August 4, 1917, at 7:30, marked one of the worst days in Kentucky mining history. The incident occurred at the West Kentucky Coal Co.´s No. 7 mine, 1.5 miles northwest of Clay, Kentucky.
The regular miners were on strike during the explosion, protesting low wages and dangerous working conditions. Strike workers were brought in to work in the mines and were primarily African Americans, also known as strikebreakers.
Tension was high at the time due to the strikebreakers, causing the union workers to be frustrated and increased incidents of violence, resulting in three union miners being arrested the day before the explosion for firing ¨several hundred shots¨ at the Kentucky National Guard.
The National Guard was guarding Diamond Mine near Providence, Ky. It led to martial law around Clay weeks before the incident. Some even speculated that the explosion was due to the tampering of wires inside the mine.
The explosion was caused by methane gas and an open flame headlamp, which resulted in 153 men trapped underground. Before the men could be rescued, repairs had to be made to equipment in the shaft. The U.S. Bureau of Mines dispatched its mine rescue railroad ar from Evansville and miners with breathing apparatus from Sturgis. However, the help did not come soon enough. At least 62 men died from the explosion leaving many others injured.
Unfortunately, the mine kept poor records, and the explosion was so severe that many of those killed in the mine were unidentifiable. At the time of the mine, there were 153 men underground, and 29 of the 47 men identified were buried in unmarked graves near Rock Springs. Forty-three men survived by sealing themselves off in an unaffected section of the mine. Many of the men who died were 16-30, and the identity of all the dead were never confirmed.
Union headquarters called off the strike after the explosion. Some stated that it was because only 20% of the workers participated in the strike; others said it was because the strikebreakers had no experience in mines.
During the early 20th century working in the mines was a dangerous business. The risk of death or illness was high, with the risk of a collapsing mine, suffocation, gas poisoning, and machinery accidents. Most workers on strike only wanted fair working conditions, better wages, fewer hours, and freedom of speech and assembly.
Yet the mining companies were against unions and fought to control their private property and do business how they chose.
RIP to those 62 men who died in the explosion.