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Under my hat: A steep price

Some of our country’s most horrific coal mining tragedies took place in the anthracite deep mines of eastern Pennsylvania.

This summer, with travel relatively restricted by the pandemic, I stayed close to home and revisited a few unimaginable stories.

Ironically, one of the most famous wasn’t actually the worst. But worldwide media coverage put it in the spotlight.

Those of us in Schuylkill County are very familiar with the Sheppton Mine disaster and rescue.

The roof of the mine collapsed on Aug. 13, 1963, trapping three miners 300 feet below ground. After a few failed attempts, a small borehole was drilled from the surface, confirming that Henry Throne and David Fellin had survived in a small, narrow chamber.

Rescuers dropped provisions to the miners to keep them alive. Larger boreholes were made, including a final one that allowed the two miners to be lifted to the surface after two weeks underground.

Sadly, the fate of Louis Bova was never determined, although he was said to be still alive after the collapse.

The tale has even more drama than you’d suspect. After rescue, Throne and Fellin related stories of apparitions during their weeks in total darkness. They said they saw humanlike figures, recently deceased Pope John XXIII, stairways and colorful lights.

The Sheppton Mine Disaster gripped the world’s attention, largely due to worldwide news coverage via television, an industry still in its infancy at that time.

Even more gut-wrenching is the story of the Twin Shaft Disaster in Pittston.

At 3 a.m. on Sunday, June 28, 1896, 96 miners were deep inside the Red Ash Vein of the Newton Coal Company when the roof gave way.

What is known is that 58 men and boys, mostly Irish and Lithuanian immigrants, were either killed or trapped in the cave-in. They were 434 feet underground. Volunteers struggled to open two rescue tunnels but often dug just 20 feet a day before attempts were abandoned. Rescue or recovery was impossible.

It took a while to compile their names because the list of those working was kept inside the mine with them.

Those men and boys remain in the mine today. They left behind 31 widows and 101 orphans.

But there’s yet another tragedy just as shocking and it happened more recently.

In terms of incredulity, it’s hard to top the Knox Mine Disaster.

On Jan. 22, 1959, at the River Slope Mine at Port Griffith, 81 miners were working beneath the mighty Susquehanna River which was swollen and ice-filled from winter thaw.

The workers were ordered to dig illegally, carving coal from overhead at their dangerous location beneath the river bed.

They dug so close to the river bottom that they said they could hear the rumble of the water. Some said they were only 5 feet from the river bottom. Other accounts say only 16.

Whatever the case, the river broke through in a swirling roar. Vintage photos online show the huge vortex of water, 150 feet wide, and how train cars were dumped into the gap to try to plug the hole.

In the meantime, men below frantically scurried to find escape routes. One man crawled 50 feet high in an air shaft, nearly straight up, to reach dry land. Others wandered for hours trying to find a way out.

Twelve miners never made it, their whereabouts unknown. All hope was given up to try to find them. Did they drown? Or did they find a higher pocket out of harm’s way but too inaccessible to be rescued?

Today, the remains of those one dozen men are entombed in flooded caverns beneath the river.

It’s one of the most horrific tragedies in the annals of coal mining.

I hiked to the location a week ago. It’s impossible to drive there. I wanted to visit and pay respects before nature reclaims the spot and it becomes inaccessible.

It’s located at a remote site wedged between the river bank and a spooky cliff that rises perhaps 40 feet high. This wooded area between Wyoming and Pittston understandably emits a sad aura and is a dangerous spot to explore.

The day will come when Hollywood decides to make movies about the human stories behind these unbelievable coal mining tragedies.

Anthracite coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and built our country. But in many ways, the price paid was too steep.

Email Donald R. Serfass at the Times News at dserfass@tnonline.com.

It's possible to stand on the exact spot where, in 1959, the bottom of the cold, icy and swollen Susquehanna River broke through into working coal mines below, forever trapping 12 men. The spot was later backfilled, which redirected the river, visible in the background.
A marker denotes the location of the Knox Mine Disaster, and it's possible to hike to the location, although the general area is being reclaimed by nature. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS