar in September 1968. 

Murder in the Park 

Blue Spruce Park again saw tragedy in 1980, as it was the scene of a murder. On January 3, 1980, John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, picked up William C. Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon at the Edison Hotel in Pittsburgh. Richard Rutherford, 15, also accompanied the group. Mr. Nicholls was an accomplished organist at St. Anne Church in Castle Shannon. 

The group traveled in Nicholl’s new sports car to Indiana County. They spent several hours at the Rose Inn, then drove to Blue Spruce Park. Mr. Nicholls was bound and gagged in the vehicle trunk while the others were inside the Rose Inn. As the group drove to Blue Spruce, they gathered rocks from along Groft Road. Once at the park, they pulled Mr. Nicholls from the trunk, shot him in the arm, stuffed cigarette butts down his throat, gagged him with a scarf, placed the rocks in his jacket, and then threw him into the icy waters. It was the next day after Lesko and Travaglia confessed to the murder and told the investigators where the body could be found. The autopsy report revealed the Nicholls was still alive when he was thrown into the lake. 

The story doesn’t stop there, after leaving the park the group headed to Apollo, and on their way they baited Rookie Police Officer Leonard Miller to approach their car by speeding past him several times and running a red light. As Officer Miller approached the stopped car, he was shot and killed. 

Later that day Lesko and Travaglia was apprehended in Pittsburgh and began to tell their story of four murders over the span of eight days. The first victims were Peter Levato and Marlene Sue Newcomer. These murders became known as the “Kill for Thrill” murders.  

You may be asking yourself, how did Lesko and Travaglia find or even know about Blue Spruce Park. As it turns out Travaglia’s father owned a trailer near the park that was used as a summer camp and he had visited it as a child. 

The pair plead guilty to second degree murder in Indiana County and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Nicholls. They were then turned over to Westmoreland County for trial for the death of Officer Miller. They were convicted of murder and given the death sentence for Miller’s death. In 1981, they began a long series of appeals. Travaglia died in prison in 2017; Lesko continues to appeal the sentence of death. 

In 2009, a book about the crime spree was released, “Kill for Thrill” written by Michael W. Sheetz. 

Lady Umpire 

Also located on the park grounds is an historical marker on the ball field honoring Bernice (Shiner) Gera. She was a native of Ernest, born in 1931 and made baseball history as the first female umpire in the sport. Baseball was not her first career, instead she started working as a secretary and got married. One day she decided that she would like to become an umpire. She discussed and convinced her husband, Steve, of the idea and she enrolled in the Florida Baseball School in 1967.  

For five years Gera was barred by minor league baseball, but won a landmark lawsuit allowing for her to work as an umpire.1 Her first, and only, game as a professional umpire took place on June 24, 1972 in a New York-Pennsylvania League game in Geneva, New York. This achievement thrust her into the national spotlight and opened the doors, not only for other women, but for men previously denied umpiring opportunities because of arbitrary restrictions. 

Bernice went on to work in community relations and promotions for the New York Mets Baseball Club. She was inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall and Fame. She was an outstanding athlete in her own right. As a youth, she was described as a “tomboy” who could play ball as well as most boys. Bernice Gera died on September 25, 1992.

New York State Div. of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, 320 N.Y.S.2d 788 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971).