The Darr Mine Disaster at Van Meter, Westmoreland Count, Pennsylvania killed 239 men and boys on December 19, 1907. It ranks as the worst coal mining disaster in Pennsylvania history.
An inquiry carried out after the disaster determined that the blast was the result of miners carrying open lamps in an area cordoned off the previous day by the fire boss. The mine’s owner, the Pittsburgh Coal Company was not held responsible but abandoned the use of open lamps after the disaster.
The Darr Mine blast followed the Monongah Mining disaster in West Virginia on December 6th that killed 361 miners and the Naomi Mine explosion on December 1st that killed 34 people in Fayette City, PA.
December 1907 was the worst month for mine fatalities in American history.
"Persons in the vicinity of the mine describe the explosion as an awful rumbling followed by a loud report and a concussion that shook the nearby buildings and was felt within a radius of several miles.... The explosion had been so terrific in its force that the inspectors were convinced upon a superficial investigation that it would be impossible for any of the entombed workers to be rescued alive.
The mine inspectors' report inadequately described the Darr Mine disaster and its effects on the local mining community. The explosion killed 239 miners, more than any other disaster in the history of Pennsylvania mining. It left 130 widows, 300 children without fathers, and 542 people without a source of income. The explosion cut across ethnic groups and ages. Mrs. Andrew Kolasky lost her thirty-five-year-old husband and her oldest son, Ernest. George Markey carried the body of his brother John from the mine. Mrs. George Krobert, a German immigrant, lost three members of her family: her husband, age forty-six; her son Joseph, age nineteen; and her youngest son, George, age sixteen. Men and boys from Italy, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland, and the United States were among those who perished.
About 400 miners usually worked at the Darr Mine. Some 240 men and boys went into the mine on the day of the explosion. More would have gone in, but the work force was short because Greek Catholic miners had stayed home to mark the Feast of St. Nicholas. Several who entered the mine had come from the nearby Naomi mine, where an explosion eighteen days earlier had killed thirty-four workers and closed the mine. At 11:30 a.m. the explosion ripped through underground tunnels and rooms, bending iron railroad rails and railroad switch levers, demolishing wooden coal cars, and embedding coal dust in the ends of collapsed wooden pillars that had supported the roof. Local residents ran to the mine openings as soon as they heard the explosion, but it took days to recover the bodies. Mine inspectors, a coroner's inquest, and mining-company engineers came to different conclusions about the cause of the disaster. Workers who went into off-limits areas, miners who had open flames for illumination, lack of timely mine inspections, poor ventilation of mine gas and coal dust, and an accidental explosion of dynamite were cited as possible causes.
Over half of those killed were Americans or English speakers. In this regard, the Darr Mine work force was more typical of earlier coal mines. English-speaking miners from the United States, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as German immigrants had comprised the majority of the work forces in the bituminous and anthracite fields of Pennsylvania before 1890. They continued to dominate the ranks of skilled miners in the early twentieth century. British and German immigrants often came to Pennsylvania with mining skills they had learned in their native lands, took pride in their skills and had considerable autonomy on the job. Skilled workers controlled their work, tempo, and time on the job. They were proud, as one miner put it, that "No damned foreman can look down my shirt collar." With their pride and autonomy, they were also the heart of the union movement in the bituminous and anthracite fields.
A wave of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe entered Pennsylvania mines beginning about 1880. As a ready source of cheap, mostly unskilled labor, these immigrants became the bulk of the work force in many mines. They came from very diverse ethnic and religious groups. A 1912 survey identified more than thirty-five nationalities laboring in the Commonwealth's mines. Unskilled immigrants usually had little or none of the craft pride that skilled workers took in their work. Many immigrants did not intend to stay in the United States. As a Pennsylvania official noted in 1887, Hungarian coke workers saved "from $600 to $1000 with which they either pay off the mortgages held on their property in Hungary by Jewish, Greek, or Armenian creditors, or they buy a tract of ten or fifteen acres in their native country, build a house and become comparatively independent." Others worked to save money so that they could bring their families to Pennsylvania. Once here, immigrant women also worked hard to help support the family. Many boarded single miners and picked coal from waste piles. Over time, immigrants moved into the ranks of skilled miners and developed the craft pride of their British predecessors.
Boys in coal miners" families also went into the mines, many of them to work alongside their fathers. During the nineteenth century boys as young as seven or eight took various jobs to support their families, including driving mules that hauled wagons of coal out of the mines. Sons of skilled miners also learned how to mine as their fathers" helpers. Public-school advocates and other reformers, including some miners, decried the toll that mining took on boys, including deaths, injuries, and truncated educations. In response, the Pennsylvania legislature established minimum ages for workers, and in 1905 passed a law that forbade children under the age of fourteen from working. Parents with large families and low miners' wages, however, relied on their boys for income, and often lied about their sons' ages to obtain jobs. Mine companies also evaded the laws by not listing boys on their payroll, and paying boys' wages directly to their fathers.
Black miners comprised less than 2 percent of the bituminous-coal workforce for most of the early and mid-twentieth century. Blacks experienced both acceptance and strong hostility in the industry. Unlike most unions, the United Mine Workers of America accepted blacks as members, but few blacks gained leadership positions in the union. Racism was widespread in mines and coal towns, where white, English-speaking miners often looked down on blacks as well as southern and eastern European immigrants. White miners' racism was compounded by operators' use of blacks as strikebreakers. Many of these black strikebreakers were men searching for decent work, and many had not worked in mines before. Striking miners bitterly resented strikebreakers who took their jobs, and fought to keep the strikebreakers out of the mines. Most blacks who were strikebreakers soon left the mines.
Catastrophes such as the Darr Mine disaster, effective child-labor laws, increases in miners' pay, decline in mine employment, and the changing ethnic composition of miners led to changes in child labor and the ethnic hierarchy of mine work. Child labor decreased during the 1920s as miners' pay increased, and virtually disappeared during the 1930s when child labor was outlawed effectively. Changes in federal immigration law in the 1920s ended the flow of eastern and southern European immigrants into the country. The number of bituminous miners also began a long-term decline during the 1920s as operators mechanized work and closed down smaller and less efficient mines. The proportion of American-born workers climbed as fewer immigrants entered the mines. As sons and grandsons of immigrants went to work, they increasingly moved up the job ladder to take more skilled positions.