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Mine safety was a pre-Christmas concern in 1910

Published December 11. 2010 09:00AM

From 1880 to 1910 thousands of men died in mine accidents. The worst month in U.S. coal mining history was December 1907 when 3,242 men were killed in accidents. That year, the worst mine explosion in U.S. history killed 358 people near Monongah, W.V.

Although coal mining was the deadliest type, workers in metal and non-coal mining activity were also susceptible to hazards such as fires, explosions and cave-ins.

In 1910 Congress created the U.S. Bureau of Mines to investigate accidents, advise industry, conduct production and safety research, and teach courses in accident prevention, first aid, and mine rescue.

Local mine workers got an indea of just how serious the government was in trying to reduce accidents when the U.S. Mine Bureau set up a series of training sessions on mine safety and rescue work in Lansford and Tamaqua just before Christmas 1910. About 50 men, selected from various collieries of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation company, took part in the training.

The training was done in morning and afternoon sessions on U.S. Mine Rescue Car No. 1, a railroad car which was converted into a mobile classroom. This marked the first visit to the anthracite region by the government's mine rescue car, which looked very much like a passenger coach, having been equipped with cooking, dining and sleeping apartments. The public was invited to visit the car which was parked on the CRR of New Jersey tracks near the powerhouse.

The training was led by Charles Enzian, who knew the anthracite region well. He was a native of Carbon County and began his engineering career with the LC&N. A year earlier, he demonstrated the use of the oxygen helmet in helping to extinguish a mine fire in colliery No. 10 of the LC&N. Enzian showed it was possible for an operator wearing an oxygen helmet to enter a burning or gas filled mine and to rescue men who were overcome by gas.

Enzian was born in Weissport in October 1877. After attending local schools he went on to Lehigh University, where he earned his engineering degree. From 1894-97, he was the assistant to the county engineer in Carbon County, which included surveying as well as municipal and county engineering.

In 1898-99, he was construction engineer for the Atlas Portland Cement Co. in Northampton County, and in 1900 he led the construction of a 2,000-barrel cement plant for the Alpha Portland Cement Co. in Alpha, N.J.

In 1901 he accepted a position as engineer and superintendent for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. In 1902 he served as a district engineer for several collieries of the Lehigh Valley Coal Co. in Wilkes-Barre. Here he gained valuable experience in breaker construction, and served as a resident engineer in charge of construction of newer breakers.

Enzian worked as an engineer for the Lehigh Valley Coal Co, leading its most important division for five years before leaving to take a position with the U.S. Mining Bureau.

After a rash of late-year mine accidents in the area, the Mine Bureau felt the time was right for classes on mine safety. Unfortunately, it didn't address the root cause of some of the accidents late that year, which involved the mine cages that transported miners up and down the shaft. That specific safety issue was addressed about three years later.

During the first month of 1914, The New York Times reported that regular testing was done by dropping a loaded cage to see how effective the catches were in stopping it.

The test was just one part of a concentrated effort "to help prevent accidents and guard anthracite miners." These included the use of concrete instead of wood underground to prevent fire, using a signal system and telephones, and a special rescue car, which could be rushed to any danger point at a moment's notice.

One mine official said by using concrete, the "most terrible of dangers, the fire peril, has been reduced to the minimum by the removal of all wood and combustible materials from the inside of the working mines and the substitution of concrete."

He added that "The latest scientific and practical rescue apparatus has been supplied, consisting of oxygen-breathing helmets, pulmotors, first aid appliances and the field telephones."

Some companies organized safety and efficiency committees. Every accident was reviewed and catalogued and the results circulated among the workers to teach them how to avoid accidents.

Regular training schools and drills were carried out at the mines in first aid work. Instructions were given in the use of the mine appliances, rescue crews became a permanent feature and some operations had emergency hospitals located at the bottom of every shaft.

Many of the slopes, pump houses and stables inside the mines were also being lighted by electricity.

"We have eliminated every danger to the point of human carelessness and the fallibility of the mine worker himself," the Times article stated. "Even the danger from the kick of a mule is being obviated by replacing these animals with compressed air locomotives and electric motors."

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