By Paul Golias
June 3, 2019 - It was the anthracite era’s high point. The mines were humming, miners were working and coal was fueling American industry.
Yet, 100 years into the saga of coal mining, inadequate attention was being paid still to the safety and welfare of those who toiled in the underground pits.
The result: Hundreds of miners, laborers and youngsters employed to tend mules or use heavy wooden sticks to brake mine cars were dying in the mines.
One of the worst of Wyoming Valley’s disasters occurred June 5, 1919, when blasting powder being hauled into the Baltimore Mine Tunnel in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania exploded, killing 92 men and injuring another 44.
Fire in the Hole - The 100th Anniversary of Baltimore Mine Tunnel Disaster
Regional mining historians and faculty and students from King’s College will conduct a memorial program Wednesday, June 5, at the state historical marker erected in 2015 near the disaster site.
This map illustrates the extent of the mine tunnels and workings associated with the Baltimore Colliery in the area of the Baltimore Mine Tunnel.
Image courtesy of Thomas Mackaman, Associate Professor of History, King's College, Wilkes-Barre
The marker sits on a well-maintained small parcel of land on Business Route 309. The Raymour & Flanagan furniture store is on the site of the former Baltimore Mine tunnel entrance. The mine stretched underground in the Storm Hill section of Wilkes-Barre City and Wilkes-Barre Twp., an area later developed into the Wyoming Valley Mall, and into Plains Twp.
Not only is the lawn well maintained, but someone makes certain that a floral arrangement is in place at the base of the marker.
Kate Lavery, Wilkes-Barre, one of the supporters of the monument initiative and niece to two disaster victims, said she does not know who mows the lawn or places the flowers.
“It is a nice gesture,’’ she says.
The historical marker was dedicated in 2014. Students in the history department of King’s College did research into the disaster and helped file the application with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Dr. Tom Mackaman of King’s College guided the students, who had the support of the Anthracite Heritage Foundation, Pennsylvania Historical Association, mining historians, Drew McLaughlin, then on the city mayor’s staff, and Lavery.
Lavery’s uncles, Michael Harris, 25, and Victor Harris, 22, died in the explosion. Lavery, born 10 years later, said anthracite mining, the disaster and the deaths of her uncles were a regular topic of conversation in the family for decades.
The miners represented many nationalities. The disaster caused widespread mourning in the Wyoming Valley. Catholic clergy held a Mass at the tunnel entrance.
The exact cause of the explosion was never determined, but a spark from a shorted wire is believed to have ignited the blasting powder.
The Delaware & Hudson Coal Company’s Baltimore Tunnel No. 2 Mine was a modern operation, equipped with electricity and a motor engine that transported the miners below ground via a train of cars.
About 150 men rode into the mine in 14 coal cars on that June day. John McGroarty, the motorman, began driving the engine into the mine but he was told that the trolley wire, which conducted electricity for the engine, had fallen from its bracket and needed repair.
McGroarty and his brakeman, James Kehoe, uncoupled the engine from the 14 cars, bringing the train to a halt about 200 feet away from the mine entrance. The miners and laborers would have to walk to their posts at the coal faces.
Smoke began to fill the mine entrance and the sizzling of the trolley wire could be heard as sparks flickered toward the rear car which held 12 canisters of dynamite. Then, the explosion occurred. Men and boys on the coal cars were killed or badly burned. Some men suffocated. The few survivors painted a horrific scene of men wailing and dying.
The United Mine Workers union had bargained the right for workers to be transported into the coal mines instead of walking. The D&H won a stipulation that blasting powder used in the mines could be transported in the last unoccupied car.
The use of electricity to transport miners to their workplace on the same train of cars as the blasting powder was a violation of the state Department of Mines’ safety regulations. It was unsafe and the miners riding the cars were aware of the danger, but they were unable to do anything about it.
William Kashatus, a history professor at Luzerne County Community College, in an account of the disaster, wrote: “In a sad twist of fate, some of the victims had recently returned from World War I only to die in the anthracite pits of their hometown. Other victims were the fathers of soldiers from the 311th Field Artillery, which had been welcomed home just 12 hours earlier.’’
The 1918 influenza pandemic also had ravaged mining families in the Wyoming Valley. Fifty million people died worldwide and 675,000 died in the U.S., including many children. Wyoming Valley families lost many, whose tombstones give the dates of their brief lives. Now those families had to bury the mine victims, too.
The Baltimore Tunnel victims were Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Irish and Russian. The King’s College students also found a list of the injured, a list that again reflected the ethnic diversity of area miners.
Kashatus noted that “perhaps the most poignant scene came on June 8 at a common funeral Mass at St. Mary’s (Polish) Catholic Church on Park Avenue, Wilkes-Barre, where rows of caskets filled the aisles. The dead were later buried in a common grave at the parish cemetery in the Georgetown section of Wilkes-Barre Twp.”
Some state compensation went to widows and orphans and tighter regulations were written, including a ban on transporting miners in trains that carried blasting powder. No charges were filed against the company.
The Baltimore Mine Tunnel Disaster’s 100th anniversary will be recalled at a ceremony on Wednesday, June 5.
The explosion, one of the worst of Wyoming Valley’s anthracite era, occurred June 5, 1919, when blasting powder being hauled into the Baltimore Mine Tunnel in Wilkes-Barre exploded, killing 92 men and injuring another 44.
Faculty and students from King’s College will lead the memorial program at 10 a.m. at the state historical marker erected in 2015 near the disaster site. The marker sits on a plot on Business Route 309. The Raymour & Flanagan furniture store is on the site of the former Baltimore Mine tunnel entrance. The mine stretched underground in the Storm Hill section of Wilkes-Barre City and Wilkes-Barre Twp., an area later developed into the Wyoming Valley Mall, and into Plains Twp.
Invocation will be given by the Rev. Tony Grasso, CSC, of King’s College, A King’s history professor will offer remarks and names of the victims will be read. A commendation from the state Senate, arranged by state Sen. John Yudichak, will be read and Don Sanderson of the Anthracite Heritage Foundation will offer remarks. A second ceremony is being planned for the cemetery in Wilkes-Barre Twp. where many victims were buried.
In the event of inclement weather, the program will be held on the third floor of the King’s College Campus Center, downtown Wilkes-Barre.
This is a year of mine disaster anniversaries:
— 150th anniversary of the Avondale Mine fire, Plymouth Twp., 110 men and boys died on Sept. 6, 1869.
— 100th anniversary of the Baltimore Tunnel explosion, Wilkes-Barre, 92 men and boys died on June 5, 1919.
— 60th anniversary of the Knox Mine flooding, Jenkins Twp., 12 men died on Jan. 22, 1959.
Here’s a little-known Baltimore Tunnel Disaster backstory: Among the 92 victims was the only former Major League baseball player ever to be killed in a mine accident.
From 1909 to 1913, Wilkes-Barre Barons pitcher James John “The Wild Irishman” McCloskey was the city’s rock star. The rugged, hard-drinking son of a Colorado coal-miner, McCloskey had been tagged with the “Wild Irishman” nickname as a pitcher for the Eastern League Baltimore Orioles for his actions off the field — spending most of his nights in the in the city’s red light district — and on the field, getting into fights with opponents and umpires.
A team photo with Major League Baseball Player John McCloskey, one of the miners who was one of the 92 men killed in the explosion at the Baltimore Mine Tunnel.
McCloskey had been signed by the Phillies after the 1905 season, when he won 18 games for Omaha in the class A Western League. Undermined by his hard drinking, his major league career was brief — he was let go by the Phillies after pitching only 12 games in 1906-07. In June 1907, Baltimore manager Jack Dunn bought McCloskey from the Phillies for a “fancy figure,” probably around $2,500. McCloskey won 14 and 15 games for the Orioles in ‘07 and ’08 and the Baltimore American newspaper wrote he was “considered the best pitcher in the International League.”
In July ‘09, Dunn and the Orioles loaned McCloskey to the Wilkes-Barre Barons with the right of recall on demand. In his first start for the Barons, McCloskey’s famous temper exploded and he got tossed from the game in the second inning. In his next two starts, he threw shutouts, allowing only five hits combined. He was 3-1 on Aug. 2 when the Orioles, facing three consecutive double headers, recalled him.
In 1910, McCloskey came back to the Barons, now under new manager Bill Clymer, with no strings and won 17 games, including a no-hitter against Scranton as the Barons won a second straight pennant. He also won an exhibition game in Wilkes-Barre against the world champion Philadelphia As.
Though Wilkes-Barre might have been seen as a demotion for a pitcher who had pitched in Philadelphia and Baltimore, McCloskey embraced Wilkes-Barre and made it his home. He was a perfect fit for the Wilkes-Barre of the 1910s, with its coal culture, large Irish population and 170 bars.
In 1911, McCloskey won 20. His home starts regularly drew an extra 200 to 300 fans to Diamond Park, many of them women. Diamond Park, on the site where the 109th Armory is today, was only two years old in 1911, having opened in May 1909, five days before the opulent new Luzerne County Courthouse.
The park was owned and built by the team officers — among them, George Stegmaier — and was considered the finest Class B park in the country. The 1909 attendance of 121,000 was considered a record for Class B Leagues. It had fallen off only slightly by 1911.
While New York State League rules set player salaries at $150 per month, a popular player like McCloskey could also count on perks like reduced rent, free suits, overlooked bar tabs and dinner checks.
After the Barons clinched the pennant in early September 1911, manager Clymer gave McCloskey the last two weeks off with pay, and the fans presented him with an inscribed gold-plated pocket watch, a watch which would later provide a mysterious footnote to McCloskey’s life.
Though McCloskey declared himself fit and predicted a third consecutive pennant for the Barons in 1912, the season turned out to be a disaster. After a win on opening day April 26, McCloskey got hammered in Binghamton on May 5. He didn’t pitch again until May 28. Claiming arm and finger injuries, when he was likely on a bender, he missed most of June. He made a “comeback” on July 5 where he showed his old form, but had a run-in with Clymer and was suspended for two weeks.
Clymer gave him 10 days “to get in shape” after the suspension, but when he reported in poor condition, drunk or hung over, he was suspended again and fined $100. When McCloskey heard Clymer wasn’t going to pay him for the 10 days, he went crazy. During a game in Diamond Park, he went across the field and sat in the Elmira dugout, shouting curses at Clymer until the umpire had him removed. Then he went to the clubhouse looking for the business manager, and “suffering from an overdose of liquor,” according to a newspaper story, tried to break down the door.
Clymer suspended McCloskey indefinitely and declared he would never wear the Wilkes-Barre uniform again. But in 1913, Clymer was gone and new manager Bill Noonan gave McCloskey another shot, but released him on May 27. Binghamton signed him, then released him on July 5.
In 1914, the Wild Irishman was tamed by a teenage Wilkes-Barre girl. On April 15, he married 19-year-old Kathleen Donahue. He was 30. Though on his marriage license application, McCloskey listed his occupation as “ballplayer,” he was done as a professional pitcher in 1914. McCloskey and his bride bought a house on North Empire Street. In 1916, they had a daughter. He got a job with the railroad and pitched for the Boyle Brothers, a top amateur team, hurling a no-hitter with nine strikeouts against Newtown.
Laid off by the railroad, McCloskey got his miner’s certificate and got a job at the Baltimore Tunnel in Wilkes-Barre’s East End.
At 6:50 on the morning of June 5, 1919, McCloskey was in that fateful trip of mine cars that exploded as it descended into the Baltimore Tunnel.
In the newspaper the next morning, a miner named Kehoe described what he saw as he scrambled to escape:
He struggled on when he encountered a man who held out his hand in appeal to him and found it to be McCloskey, the baseball player.
He had been frightfully burned and his tongue was so swollen that he could not talk, although he made an effort to do so.
He said he took hold of him and attempted to carry him out, but he could not. He said McCloskey was near death but had the strength to give him his brotherhood book and papers in it.
At this point, McCloskey became delirious and grabbed Kehoe by the throat and it was with considerable effort that he was able to pry the man’s fingers loose.
Like many of the men killed, McCloskey was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Hanover Twp. He was the last of the victims to be buried, as it took a week for his family to travel from Colorado
As though his death wasn’t tragic enough, there was a gruesome footnote. Two weeks after the disaster, McCloskey’s gold-plated pocket watch, which he always carried with him, was found by police in a jewelry store where it had been pawned.
The watch had been a gift from his fans in 1911 and was inscribed: “James John McCloskey, pitcher for the Wilkes-Barre Barons, which won the pennant in the years 1910-1911.”