Looking Back: 1911 Elk Garden mine disaster attributed to 'overshot'

Dale Brumfield
Special to the News Tribune
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On the Monday morning of April 24, 1911, the sleepy town of Elk Garden was just waking up to another work week when around 7:45 a.m. a deep-rooted subterranean roar shook dishes out of cabinets all over town. A few citizens suspected an earthquake, but most everyone else feared something far worse – an explosion in the Ott No. 20 coal mine, considered a “low-vein” mine and owned by the Davis Coal & Coke Co. The Ott mine extended two miles directly below the small town.

Almost the entire town populace rushed to the mine entrance suspecting the grim truth. The mine had been closed for most of the winter, with the miners working only two days a week. With incomes reduced and money tight, about 28 miners jumped at a chance to work an extra shift to clean the mine in preparation for the next day’s full shift.

The worst fears were realized – a massive explosion had destroyed the entrance and entombed the fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers of many in the assembled, panicking crowd. A local newspaper reported that “Many of those who stood around the slope heading were … wringing their hands and crying aloud, while others, the more courageous, set about planning means of rescue.”

A headcount showed that of the 28 miners, five had managed to escape through “cut-throughs,” leaving 23 missing and feared dead.

Almost immediately a rescue party was organized by superintendent Robert Grant and they penetrated the ruined mine. By that evening, after being thwarted in almost every direction by tons of collapsed slate, rocks, earth, and wooden bridging, they penetrated almost 4,000 feet down, snaking their way through a network of narrow tunnels. They were frequently driven back and forced in another direction by smoke and afterdamp, a noxious gas produced by nitrogen and carbon monoxide. Replacement crews replaced them when the men became exhausted or sickened.

Another factor was that two mules had been killed by the explosion and their bodies soon stunk so badly the rescue effort had to be postponed until they were removed.

Despite the progress, rescuers realized the trapped miners were still almost a mile away, and judging by the conditions they encountered, any hopes of their survival seemed remote at best. It was later decided that a rescue maybe could be achieved by boring a tunnel through an adjacent mine wall also owned by Davis closer to the area where the men were trapped.

Rescue hopes dimmed even more when a body was discovered about a mile from the entrance, but it was so crushed and mangled that his identity, Wilbur Shears, was not ascertained until two days later.

The remoteness of Elk Garden hampered the rescue efforts. Communication to points outside Mineral County was difficult, with only a single Davis company private telephone wire available. Dispatches were sent into Cumberland and to the Bureau of Mines in Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. informing them of the accident and to send assistance. Compounding the difficulties was that only two trains daily ran between Elk Garden and Cumberland, so no Davis officials at the Cumberland station could reach Elk Garden until the next day.

Once a notice of the tragedy reached Pittsburgh, three officials with the Bureau, L. W. Jones, John Ryan, and David D. Davis, packed six oxygen helmets, two tanks, and charging supplies in a rescue car and departed at 6:00 p.m. for Cumberland, where they transferred to the Western Maryland Railway. They, along with John Laing, Chief of the West Virginia Bureau of Mines, eventually reached the Ott mine at 2:00 a.m. on April 25.

At the time of the explosion, three men working near the entrance reported a sound like wind rustling dead leaves that seemed to emerge from the mine mouth. Soon they saw a thin dark gray dust ascend slowly out of the mine like a soft cloud. That cloud quickly grew larger and when the men smelled the tell-tale odor of afterdamp and smoke, they ran to spread the alarm just as the earth suddenly buckled under their feet with a gut-crunching rumble.

By 10:00 a.m. on April 25, any hope of a miraculous rescue, such as the one that occurred in the Blue Rock mine cave-in of 1856 in Ohio, in which four trapped miners were successfully rescued after 14 agonizing days, was dashed. Fifteen bodies were found and recovered to a temporary morgue set up nearby. While many of the men were crushed, mutilated, or burned beyond recognition, others were reported as simply appearing asleep. Many had portions of their clothing burned off.

The remaining eight men were feared entombed in the gallery under tons of fallen slate, which is exactly where they were found that evening. All eight were recovered and taken to the morgue.

News reports of the explosion expressed surprise that, unlike most mine disasters, 22 of the dead men were American. Only one, William Busky was an immigrant.

A coroner’s inquest showed that the explosion was caused by a “blow-out” or “overshot” of black powder, but there was confusion as to who was responsible. Some reports claimed that “James Pritchard, or his son Arthur” fired the fatal shot. Other newspaper clippings claimed a miner named John Pugh (or his son) was also responsible. “Conditions found where the bodies of Pugh and his son were discovered that Pugh evidently used an over-charge of an explosive, intended to overcome an excessive resistance which was weakened by a ‘slip.’ When the blast took place, the explosion spread, igniting gas, which caused the disaster.”

While Davis Coal & Coke Co. was held harmless in the catastrophe, a report by the West Virginia Bureau of Mines found numerous deficiencies in their operational and safety protocols. “The general condition of the mine was very unsatisfactory,” the report stated. “The headings, from which most of the present output is attained, have quite large accumulations of dry dust scattered along the road. The entries are driven 21 feet wide, half of which is gobbed up, and great quantities of very fine black dust cover these gob piles.”

The report also mentioned a potentially dangerous condition at the “fan house,” which provided ventilation in the mine shafts and which could have jeopardized the rescue operation. “The boiler was in the same building as the fan. Since the explosion occurred, safety lamps had been cleaned and repaired in the boiler room and there was considerable grease and oil lying around on the floor. Conditions were very favorable to an accidental fire starting in this boiler house, and if a fire started while the men were in the mine, the smoke and fumes would have been blown into the mine by the fan …”

Funerals for the 23 men, including four members of the Wilson family, were held on April 27 and 28. In these days before social security, worker's compensation, and life insurance, the accident had a catastrophic impact on the families of the victims. “Of the dead, seventeen had families and six were unmarried,” reported the Beckley Register. “The Davis Coal and Coke Company, the owner of the mine, is doing all in its power to alleviate the distress in the families of the victims, some of whom are left destitute.”

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Dale Brumfield can be reached at dalebrumfield@protonmail.com.