The fact that coal mining is hazardous is a given quantity. Back in the 19th century, it was even more so. Despite some federal regulations regarding basic safety, there was very little manpower to enforce them. Regarding mines on native American reservations, there was a mine inspector but he could only investigate and report on mining accidents, not prevent them.
Of historical importance was the worst coal mine disaster of the 1800s. The location was on Indian Territory in Krebs, Oklahoma. The site was the Osage Coal and Mining Company’s Mine Number 11.
At approximately 5:00 pm on January 7, 1892 around 400 miners, mostly Italian and Russian immigrants, were finishing the day shift and preparing to go home. Six workers had already been lifted in the elevator cage and stepped out of it onto the outside platform. Suddenly, a violent explosion was heard and the elevator cage was forced through the top of the elevator tower 50-feet into the air.
The explosion was followed by huge flames forcing their way upward, through the mineshaft. There was another violent explosion which was heard several miles away from Krebs. People in the vicinity also felt an Earth temblor caused by the explosion.
The explosions and fire quickly swept through the entire mining operation. 100 miners were killed and at least another 200 were severely injured. It was soon determined that a “windy shot” caused the explosion. A windy shot is the explosion of dynamite that fails to dislodge or break up a coal deposit.
Right away, hundreds of miners who worked in neighboring mines rushed to help in the rescue operations and recovery of fatalities. They were assisted by all of the area’s physicians. Their dangerous work continued through the next day.
One of the most shocking aspects of the disaster was that blacks were kept away from the disaster site to help in the rescue efforts. Despite their eagerness to aid in the rescue operation, blacks who tried to help white survivors were driven away at gunpoint by armed mine company security men. Such was the level of racism at that time and place.
Oklahoma was a top location for mining in the 1800s. Much of the land was on native American territory and exempt from federal laws and regulations. The Osage Coal and Mining Company’s Number 11 mine had a terrible reputation for its poor conditions. There was also a daily problem of venting away methane gas.
The turnover rate at that mine was very high. Still, there were plenty who were of Italian and Russian descent willing to work. This meant that the company usually hired unskilled laborers and spent little or no time training them. This meant that many of the most dangerous jobs, like handling munitions and explosives, were carried out by unskilled workers.
Later investigations determined that one of those unskilled miners accidentally triggered a cache of explosives. Authorities estimated 100 men were killed outright or buried in the rubble. 150 to 200 others suffered severe injuries. We are left to wonder how many lives could have been saved if only the African-Americans had been allowed to assist in the rescue operation.