XXXIII: The Men of Monongah

Well ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again — Father’s Day, when we celebrate our dads and all they do for us. Seems like a fairly straightforward holiday, doesn’t it?

Au contraire, my friends. It’s origins are more unexpected than you would, well, expect.

In the very early 20th century, Anna Jarvis had achieved a good deal of success in the promotion of a new holiday called Mother’s Day. In 1907, 362 men were killed in a mining accident in Monongah, Virginia; 250 of them were had children. Grace Golden Clayton of nearby fairmont, was mourning her own father at the time (who had passed away several months earlier) and suggested to her pastor that they hold an event to honor all these men, particularly in their capacity as fathers.

Monongah was, in fact, the worst mining accident in U.S. history. the But what kind of mining accident can cause that much devastation?

It began on the morning of Friday, December 6th, 1907, in the No. 6 and No. 8 mines belonging to the Fairmont Mining Company. At the time, there were official 367 men in the mines (although there were a significant number of children included in that number). At 10:28 am, an explosion of indeterminate origin rocked the mine, killing almost all of the men instantly and destroying ventilation system, mine cars, roof supports, and other equipment. Investigators at the time suspected it was caused by an electrical spark or open flame lamp igniting coal dust or methane gas.

Within twenty-five minutes of the explosions, rescuers had entered the mine; in the early days of mining, there was a very limited amount of time after a mine collapse during which people could survive before anyone who survived the explosion was suffocated by whitedamp (carbon monoxide) or blackdamp (carbon dioxide and nitrogen). The rescuers were also in serious danger of suffocating. They could only be in the mine for fifteen minutes at a time. Many tried to last longer by covering their faces with rags; while this kept coal dust out of their lungs, it made no difference in the mine’s low-oxygen or oxygen-free environment. Unfortunately, the mine’s ventilation systems had been completely destroyed by the explosion, meaning the valiant effort to rescue survivors soon became an effort to recover bodies. of the 367 people known to be in the mine, 362 bodies were recovered, and one very lucky man, John Tomko, was pulled out alive.

The lost miners left behind 250 widows and 1,000 fatherless children.

As a result of the disaster, Congress created the United States Bureau of Mines to inspect mines and limit the risk to miners and the lost of natural resources. And, of course, the nearby town of Fairmont held a memorial which evolved into an annual event and what we now know as Father’s Day.


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