County's second-worst mine disaster hits 90th anniversary
Ninety years ago today, 36 lives were lost in Indiana County’s second-worst mine disaster in Shanktown.
At 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, 1924, an explosion rocked the at Lancashire No. 18 mine near Starford. Forty-seven miners were in the mine at the time of the blast, and the superintendent and the assistant mine foreman were among the 36 killed, according to Gazette archives.
According to a Department of Mines report, Lancashire Coal Co. No. 18 (which, in some reports, has been referred to as Old No. 8), had opened 20 years prior and had been sold to the Barnes & Tucker Coal Co. the December before the blast, and had reopened after being closed for 12 months, Gazette archives show. Some reports refer to the owner at the time as Lancashire Coal Co., while others refer to it as Barnes & Tucker Coal Co. About 100 men were employed at the mine.
The explosion occurred 40 minutes before quitting time, and as the men were preparing to leave, they were “bunched, which would not have occurred if they had been in the midst of the day’s work,” a Jan. 28, 1924, article in the Indiana Evening Gazette reported.
[PHOTO: Those helping at the site of a mine explosion on Jan. 26, 1924, at Shanktown, near Starford, brought the bodies of some of the 36 victims to the surface in mining cars before they were loaded into the hearse on the left.]
An official probe by the head of the State Department of Mines and district mine inspectors began two days after the accident.
Information from a U.S. Bureau of Mines report that was submitted by county historian John Busovicki, of Clymer, found that the explosion supposedly originated at an aircourse face (a passage through which the air was carried, as the mine was very gaseous) where a “flameproof” mining machine had ignited gas and was fed by coal dust.
The mining machine had just completed an undercutting (cutting below or undermining the coal face by chipping away the coal) and was being placed on a truck for removal when the explosion occurred, Gazette reports show.
The rising tide of water drove rescue crews from the mine and threatened to stop the air shaft fans, hampering rescue efforts. Gas was still present in the air along with deadly afterdamp, or the toxic mixture of gases left in a mine following an explosion, according to the American Institute of Mining Engineers, halting rescue efforts until nearly 12 hours after the blast, according to archives.
Several of the men who survived were able to escape through air passages.
The explosion was the first real mine disaster addressed by the Indiana County Red Cross, which, along with Indiana Hospital staff, the Johnstown branch of The Salvation Army in cooperation with the Indiana branch, and undertakers from surrounding towns, arrived at the scene to assist, archives show.
The mine was sealed in the early ’30s before new buildings were set up to form the James Coal Mining Co., which was bored into the same hill that holds the remains of Lancashire No. 18, according to a June 12, 1951, Indiana Evening Gazette article.
The Lancashire No. 18 tragedy happened two years and seven months before the county’s worst mining disaster at the Sample Run mine in Clymer, which killed 44 miners.
A detailed map of the Shanktown mine disaster is on display at the Indiana County Historical Museum, 621 Wayne Ave., as part of the museum’s exhibit on the county’s history of coal mining.