On Dec. 6, 1907, Fairmont Coal Co.’s mine in Monongah, W.Va., suffered two explosions in what remains the worst mining disaster in the United States. The tragedy, which was traced to a possible methane gas buildup, killed 362 men and boys.
“It was a spectacular mining disaster, but those types of accidents were not uncommon at the time,” explained Colin Davis, Ph.D., a professor of labor history at UAB who co-edited the book It is Union and Liberty: Alabama Coal Miners and the UMW with Edwin L. Brown.
“Incredibly Dangerous” Work
According to Davis, coal mining goes back to the Colonial period in the United States. The mechanization of mining began in the 1830s and ‘40s, and by the 1870s and ’80s, mining was an entry-level job often held by first-generation immigrants, beginning with the Irish, then the Italians, Hungarians and Poles. African-Americans from the South also were recruited.
“The work was incredibly dangerous,” Davis said. “Fatalities were a daily occurrence. The daily grind of the work often took its toll, whether it was rock falls or explosions, and then they were slowly dying because of the coal dust. So, mining has always been known for its hazards.”
Davis noted that, historically, it was unions like the United Mine Workers of America that fought “hard and long” for safety in the mines.
“Mine owners often weren’t that interested in safety,” he said. “It was all about getting the coal out, and if a few coal miners died, that was the nature of the business. It was a brutal approach, but one that was very common . . . But slowly, by the 20th century, mining safety began to improve with the passage of various mine safety laws.
“I really hope that after this latest catastrophe [the Massey Energy mine explosion that killed at least 25 miners] we don’t follow the same pattern again where there is a flurry of activity, some inquiries or Senate investigations and then we move away,” Davis added. He stressed that there must be “a re-evaluation of the deregulation” of mine inspections that has occurred over the past 10-15 years.
“We need to rethink and revisit safety inspections because it’s appalling that even today people are getting killed in such large numbers,” he said. “Something fundamentally went wrong in that mine, and those men paid for it.”