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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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