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Bright Spot
Miners wore small oil lamps—like the one above—on their hats. These lamps provided light in dark underground tunnels. 

from American Experience, The Mine Wars, copyright 1996-2019 WGBH Educational Foundation

CCSS

R.1, R.4, R.6, R.7, W.3, SL.1, L.4, L.6

Out of the Burning Darkness

A 14-year-old boy. A dangerous coal mine. And a terrible accident that would change America forever.

Before You Read: Check out our Background Builder slideshow

 

    Fourteen-year-old Albert Buckle was staring at death itself. Thick smoke moved toward him. Flames licked at the ceiling. Every second, the heat grew worse.

    But Albert couldn’t run away from the fire. He was trapped deep underground in the coal mine where he worked. People were starting to panic. “Everyone is going to die!” someone shouted. 

    It was November 13, 1909. Albert worked at the Cherry Mine—a coal mine about 100 miles from Chicago, Illinois. Nearly 500 miners spent their days in the Cherry Mine. Their job was to dig out coal from deep inside the earth.

    But today, disaster had struck. Albert and the other miners were caught in one of the worst coal mine fires in American history.

    Albert Buckle, 14, was staring death in the face. There was a fire. Thick smoke moved toward him. Flames licked at the ceiling. The heat grew worse and worse.  

    But Albert couldn’t run away. He was trapped deep underground in the coal mine where he worked. People were starting to panic. “Everyone is going to die!” someone shouted.

    It was November 13, 1909. Albert worked at the Cherry Mine. This mine was about 100 miles from Chicago, Illinois. Nearly 500 workers spent their days in the mine. They dug out coal from deep inside the earth.

    But today, disaster had struck.

    The miners were caught in one of the worst coal mine fires in U.S. history.

    Fourteen-year-old Albert Buckle was staring at death itself. Thick smoke moved toward him. Flames licked at the ceiling. With every passing second, the heat grew more intense. 

    But Albert couldn’t run away from the fire. He was trapped deep underground in the coal mine where he worked. People were starting to panic. “Everyone is going to die!” someone shouted.

    It was November 13, 1909. Albert worked at the Cherry Mine—a coal mine about 100 miles from Chicago, Illinois. Nearly 500 miners spent their days in the Cherry Mine, digging out coal from deep inside the earth.

    But today, disaster had struck.

    Albert and the other miners were caught in one of the worst coal mine fires in American history.

The Protected Art Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Mule Driver
Mule drivers led the mules that pulled cars full of coal through the mines. Mule driving was often the job that kids wanted most.

Ordinary Day 

    Just a few hours earlier, it was an ordinary morning in the small town of Cherry. Albert and his 16-year-old brother, Richard, pulled on their overalls and headed to work.

    To enter the mine, Albert crowded into a small metal cage with other miners. The cage was then lowered down a shaft, or opening—kind of like an elevator. There were two shafts at the Cherry Mine. They were the only ways to get in and out. 

    The Cherry Mine was like a huge, dark underground city. It had three main levels. On each level, there was a maze of tunnels.

    Inside, dangers were everywhere. Cave-ins were always possible. Underground gases could kill a person in minutes. Perhaps most terrifying of all was the risk of fires.

    It had started as a normal day in the town of Cherry. Albert and his brother Richard, 16, put on their overalls and went to work.

    To enter the mine, workers got into a small metal cage. The cage was then lowered down a shaft, or opening—like an elevator. There were two shafts at the Cherry Mine. They were the only ways to get in and out.

    The Cherry Mine was like a big, dark underground city. It had three main levels. On each level, there was a maze of tunnels.

    Inside, there were many dangers. Cave-ins were always possible. Underground gases could kill a person in minutes. And then there was the risk of fires.

    Just a few hours earlier, it was an ordinary morning in the small town of Cherry. Albert and his 16-year-old brother, Richard, pulled on their overalls and headed to work.

    To enter the mine, Albert crowded into a small metal cage with other miners. The cage was then lowered down a shaft, or opening—kind of like an elevator. The two shafts at the Cherry Mine were the only ways to get in and out.

    The Cherry Mine was like a huge, dark underground city. It had three main levels, each with a maze of tunnels.

    Inside, dangers were everywhere. Cave-ins were always possible, and underground gases could kill a person in minutes. Perhaps most terrifying of all was the risk of fires.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Trapper
A trapper opened and shut doors to let mules and coal cars through. These doors also kept fresh air in and bad air out.

America’s Fuel

    Coal is a rock-like substance from the ground. It is a fossil fuel, like oil and gas. When you burn coal, heat and energy are released. 

    By the time Albert was born, coal was changing life in America. It was fueling the new trains speeding across the country. It was powering giant new ships. During this time, thousands of coal mines were blasted into the ground. Some of these mines were 1,200 feet underground—as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. 

    Mining coal was a tough and dirty job. Day after day, miners blasted through rock. They cut out the coal with heavy tools. They shoveled the coal into little metal cars. Then they used mules to pull the coal cars along metal tracks.

    And it wasn’t just grown men who toiled deep in the mines. In the early 1900s, thousands of children like Albert did too. Since 1885, the U.S. government had required children to be at least 12 to work in a mine. But these laws were often ignored. 

    Albert and Richard likely felt proud to work at the mine. Their father had died a few years earlier. It was up to them to help support their mother and little sister.

    Coal is a rock-like substance. It comes from the ground. It’s a fossil fuel, like oil and gas. When you burn it, heat and energy are released.

    By the time Albert was born, coal was changing life in America. It fueled the new trains that sped across the country. It powered big new ships. During this time, thousands of coal mines were blasted into the ground. Some were 1,200 feet underground. That’s as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

    Mining coal was tough and dirty work. Miners blasted through rock. They cut out the coal with heavy tools. They shoveled the coal into little metal cars. Then they used mules to pull the coal cars along metal tracks.

    And it wasn’t just grown men who toiled in the mines. In the early 1900s, many kids did too. The U.S. government required kids to be at least 12 to work in a mine. But these laws were often ignored.

    Albert and Richard likely felt proud of their jobs. Their father had died a few years earlier. They worked to help support their mother and little sister.

    Coal is a rock-like substance from the ground. It’s a fossil fuel, like oil and gas. When you burn coal, heat and energy are released.

    By the time Albert was born, coal was changing life in America. It was fueling the new trains speeding across the country. It was powering enormous new ships. During this time, thousands of coal mines were blasted into the ground. Some of these mines were 1,200 feet underground—as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

    Mining coal was a difficult and dirty job. Day after day, miners blasted through rock and then cut out the coal with heavy tools. They shoveled the coal into little metal cars and used mules to pull the coal cars along metal tracks.

    And it wasn’t only grown men who toiled deep inside the mines. In the early 1900s, thousands of children like Albert worked alongside the adults. Since 1885, the United States government had required children to be at least 12 to work in a mine—but these laws were frequently ignored.

    Albert and Richard probably felt proud to work at the mine. Their father had died a few years earlier, and it was their responsibility to help support their mother and younger sister.

Library of Congress 

Breaker Boy 
Outside the mine was a large, noisy building called the breaker. Breaker boys worked there, picking out small pieces of rock from the coal.

Scorching Heat

    Around 11:30 a.m., Albert finished eating lunch with his brother and headed back to work. 

    Not long after, another miner came running up to Albert.

    “Fire!” he shouted.

    Somehow, oil from a lamp had dripped onto hay. The hay—food for the mules—then caught fire. Albert rushed to grab a pail of water. He tossed it onto the blaze, but it did nothing. 

    Albert needed to escape! He and a few others rushed for the shaft to take a cage to the surface. But their bosses told them the fire would soon be out. They were sent back to work.

    As the minutes passed, the fire got bigger and hotter. Only then did the call go out to evacuate the mine. As Albert climbed into the cage, he called to a friend. He asked him to warn others—including his brother, Richard.

    Around 11:30 a.m., Albert finished eating lunch and got back to work.

    Soon another miner ran over to him.

    “Fire!” he shouted.

    Oil from a lamp had dripped onto hay. The hay—food for the mules—caught fire. Albert tossed a pail of water onto the blaze. But it did no good.

    Albert needed to escape! He and a few others rushed for the shaft. They planned to take a cage to the surface. But their bosses said the fire would soon be out. They were sent back to work.

    The fire got bigger and hotter. Only then did the call go out to evacuate the mine. As Albert got into the cage, he asked a friend to warn others, including Richard.

    Around 11:30 a.m., Albert finished eating lunch with his brother and headed back to work.

    Not long after, another miner came running up to Albert.

    “Fire!” he shouted.

    Somehow, oil from a lamp had dripped onto hay. The hay—food for the mules—then caught fire. Albert grabbed a pail of water and tossed it onto the blaze, but it had no effect.

    Albert needed to escape! He and a few others rushed for the shaft to take a cage to the surface, but their bosses told them the fire would soon be out and sent them back to work.

    As the minutes ticked by, the fire grew bigger and hotter. Only then did the call go out to evacuate the mine. As Albert climbed into the cage, he called to a friend and asked him to warn others—including his brother, Richard.


A Cruel Decision

    Albert finally made it to the surface. But down below, miners were still struggling to get out. Many tunnels were blocked by flames, mules, and coal cars. 

    Over the next few hours, more than 200 men and boys would escape. But around 4 p.m., mine company leaders made a decision. They decided to seal off the air shaft. This would make the fire go out, they hoped. Fires need oxygen to keep burning. 

    To many, this decision was a terrible and cruel act. Without fresh air, anyone still alive inside the mine would be killed. Many said the mine company cared more about its coal than its workers.

    In the coming days, the fire would continue to burn. The Cherry Mine disaster was front-page news across the country. Tragically, 259 miners died. Albert’s brother, Richard, was one of them.

    Albert made it to the surface. But many others were still trapped in the mine. Tunnels were blocked by flames, mules, and coal cars.

    Over the next few hours, more than 200 miners escaped. But around 4 p.m., mine company leaders decided to seal off the air shaft. This would make the fire go out, they hoped. Fires need oxygen to keep burning.

    To many, this act was shameful. Without fresh air, anyone still alive in the mine would die. People said the mine company cared more about its coal than its workers.

    In the coming days, the fire kept burning. The Cherry Mine disaster was front-page news across the country. Tragically, 259 miners died. Albert’s brother was one of them.

    Albert finally made it to the surface—but down below, miners were still struggling to escape. Many tunnels were blocked by flames, mules, and coal cars.

    Over the next few hours, more than 200 men and boys would escape the mine. Then, around     4 p.m., mine company leaders made a devastating decision.

    They decided to seal off the air shaft in an effort to make the fire go out. Fires need oxygen to keep burning.

    Many people saw this decision as a heartless and unthinkable act. Without fresh air to breathe, anyone still alive inside the mine would be killed. People accused the mine company of valuing its coal more highly than it valued its workers.

    In the coming days, the fire would continue to burn. The Cherry Mine disaster was front-page news nationwide. Tragically, the fire claimed the lives of 259 miners, including Albert’s brother.

New Laws

    Today, this disaster has been largely forgotten. Yet it helped bring important changes. Over the next few years, new safety rules were created. The changes helped lead to some of the laws we have today that protect workers. And in 1938, child labor in the U.S. was ended at last.

    As for Albert, his days working in the coal mine were over. He moved to a nearby town and became a tree trimmer. 

    Albert would spend the rest of his days not in the darkness of the earth but in the light of the sky.

    Today, this disaster has been largely forgotten. Yet it helped bring important changes. Over the next few years, new safety rules were made. The changes helped lead to some of the laws we have today that protect workers. And in 1938, child labor in the U.S. was ended.

    Albert made changes too. He moved to a nearby town and became a tree trimmer. He spent the rest of his days not in the darkness of the earth but in the light of the sky. 

    This disaster has been largely forgotten over time, and yet it helped bring about important changes. New safety rules were created over the next few years, and they helped lead to some of the laws we have today that protect workers. And in 1938, child labor in the United States finally came to an end.

    As for Albert, his days in the mine were over. He moved to a nearby town and became a tree trimmer. He spent the rest of his days not in the darkness of the earth but in the light of the sky. 

Shutterstock.com 

Special thanks to the Princeton Public Library, the Bureau County Historical Society Museum and Library, the Cherry Library and Museum, and the Bureau County Genealogical Society for their research assistance.

Background Builder

ACTIVITY: 
Finding Text Evidence

You’ve just read “Out of the Burning Darkness.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Out of the Burning Darkness.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “Out of the Burning Darkness.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

How many people worked in the Cherry Mine? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the first section.

Answer: About 500 miners worked in the Cherry Mine.

How many people worked in the Cherry Mine? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the first section.

Answer: About 500 miners worked in the Cherry Mine.

How many people worked in the Cherry Mine? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the first section.

Answer: About 500 miners worked in the Cherry Mine.

How many exits did the Cherry Mine have? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Ordinary Day.” 

How many exits did the Cherry Mine have? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Ordinary Day.” 

How many exits did the Cherry Mine have? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Ordinary Day.” 

How did the fire start?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Scorching Heat.”

How did the fire start?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Scorching Heat.”

How did the fire start?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Scorching Heat.”

What blocked the mine’s tunnels during the fire?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Cruel Decision.”

What blocked the mine’s tunnels during the fire?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Cruel Decision.”