June 6, 2019 - Growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania's East End, Catherine Lavery heard the stories of the Baltimore Mine Tunnel disaster.
Her mother told her about her brothers’ bodies being laid out in their mother’s living room. Her family carried the story with them through their lives.
“They never let go of it,” said Lavery, 90, of Wilkes-Barre.
A ceremony Wednesday remembered Lavery’s uncles and the 90 other people who died in the industrial accident 100 years ago after kegs of blasting powder exploded.
The ceremony may not have happened and a historical marker memorializing the disaster may not have been there if not for Lavery’s efforts and work from King’s College history professors and students.
Lavery had tried before to interest someone in researching the story of the Baltimore mine disaster, but it was not until she contacted the City of Wilkes-Barre that she found someone to take on the task. Drew McLaughlin, a former city employee, connected her with King’s College, and history professors there created a course exploring the disaster. The students’ work eventually led to official recognition by the state in the form of a historical marker not far from where the disaster took place.
“We did the class because we wanted our students to do the kind of research that historians do,” said Dan Clasby, a history professor at King’s College. “We knew there were archives around here. We knew there were wonderful stashes of personal papers and people’s own photos and stories, and we wanted our students to go out there and get into those archives and look at those personal papers and interview family members as much as they could.
“From there it kind of took on a life of its own,” Clasby said. “I think what we realized and our students realize is that the history of mining and the history of immigrant labor in this valley is incredibly important and it’s incredibly personal to the folks living here, so we were happy to go a bit further and get this public marker so that folks could drive by, walk past and remember.”
To understand the amount of people who died, consider this comparison, said King’s College history professor Thomas Mackaman: 81 Wilkes-Barre men died in military service with the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe over six months in 1918.
“That was fewer by 11 than the number of men killed in one day in the Baltimore mine,” he said. Only seven men on the shift that day escaped without major injury. The dead and seriously injured represented about one-third of the mine’s entire workforce.
Despite the many people killed, the disaster was not well-remembered in the years after, Mackaman said. Other mining accidents in the region overshadowed the tragedy. The Avondale Mine disaster at the Avondale Colliery in 1869 and the Knox Mine disaster in 1959 were mentioned far more often by print media, and the event took place at a time when the lives of industrial workers and the especially coal miners, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, were viewed as cheap, he said.
But family members of the dead and residents of the neighborhood — like Lavery — kept the memory alive, he said, and on Wednesday, speakers read out the names of the dead, commemorating their dangerous work, the families they left behind and the efforts to improve safety in the wake of the tragedy.