Friday, December 7, 2007
Monongah's Tragic Legacy Unites Two Histories
It was the worst mining disaster in the history of the U.S. More than 500 were killed, according to a new book* by Davitt McAteer on the event. No one knows the exact number because many of the bodies were never recovered and identified. The victims were mostly immigrants, largely young adult men but also boys as young as ten.
It was a tragedy that intertwines American history with Italy's. At least 171 of the victims were Italians. That number still stands as the record for loss of life of Italians in mining disasters.
The coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia exploded on an early December morning one hundred years ago in 1907. A spark ignited the methane gas that permeated the mine shafts. What exactly the spark was or where it came from was never precisely determined, according to official records. The boom was heard from as far away as eight miles.
An Italian reporter's story
A powerfully moving account of what happened that day, and the lives of the miners and their families before and since appeared in La Repubblica this week on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. The story was written by Mario Calabresi, one of the newspaper's foreign correspondents, reporting from the U.S.
It's a chapter of history that had been mostly forgotten until recently, Calabresi writes. He describes the hillside cemetery in Monongah where the recovered bodies were buried. The burial ground has fallen into a deteriorated state over the years, with many of the tombstones broken and half covered by dirt. Just last year, however, he reports, the Italian government came to the rescue and spent $100,000 to clean up the graveyard.
The La Repubblica video (in Italian) above shows the cemetery and its surrounding area today, as well as historical photos of the town and its residents.
Why and how they came there
The Italians who died that morning were part of the phenomenon of mass immigration from Europe that began in the late 1800s and continued for several decades. In Italy, in particular, the population had expanded rapidly in the peaceful interval that followed the unification of the country in 1860. Poverty had been widespread in certain areas before but now population growth so outstripped the country's agricultural and economical resources that hundreds of thousands were without jobs. Famine was a common threat to many.
In contrast, the industrial revolution was underway in the United States and other richer countries. In those areas, workers were much in demand. Italy's government soon realized that allowing its people to immigrate was a solution to the desperate situation.
In 1907, almost 300,000 Italians passed through Ellis Island. But for the ones whose destination was the mine owned by the Fairmont Coal Company in Monongah, West Virginia the situation they left behind couldn't have been worse than the circumstances that awaited them.
A hellish place
In the La Repubblica article, Calabresi sets out the details and they are horrific. The Italian immigrants were charged $15 each for the cross-Atlantic voyage (more than $300 in today's dollars). Their employer paid the fares for the workers and then made deductions from their weekly salaries. The men were paid only ten cents an hour, so that salary was meager.
The workers lived as many as ten to a room in tar paper shacks, Calabresi reports. They had to pay rent for the privilege and this also was withheld from their salaries, reducing it by half.
Other harsh aspects of the miners living and working conditions are wellknown as they have been widely reported (see links below), and have continued into recent history at many mines.
One of the most tragic aspects of the story that Calabresi recounts was the situation with the workers' children. As each miner descended into the mine, he was accompanied by two "helpers". They were boys, age ten and up. They were unpaid except for small tips doled out to them based on the amount of coal they brought to the surface. Their labor was off the books, with no official records made of their names or even their presence in the mine.
The miners also were imprisoned, in effect, in the mining town, according to Calabresi's report. He writes that no one was allowed to leave until all debts to the company were paid, virtually an impossibility given the circumstances imposed on the workers. Armed guards patrolled the area to ensure that no one escaped.
Monongah and its families today
Calabresi tells of a recent visit he made to Monongah, noting that there are fewer residents now than there were 100 years ago. The town's families all have ancestors who died in that long ago tragedy, he writes, and they told him their stories. He also describes a memorial statue that commemorates the wives and mothers of the miners who were killed in the mine explosion. At the end of the article, he describes the strange suffering of one of the widows:
One of these was named Caterina Davia, who lost her husband and two sons, but their bodies were never found. Every day for almost thirty years, she returned to the entrance of the mine shafts to carry away a sack of coal that she then emptied into her yard. It gave birth to a hill, "the hill of coal", that began to submerge the house. She said that she did it to take a little of the weight off of them. And to give some sense to her madness.
UPDATE: I received an e-mail from Tina Marshall a few days ago offering a correction to some information in the quote above about Caterina Davia, a widow of one of the miners killed in the Monongah mine explosion (see e-mail below). I appreciate hearing from Ms. Marshall. I welcome any other comments or e-mails from Monongah area residents.
I also am adding a link to a recently made documentary video about the Monongah mine explosion. The title is The Monongah Heroine, and the filmmaker is Gina Martino Dahlia, see here.
Comment received January 5, 2008 from Tina Marshall:
I'm not sure who wrote the passage regarding Caterina Davia, but it is partially incorrect. My family and I occupy the home that was deeded to Caterina (renamed Catherine at Ellis Island) and her 5 children in 1909. This is the home to which she did carry hundreds of tons of coal in a 30 year period, searching, some say, for her husband. At the time of the explosion she was 42 years old and her 5 children ranged in age from 2 to 12, the oldest being the only girl. I have copies of the censuses of that time, as well as the deeds to the property, which in 1909, was deeded to Catherine and the five children.
Upon her passing in 1932, four of the children, who had moved to various states, deeded the property over to their youngest brother, Oreste, who had remained with their mother until her death. NONE of Caterina and her husband Vittorio's children were killed in the explosion.
As a side note to anyone who is interested, to this day my family and I cannot dig in our yard without finding coal. Caused some real problems with our swimming pool this past summer.
*Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in US History, by West Virginia native Davitt McAteer. Amazon.com description: "McAteer has long been a champion of mine safety and served as Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health in the US Department of Labor during the Clinton administration. His exhaustive research tracking down Monongah victims' survivors and descendants proves that contrary to the official report of 362 dead, close to 500 men and boys, many of them immigrants, lost their lives that day, leaving hundreds of women widowed and over 1,000 children orphaned."
- Mining Disasters, Reference, The New York Times
- Weakening the Fight for Mine Safety, Editorial, The New York Times, Oct 26, 2006
- Report Cites Mine-Safety Agency Failures, by Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times, Nov 18, 2007
- Agency Orders Mines to Take Safety Steps, by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, May 19, 2007
- Utah Mine Country, After Disaster, Tells Panel It Fears Overregulation, by Dan Frosch, The New York Times, Sept 26, 2007
- The deadliest industry -- a close look a coal miners/We are bound to an economy on their backs, by Melanie Light, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan 15, 2006
- Personalizing 1907 tragedy historian's "crusade", by Jessica Legge, Times West Virginian, Nov 16, 2006
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato