The 1947 Centralia Mine Disaster Anthony Fleege

By Fleege, Anthony | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The 1947 Centralia Mine Disaster Anthony Fleege


Fleege, Anthony, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Centralia #5 Mine disaster of 1947 was the mine explosion that should have never happened. Not months, but years before the explosion both state and federal mine inspectors were writing negative reports about the mine. Both inspectors were submitting quarterly reports and getting no results either from the mine operator or the state and federal agencies that were the governing bodies over the mines. When the explosion occurred shortly after 3 o'clock in the afternoon on March 25, all those that had been informed of the imminent danger had blood on their hands. From the corporate giant that owned the mine to the governor who had been informed of the dangers in the mine, and all others involved would be exposed as the perpetrators of the crime that killed 111 miners and left behind many widows and orphans. Six investigations were launched to find out who was ultimately to blame for the tragedy.

Unfortunately for those who perished the blame falls on a bureaucracy-laden mining community and not on individual error or malpractice. Many rules, regulations, and laws resulted from this event, but the needless death toll in Centralia would stand as just another case where the miner is expendable and corporate profits rule over human life.

Mine History and Background

The Centralia #5 Mine was sunk in 1907 south of Centralia in the small community of Wamack by the Centralia Coal Company, a division of Bell and Zoller headquartered in Chicago. H.F. McDonald of Chicago was President of the company and W. P. Young of Glencoe was Operating Vice-President. By 1937 the #5 mine was the only holding left in Centralia owned by the Centralia Coal Company. The previous four mines fell victim to lagging technology and poor production and were shut down.

At the time of the explosion in March of 1947, Bell and Zoller's #5 mine was 630 feet deep and consisted of several miles of underground tunnels. The company employed 267 miners at Centralia on day and night shifts with an average daily production of 2200 tons. This tonnage and amount of manpower qualified it as a small to medium size mine.

Coal miners in Centralia were not unlike other miners around the country - tough, hard working, and rugged. The miners found a sense of purpose in the United Mine Workers. Because of the affiliation with the United Mine Workers, laborers saw an increase in wages and pension funds and an improvement in general working conditions. Pension funds became important after mine disasters that involved the death of miners. The pension funds helped support widows and orphans in addition to helping pay for funeral expenses. Under the autocratic direction of John L. Lewis, coal mines were urged to modernize their technology to compete with the rising oil and natural gas industries. In 1946 with 600,000 dues paying members, the UMWA was proud that, "It has been very successful in demanding and receiving for its members many of the things that make up the American dream."1

The UMWA became an important part in emphasizing safety and promoting regulations to prevent mining disasters. Unfortunately, the union was not very successful in its efforts to encourage the enforcement of both state and federal laws governing safety for mine workers. The training that could have saved miners in the Centralia #5 mine should have been provided by the union. This was the claim of Harry Nierman, the mine superintendent. This was an attempt to lay blame on the union for not protecting its workers; however, a retired Mine and Minerals board member claims that safety training was not the responsibility of the union in 1947. This responsibility fell on the company, including the mine superintendent and underground bosses.2

Prior to the large-scale disaster of 1947, the death toll for the #5 mine had been only four shot-firers in 1921. With this being the only death toll greater than two men this should have indicated that the mine was relatively safe and was not a major concern for the operator or the workers. …

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