Published October 13. 2021 11:55AM
For the past year and a half, many of us were taking part in activities that avoided crowds.
In my case, my spare time was devoted to hiking to mine disaster sites.
I wanted to go and lay flowers at places where men and boys died, some horribly, while simply trying to put food on the table.
I have respect for those folks.
My ancestors weren’t miners. They were farmers, landholders and country store owners in Carbon and Monroe counties. But I grew up among the mines and silt banks of Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania’s southern coalfields. So the mining region is my home.
Of all the tragic sites I visited, the most heartbreaking was Avondale Mine near Plymouth.
I went there for the 152nd anniversary of the greatest tragedy in the history of anthracite mining in the U.S.
On Sep. 6, 1869, a massive fire broke out in the shaft of Avondale Colliery and ignited the coal breaker directly above.
All 108 men and boys working more than 300 feet underground slowly suffocated. After the fire was extinguished, the first two rescuers who were lowered into the vertical mineshaft also fell dead.
Many of the bodies eventually were buried in Washburn Cemetery, Scranton. Others in Shawnee Cemetery, Plymouth. Historical accounts say at least one and possibly more were buried in Tamaqua.
I haven’t yet identified which Tamaqua cemetery accepted bodies from Avondale. This requires more research.
As a result of the tragedy, mining reforms were put in place.
No longer could a coal breaker be located directly over a mineshaft. Also, all mines were later required to have at least two exits.
But it was too late for 110 who suffered unimaginable deaths.
The coroner’s report describes the flesh being colored bright red on most of the bodies. They had been starved for oxygen.
Most left a family with no other means of support.
But the story that really affected me was that of victim Willie Hatton. He wasn’t a miner at all. He was only 10.
So why was he there?
According to the official report: “This poor little fellow did not work in the mine, but his father took him in with him the fatal morning, according to a promise made by him some time earlier.”
You could imagine the discussion.
“Let me show you where I work, Willie. You’ll be amazed! Every day we ride straight down maybe 200 feet on a wooden platform. You can go with me and watch daddy work. We’ll take a lunch pail and eat together and then ride the platform back up to daylight.”
Likely excited, the little boy probably couldn’t wait to do it. A special day with daddy.
As 110 bodies were found, one by one, official reports were drawn up describing the location and condition of each.
I scrutinized the final, published details of the recovery and coroner’s report.
For some reason, many had died lying down with their arms stretched upward and locked in place. The accounts say some had their eyes open. Others closed. It was apparent they’d been gasping for air. A few had vomited.
And then I saw it.
The report clearly states: “One father was found with his arm around his son.”
I cried when I read it. Those simple words turned my skin cold. What were their final moments like? What did they say to each other?
Today, ghosthunters visit the site.
They say there’s paranormal activity there. Restless energy.
I believe it.
I hiked to the spot alone on a cloudy day. I felt uneasy the entire time. The sense of pain was palpable at a place where so much death and suffering took place.
I felt surrounded by a strange aura. Swallowed by sadness.
I stood at the mineshaft, now filled with dirt, and bowed my head for Little Willie and the others.
It probably didn’t make a difference, but I did it anyway.
I couldn’t wait to leave. To hike out of that dismal place as fast as I could. To exit hell on earth.
Yet, for some reason, I felt glad I went there.
I’m standing at the spot where Avondale Breaker once stood. Behind me is a portal where many of the 110 bodies were brought out to daylight.
An overview of the sloped terrace where Avondale Breaker hugged the mountainside. The miners entered a vertical shaft located at the high side, far left. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
A state historical marker describes the worst tragedy in anthracite coal mining history in the U.S. It doesn’t mention specifics of the father and his 10-year-old son, one of the saddest stories of the tragedy.
The Plymouth Historical Society provides a 1905 photo of the Avondale Breaker. The miners rode a platform elevator into the mine from the “shaft” location at upper left.