There are no flags flying at half-staff today, no proclamations of mourning.
There are no flags flying at half-staff today, no proclamations of mourning. But, a little after 5 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1888, the largest mine disaster in Kansas history took place at Frontenac.
A total of 44 men and boys were killed in an explosion at Mine No. 2, owned by the Cherokee and Pittsburg Coal and Mining Company. The blast was so strong that it broke windows in nearby houses.
“The disaster was reported in newspapers across the country,” Jerry Lomshek of Chicopee — who continues to do research about the disaster — said. “On the first day it was said that 100 had been killed, but that quickly dropped down to 52. After doing all this research, we’ve boiled it down to 44.”
The dead included immigrants from France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway and Austria. Lomshek believes that the oldest victim was 45.
“There were six teenagers, including two 13-year-olds,” he said.
Lomshek said that Mine No. 2 was considered one of the best, most modern mines in the state, but was also dry and had problems with accumulations of coal dust. Robert Craig, superintendent of all mines owned by the Cherokee and Pittsburg Coal Mining Company, had ordered sprinkling in the mine to settle the dust.
“It appears this was done sporadically and less than was needed,” Lomshek said.
Another factor was the common practice of miners, whether they were experienced or not, setting off their own explosives or shots.
“Some companies by 1888 had adopted the practice of utilizing specially employed shot-firers who detonated the explosive charges of all the miners in a mine after they had left for the day,” Lomshek said. “The Cherokee and Pittsburg had not.”
Regulations required that no more than five pounds of black powder explosive could be taken into the mines by a miner at one time, but this rule was generally ignored.
A board of inquiry determined that the explosion originated in room No. 9, which was worked by miner James Wilson. He had drilled and placed his shots in the room and lit his fuses. One shot was “windy” and ignited the coal dust. The explosion passed into the entryway, igniting Wilson’s powder keg and killing him. The explosion spread down the entryways and into adjoining rooms, exploding four or five kegs of powder belonging to other miners.
“The explosion caused little damage to the mine itself,” Lomshek said. “The toll of this explosion would be in human terms.”
Every doctor from Pittsburg and many from Girard, Litchfield and the surrounding area responded.
“The injured were cared for in the blacksmith shop along side the mine shaft,” Lomshek said. “Thirteen wounded were treated there, many suffering from burns and from inhaling ‘damp,’ the noxious gases of the mine.”
Page 2 of 2 - Each miner in the district was asked to donate 50 bushels of goal for aid to the victims’ families, and a relief committee was formed to solicit aid for the survivors.
And, of course, the dead had to be buried. Lomshek said that the final resting places of 28 victims are known, including two mass graves in Pittsburg. At 11 a.m. on the Monday after the explosion, a Santa Fe train pulled out of Frontenac, flat cars loaded with coffins and passenger cars filled with grieving families.
“Seventeen of the coffins were unloaded and taken to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church,” Lomshek said. “Due to the lack of space in the frame church, the caskets were left on the wagons outside while Father Zvacek conducted the services.”
Following this, a procession was formed to take the remains to the new St. Mary’s Cemetery south of town. It is now at the south edge of Highland Park Cemetery.
The train carrying the caskets, after dropping off the Catholic families, proceeded to the crossing nearest Mt. Olive Cemetery and the nine remaining caskets were unloaded there. Religious ceremonies were held with nearly 3,000 present.
Gradually, public memory faded and the two mass graves had no marker until Jeff Scott, Pittsburg, decided to make that his Eagle Scout project. Lomshek assisted with many hours of research, which he intends to place in the Leonard H. Axe Library, Genealogy Libraries at Pittsburg Public Library and Columbus, and the Kansas Historical Society.
The first marker, at St. Mary’s Cemetery, was dedicated on June 2, 2002. The second was dedicated April 4, 2005 at Mt. Olive Cemetery.
Each marker is engraved with the names of those buried there.
“The names were kind of hard to follow,” Lomshek said. “The names were messed up so much in the immigration process that it was hard to find what was the true name.”
There is another type of memorial as well — reforms in the coal mining industry. In mid-December, the state convention of miners, held in Pittsburg, sent a delegation to the Kansas governor urging that he appoint a practical miner as state mine inspector, and within a short time George W. Findley, inspector at the time of the disaster, was replaced by John T. Stewart, Scammon, a practical miner.
By late January 1889, John Herron, Cherokee, introduced a bill into the Kansas Legislature requiring the use of shot-firers in coal mines, with shots to be fired only once a day, after all miners had left the mine. This was passed by both branches of the legislature by the end of February.
“Despite their lying until recently in unmarked graves, their names now long forgotten, these miners’ deaths had made a difference,” Lomshek said.
Those who died, listed alphabetically, were: Baza Bara, 29, Italian; Auguste Barbier, 29, French; Emile Barbier, 21, French; Joseph Bertinetti, 28, Italian; Louis Bertolino, 30, Italian; Antonio Bianco, 41, Italian; Henry “Harry” Burns, 24, American; George W. Croxton, 28, American; Leon Duez, 32, French; Gustave “Gus” Dufresne, 30, Belgian; William Ellwood Jr., almost 20, American; William A. Foster, 26, American, Harry Hansen, 28, Norwegian; Edward Hetrick, 25, American; Joseph Jolita, 28, Italian; John Jones, 26, American; Joseph Keller, 25, American; George Koerner, 13, American; Alexander LaCalle, 40, French; John Baptiste Lebecq, 31, French; Daniel Limb, 25, English; Thomas Longcake, 38, English; Edward Malle, 30, France; Leon Malle, 32, French; Frank Marschallinger, 34, Austrian; William Peter Miller, 23, American; John O’Connor, 23, Irish; James O’Hare, 34, American; Frank Price, 21, German; Robert Pritchard, 31, Scots; Daniel Randall, 29, English; Charles Raushenberger, 19, German; Frank Roche, 27, French; William Schafers, 28, German; Alexis Siplet, 36, French; Herman Smith, 30, German; Charles Tasco, 30, Italian; Robert Thompson, 13, English; William Timbers, 38, American; David Tweed, 35, Scots; George Weisenberger, 19, German; John Weisenberger, 45, German; James W. Wilson, 17, American; and Alfred Yahnkuhn, 26, German.