The Avondale Mine Disaster
September 6, 1869

Part II: Initial Recovery Efforts


Below you will find a transcription of a research paper written by James M. Corrigary regarding the Avondale Mine Disaster (Plymouth, Luzerne Co., Pa.) of 6 Sept 1869, an accident that claimed the lives of 110 men and boys, miners and mine laborers. The report is found at the Mine Safety and Health Administration Library in Denver, Colorado, and provides fascinating eyewitness accounts of the accident and its aftermath, along with testimony from the official inquest. At times the eyewitness accounts are heart-wrenching and gruesome, particularly when the corner describes the condition of the bodies as they were recovered from the mine. The testimony at the official inquest into the accident makes for compelling reading as well, as witness made varying statements regarding the safety of the mine, and the precautions taken to prevent just such a disaster. Due to its length, I have broken the paper into five parts contained on five separate pages. There is a sixth page featuring illustrations of the Avondale Disaster and it's aftermath, from the September 24, 1869 issue of Harper's Weekly. I have also used these drawings throughout the other five pages to better illustrate the story of the disaster.

  • Part I:
  • Physical description of the mine and details of the accident
  • Part II:
  • Initial recovery efforts
  • Part III:
  • Recovery of the miner's bodies
  • Part IV:
  • The funerals, widows and orphaned children
  • Part V:
  • The official inquest into the accident
  • Part VI:
  • Harper's Weekly illustrations of the Avondale Disaster

    In the days when miners had few rights, and mine owners were rarely held accountable for injuries suffered by their workers, it is probable that most contemporary commentators assigned little blame for the disaster to the mining company itself. Nevertheless, the Avondale Disaster caused new mining regulations to be enacted, including the mandating of double-shaft mines, and the prohibition against collieries being built directly over the mine shaft. It is unfortunate, however, that such measures were taken only after a disaster of this magnitude.

    Jeffrey L. Thomas
    jltbalt1@verizon.net


    Part II: Initial Recovery Efforts

    PREPARATIONS TO DESCEND THE SHAFT

    As soon as the fire was so far extinguished above that men could work about the mouth of the shaft, the rubbish was cleared away and preparations made to right put up a derrick over it by which to descend the shaft. The derrick was finished shortly after half past five pm., and also the hoisting apparatus, worked by horse power. This was supplied with about six hundred feet of strong rope. In order to prevent any unnecessary risk to human life, it was decided prudent to send an animal and a light (in a closed lantern) down the shaft first. Accordingly, at the ..... six, a small dog, enclosed in a bag with a ..... top, also a lighted lantern, was lowered as far as possible into the shaft to see of the air was foul enough to kill the dog or extinguish the light - if not, it was thought a man could descend. At six o'clock the bed was raised to the surface - the dog was living, but the light in the lantern was out (probably because it was a closed light), yet it was evident to all that the lamp of human life would burn at the bottom of the fearful shaft. A sentiment of relief was experienced for the first time since morning, and strong hopes were entertained that the imprisoned men would soon be found living, breathing beings instead of (incarcerated) corpses as had been feared all day. Before the dog was drawn up, quiet was requested, and a number of men who were at the mouth of the tunnel bellowed down the shaft in the hope that an answering sound would be heard from the imprisoned men. Many in the tunnel and above ground, thought they heard answer "All right," and immediately, cheer after cheer went up from the assembled multitude but the most experienced miners present were not of the same mind. They could hear no answer.

    After the dog was hauled up efforts were again made to call to those below, but there was so much confusion around the mouth of the shaft, so many people being gathered there, and all being so anxious to see what was going on, that it was impossible. A policeman and others made every effort to get people back, but all to no purpose. It was finally thought advisable to turn a stream of water upon the crown to drive them away, which was accordingly done.

    DESCENT OF MR. VARTUE

    When quiet was by this means restored, another loud call was made. Breathless silence was observed by the vast concourse, numbering thousands, but no answering voice was heard, and hope died away. Now piercing shrieks proceeding from heart-broken women were heard, as the horrid truth began to dawn upon their minds that they were in fact bereaved. But unheeding all of this, efforts were going on to ascertain beyond a peradventure the actual condition of the men. To this end a volunteer was called for to descend the shaft. Here was an opportunity to display moral and physical courage such as is seldom required of mortal men. Notwithstanding the assurance which the living dog conveyed to those above - who knew whether or not the air below was getting fowler every moment? Who knew if on the bottom of the shaft, providing it could be reached, there was not sufficient "black damp" to asphyxiate the strongest man? While these queries passed through many minds, causing them to shrink from the venture, one noble man stood by, ready to peril his earthly existence, if need be, for the benefit of his fellow-miners. All honor to the great-hearted Charles Vartue, of the Grand Tunnel colliery. In the prime of his life with a glowing future before him, he stepped forth (perhaps to his earthly doom), hooked on his lamp, and prepared to descend. A bucket was securely fastened to the rope, and, provided with a lantern, a canteen of coffee, a wet towel around his neck, and a signal rope, at half past six he commenced his descent. Slowly the rope unwound from the great drum, and after occasional stops he gave the signal to ascend.

    HIS RETURN AND REPORT

    In fourteen minutes after he disappeared he again reached the surface, and was immediately plied with questions. Mr. Vartue reported that about halfway down the shaft he found obstructions which prevented his further descent. A pump was lodged there, upon which rested a stick of timber and other obstructions, and although there was an opening large enough to go through, he feared to enter, thinking that if he did the debris might fall upon him. He reported the brattice in the shaft not much burned, and the air perfectly good and not much heated; also that two men would have to go down, as they could work together to good advantage. It being thought best to send fresh men, volunteers were called for again.

    TWO MEN DESCEND

    Several responded, and Charles Jones of Plymouth and Stephen Evans of Nottingham Shaft were selected. At seven minutes to seven o'clock, being supplied with a hatchet, hook, and other appliances, they descended. They gave signals several times to stop, during which time they were engaged in removing obstructions. At five minutes past seven they stepped from the bucket upon the bottom of the shaft and disappeared. Darkness for a time held sway and every heart ..... Six minutes later sounds were heard, as of heavy pounding some distance from the bottom of the shaft and it was supported above that it was upon the brattice work ..... by the bucket mass to shut up the gangway, and thus prevent the entrance of fire and smoke.

    DISCOURAGING REPORT

    Nine minutes later the men emerged from the shaft, gasping for fresh air. They reported that they went seventy or eighty yards into a gangway, finding two deal mules as they progressed. They finally came to a closed door, upon which they pounded, waiting breathlessly for an answering sound from the unfortunate men. But alas! alas! no sound came, and they felt compelled to return, noticing that clouds of sulphur were pouring through the crevice in the woodwork of the door, fearing that the sulphur would overpower them in their partially exhausted condition. They also discovered another gangway running in another direction, into which fresh air appeared to be rushing. This Mr. Jones desired to penetrate, but his companion, either from exhaustion or some other reason, declined, and Mr. Jones did not deem it prudent to attempt to explore it alone.

    TWO VOLUNTEERS SACRIFICE THEMSELVES

    When this news went abroad among the crowd, its significance was understood in a moment. Most people saw in it indications that those who were imprisoned below would never again behold the light of day, and the shrieks of women and the cries of children rent the evening air. No words can describe the scene. It continued far into the silent watches of the night. But during this time the efforts to ascertain positively the fate of the imprisoned men were not intermitted. Two more volunteers were called upon, and two more men were found ready to risk their lives for those of their comrades in the mine. Thomas W. Williams of Plymouth and David Jones of Grand Tunnel, entered what subsequently proved to them the pit of death. After reaching the bottom of the shaft they made signals for pick and shovel to be sent to them. Accordingly the bucket was hoisted and the tools were put in and sent to them. After waiting some time, and hearing nothing from the men, the bucket was again raised and two fresh men went down to search for them. Both Williams and Jones were lying insensible. The body of Williams was immediately sent up with the men who went down, only Jones remaining. After long continued efforts to resuscitate Williams, the melancholy truth had to be accepted that his life had been given in sacrifice for the dead, and that another victim was added to the fearful disaster. Another party now descended for Jones, one of whom had been down previously. They had not gone far before this man prostrated, and his companion, as hurriedly as possible, carried him back to the bucket and both were quickly drawn up. It was a work of some to resuscitate him, but it was finally accomplished. Thomas L. Williams now went down, found the body of Jones, and drew it to the bottom of the shaft, but was too much overcome to remain longer. He was drawn up, and John W. and Isaac Thomas went down for a final effort to recover the body of the unfortunate Jones. This they accomplished with difficulty, finding the air fouler every moment. Two brave men had now perished, willing martyrs in their efforts to gain some tidings of their buried brothers. Mr. Williams left a loving wife and four children to mourn his loss, and Mr. Jones, friends who will look vainly for his coming to them again. By the time these fruitless efforts had been finished it was past midnight, and prudence dictated that until fresh air could be forced into the mine it would be nothing short of suicide for men to again attempt an entrance. It was accordingly determined that nothing more should be done until a fan and donkey engine should be rigged at the mouth of the shaft, by which to force air through a canvas hose into the mine. The following telegram was at this time flashed over the wires:

    "The only hope for the men in the mine is their having shut themselves out entirely from the draft."

    AIR TO BE FORCED INTO THE MINE

    At seven o'clock Tuesday morning the fan and engine arrived on the ground. At 9:15 a.m. they commenced working, and every pulse was quickened at the busy hum and at the prospect of a speedy renewal of the mine explorations. At the same time a meeting of miners was convened in the woods near by, at which Mr. James George, an old and experienced miner and President of the Plymouth Branch of the Miner's union, presided. He stated in a spirited speech, the object of the gathering to be the organization of a force of fifty experienced men from among the representatives of the several districts of the county present, to hold themselves in readiness to volunteer to descend the shaft. He said that seventeen miners from Hyde Park were ready, and called for nominations from other locations. Thomas J. Phillips, Superintendent of the Jersey mines, waited upon the meeting to say that when preparations were ready the carpenters, machinists, and others would give place to the miners, who should co-operate with the officers of the Company in exploring the mine.

    By half past nine people began to arrive on the ground in great number from all the surrounding country, and it was not long before they numbered thousands. Among them came a reinforcement of three hundred miners from Coalville, headed by Mr. J. C. Walls. After working the fan a few minutes on trial, the canvas air conductor, or hose (about two feet in diameter), was connected and lowered to the bottom of the mine, and the fan set to work. By this time forty-six miners had enrolled their names and chosen as Superintendent, James George of Plymouth, and Henry W. Evans of ..... George Morgue, of the Nanticoke mines, was appointed foreman on the part of the miners, and Thomas M. Davies of Nanticoke, and John H. Powell, of Taylorville, as advisors, who were to have the direction of operations in the mine after the descent was made.

    THE TUNNEL ENTRANCE

    The men and the various relief gangs repaired the tunnel and placed themselves at its opening into the shaft, from which point all efforts were thereafter conducted. Here men stepped upon the platform carriage when about to descend, and here it stopped as it was drawn up from the bottom of the shaft. This tunnel is about one thousand feet long. It was driven into the side hill many years ago, in the hope of striking coal, but it was a failure, and had never been used. It was directly past the shaft and had an opening into the hill about fifty feet from the point where it enters the hill. It was through this tunnel that all the bodies were subsequently carried to the outer air.

    THE MINE

    At 10:30 am., Thomas ..... Superintendent of the Hampton mines, and John F. Davies, carpenter at Avondale, made the first descent of the shaft. They proceeded only one hundred feet when they lowered three lamps which were found to burn freely. Obstructions, however, prevented the lamps from reaching the bottom within fifteen feet. They remained in their position ..... the shaft for fifteen minutes, the lamps continuing to burn. At eleven o'clock they returned and reported that tools were needed to clear the passage, and fifteen minutes later, George T. Morgan, of Nanticoke, John Powell, of Taylorville, Thomas Davies of Bellevue, and Thomas E. Davies, of Nanticoke, a Committee of Miners, descended the shaft, proceeding slowly and with care. After a few minutes they ascended to the head of the shaft and reported that after leaving the platform on which they went down they proceeded about thirty feet into the gangway, and finding a great deal of carbonic acid gas (black damp) retreated, after carrying the end of the large canvas air conveyor as far into the mine as they sent. The damp was between two and three feet deep on the bottom of the mine. Five minutes to twelve o'clock Ross Evans, Thomas Carace, Charles Jones, and Isaac Thomas, another miner's committee, descended the shaft. They returned safely as had the first. They penetrated the gangway seventy five feet further in one of the tributary gangways, and found that the cage door was wide open. Then they went 100 feet further to one of the tributary gangways, and found a small door closed. Had this small door been found open it was thought that there might have been a shadow of hope, as the gasses, smoke, and fire would have had free passage around the circuit and around again. This not being the case, fears were entertained that the smoke had penetrated the inner mine and suffocated all the men. The main doorway leading to the mine had not up to this time been reached. At half-past twelve o'clock a third set of men, four in number, went down, but returned in fifteen minutes. Two of the men were so much overcome with the efforts of the gas that all ..... before they continued efforts of three physicians were successful in reviving them. In the meantime the wildest excitement provided among the ..... assembled, who were with great difficulty kept back from the immediate vicinity of the mine. A telegram at this time gives a succinct account of the situation as follows:

    "The two miners are ..... no peril ..... by any further attempts to go down as ..... as the gas is ..... The attempt to reach the main ..... The mines ..... the outer gangway ..... ascertain how long it takes. There is really no hope that a single life remains of those ..... in the mine Monday morning. Everybody gives them up and naught probably remains to do but unearth the dead. What horror and suffering was yesterday witnessed beneath this spot, and ..... it was of long or short ..... some will probably never know."

    MORE MEN OVERCOME BY DAMP

    For two hours nothing was done but to force air into the shaft, after which time, lighted lamps were lowered to the bottom. Finding that they burned freely, four men descended, who returned in good condition and reported the atmosphere much purer. At half-past three o'clock another relay of four men went down the shaft. They proceeded along the gangway, through the first door leading to the furnace. It was found to be full of burning coal, and the fire had communicated with a heap of coal in front, which was also a blazing mass. One of the party becoming overcome with the gas, the rest retired quickly with him and were drawn up. On arriving at the mouth of the shaft the exhausted man was carried out bodily by four men, and the others carried out to open air, where they were resuscitated with great difficulty. A consultation was now held and sad and serious were the deliberations. All efforts, so far, to retrieve the men or get at them had been worse than fruitless. The air had been forced into the mine all day through the gangway in which stands the furnace. It had been understood since the previous night that the coal in this furnace had been drawn out and extinguished upon the first alarm of the fire. Such was the report of those who first entered the mine Monday night. It now seemed not, and that volume of air ..... late the raise had ..... even the burning furnace and carried out all the gasses and ..... This alone continued as it had been all day, would have been enough to have ..... the death ..... of the mine, even if they had been fortunate enough to have been alive Tuesday morning. At five o'clock ..... was let down through the shaft through which to force water upon the furnace to extinguish the fire. At half-past six, four men, John Tindale, Col. Harketas, John Batterlas, and Ross B. Jones, went down to carry the end of the hose to the furnace. They returned fifteen minutes later, saying that the hose was tangled in the shaft so they could only partially arrange it, and they could not find the opening by which they were expected to enter. They were not seriously affected by the foul air. At ten minutes past seven o'clock another relay of four men, William Henry, Evan Morris, Evan J. Evans, and William Gregory, went down. They returned in about twenty minutes, reporting that they had been at the furnace and found everything all right except the fire which was still burning. They could not arrange the hose until it was hoisted up a little. They also weren't much affected by the bad air. At ten minutes to eight o'clock, John Price, Evan Morris, William M. Thomas, and Elijah Thomas went down (making Morris's second trip), for the purpose of arranging the hose. They were down twenty minutes, and Evan Morris was brought out insensible - falling before he reached the carriage - this second trip proving more than he could stand. He was resuscitated in a short time. The others were all right. They succeeded in getting the hose ready to haul up. Twenty-five minutes past o'clock, John Williams, John Hopkins, H. W. Evans, and D. E. Evans went down and stayed twenty-five minutes, causing considerable anxiety among those above. The hose was carried forward thirty feet to the furnace. They reported that there was no fire except that in the grate, which seemed to be dying out. At five minutes past nine, William S. Price, Lewis Davies, G. D. Davies, and William Mcgregor went down, but after remaining twenty minutes returned, reporting no new developments. At twenty minutes of ten, Thomas M. Price, Mark Brane, William Gray, and D. W. ..... went down, and after a lapse of fifteen minutes returned, and reported the hose placed in position for the water, the idea being throw the water against the roof at a pressure of two hundred feet and let it fall on the furnace. While these men were down, those who anxiously awaited the result of their descent were considerably alarmed by the cracking of the roof in the tunnel and the falling of part of it, caused by the cooling off of the surface rock. Fortunately, no one was hurt. At ten o'clock the water was turned into the hose. At a quarter past eleven o'clock, D. W. Morgan, R. H. Williams, A. Phillips, and William J. Price, went down the shaft, remaining fifteen minutes. They found muck fed air and did not advance further than the furnace. At midnight Tuesday, David Jones, Henry Atherall, Samuel Morgan, and John Williams went down, and after remaining twenty-five minutes, came up in a very bad condition, the black damp that now ..... rising making them quite sick, but not ..... were the others. They poured water on the furnace and reported that the fire was out.

    At about the time this gang asked to be hoisted, George Morgan, who was watching the opening of the shaft, had to be removed and all except for four or five were driven from the tunnel, the black damp that was coming up the shaft making Morgan sick, and placing all who might be in the tunnel in a very perilous situation. No further attempt was made to go down for an hour. Water was all the time going down freely.


    Continue with Part III: Recovery of the miner's bodies
    Return to Part I: Description of the mine and the accident
    Harper's Weekly illustrations of the Avondale Disaster
    Learn more about the Avondale Disaster victims buried in the Washburn Street cemetery.
    View a survey of the Washburn Street cemetery, Hyde Park/Scranton
    Read more about the history of Hyde Park with an emphasis on mining
    Read more about Benjamin Hughes, brother of Avondale Mine Boss Evan Hughes
    Return to the main page at the Thomas family web site

    Web site copyright 2005 by Jeffrey L. Thomas, with all rights reserved
    e-mail: jltbalt1@verizon.net