The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy/Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster

By Sorensen, Mark W. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy/Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster


Sorensen, Mark W., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy. By Jay Bonansinga (New York: Citadel Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 280. Cloth, $21.95).

Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster. By Karen Tintori (New York: Atria Books, 2002. Pp. xiv, 273. $25.00 hardback, Paper, $14.00).

Author Jay Bonansinga quips that "history is written not on the page, but around the kitchen table." (vii) Both he and Karen Tintori relied on the remembrances of descendants, oral histories of participants, newspaper accounts, and public records in order to create narrative nonfiction about two of Illinois's greatest disasters.

In Trapped we learn that Tintori's grandfather survived the nation's greatest coal mine fire (and the country's third-worst coal mine disaster) "not by heroism, but by a quirk of fate." (xi) The mine was completed in Bureau County in 1905 by the St. Paul Coal Company. The company also created a town to house its workers and named it after James Cherry, the mayor of a nearby community and the man in charge of sinking the shaft used to carry men in and out of the mine. Located about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, it was one of only a few mines in the country wired with electricity. However, on the morning of 13 November 1909, the electric lights were not functioning as 480 men and boys descended the shafts to work that Saturday. The lighting had shorted out several weeks earlier and until replacement parts arrived kerosene lamps with open flames were being used to illuminate the mine tunnels.

Early that afternoon several workers brought down coal cars loaded with hay for the seventy mules that were stabled underground. Left unattended for a short period, the hay was set ablaze by one of the lamps. The reaction to the ensuing fire caused hundreds of miners to be trapped in dozens of tunnels radiating for miles off the upper and lower shafts and created what Tintori describes as "a human drama rife with heroism, cowardice, supreme sacrifices and twists of fate."(xiv)

Once it was decided that the fire was serious, there was no shortage of men on the top willing to go down 300-500 feet underground in a metal cage in an attempt to rescue miners. "Though taxed to their limits, the rescue party refused to rest and they refused to give up. They denied themselves even one extra second to recuperate from their ordeal. Adrenaline and desperate purpose spurred them on. Still struggling for breath, all fourteen assembled once again for their fourth trip down." (76-77) Led by mine manager John Bundy, most of the rescue party eventually perished later that day, partly as a result of a controversial decision by the lift operator. That night, while hundreds of men were still trapped below, the exhaust fan was turned off and the two vertical mine shafts were sealed in an attempt to put out the fire. The title Trapped refers to both the men underground and the people above who became trapped physically, psychologically, and economically by circumstances beyond their control.

Conventional fire departments from Chicago and experts from Urbana with the latest mine rescue equipment were brought in to quell the flames and locate the miners. After several days of abortive attempts, rescuers started to retrieve bodies from below. Miraculously on the eighth day, 20 men who had walled themselves in from the smoke and "black damp" (carbonic acid gas) were rescued from the depths of one of the tunnels. Shortly thereafter, 29 others who had used the same strategy were found dead along with their handwritten epitaphs. In all, 259 miners and rescuers died in this tragedy, the last body being found on 7 July 1910, over seven months after the fire. Hundreds of women in the same community were widowed and nearly 500 children were left fatherless.

Author Karen Tintori does a good job of explaining the system of coal mining employed in 1909 and the role of children in this enterprise. Her writing is at its best in parts such as Chapter 10 as she conveys the horror and tension of both waiting for and attempting rescue. …

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