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Bartley Mine Disaster 83rd Anniversary This Tuesday



January 10, 2023 - Eighty-three years ago today, an explosion at a McDowell County, West Virginia coal mine took the lives of 91 miners and led to changes in underground mining which are still being seen in the coal industry today.

The community of Bartley was in mourning already when miners reported for work at the Pocahontas No. 4 seam. On Oct. 11, 1939, a school bus carrying 74 students left the road when its axle suddenly broke and rolled 85 feet before landing on the Norfolk & Western railroad tracks. Many of the students were from Bartley, and four of the students who died called that community home.


Company housing in Bartley


Contributed photo

At about 2:50 p.m. Jan. 10, 1940, there was an explosion in the west section of Bartley No. 1 Mine, killing all 91 of the coal miners working there. Forty-seven other miners laboring in the mine’s east section didn’t even feel the blast. They escaped unharmed. All the miners were working about 600 feet underground when the explosion occurred.

“They only knew that ‘something’ had happened inside,” Otto Whittaker wrote in the Jan. 13 1940 edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. “Soon 47 workers came up. They told of a blast about two miles back in another section – the No. 6 section. Some of them, without waiting to notify their families, strapped oxygen tanks on their backs and took their places with crews which quickly assembled from nearby communities.”

Witnesses standing near the mouth of the mine shaft said they saw dust and papers blown out the shaft and felt a slight earth tremor, according to another story in the Daily Telegraph.

Bill Archer, now a member of the Mercer County Commission, wrote about the Bartley mining disaster in the book “Misfortune in the Mountains: A Time Line of Tragedies that Shaped West Virginia.”

In his account of the disaster, Archer said that mine rescue teams were on their way within hours of the explosion. The coalfields were “rife” with speculation that a large number of the miners had survived. It was hoped that as many as 60 of them had managed to shield themselves behind brattices from the blast. Rescue teams started entering the mine at 4 p.m. The bodies of three miners were recovered. The U.S. Bureau of Mines rescue rail car, which had been in nearby Keystone, was brought to the scene.

A huge roof fall kept rescue teams from reaching the section where the other 88 miners were trapped. The disaster’s extent became clearer as the hours passed. Gov. Homer A. Holt and Ben Downing, assistant to the worker’s compensation commission, came to the scene the day after the explosion.

“Possibly the most outstanding sidelight of the great tragedy at Bartley is the quiet efficiency, the ability and the far-reaching courtesy of the Pond Creek Coal Company’s entire organization from company heads and visiting mine officials, rescuers, laborers and the Red Cross workers of the community,” Kermit Hunter, author of “Honey in the Rock and other historical dramas, wrote in his account of the tragedy.

As days passed, rescue teams were able to reach the bodies of the miners. A temporary morgue was established near the shaft in an effort to bring the bodies up at one time. Representatives of the state workers compensation commission met with the miners’ widows. The Daily Telegraph reported the widows would receive $30 a month until they remarried or died, and dependent children would receive $5 a month until they reached the age of 16.

Evidence later showed that most of the miners died instantly, but several were found as if they were seeking safety, Lacy A. Dillon said in his self-published book “They Died in the Darkness.”

The mine had been checked for methane gas two hours before the explosion, and it was determined to be clear. It was the first explosion at Bartley No. 1 mine, and its cause remains unknown.

Action to promote legislation for mine safety regulations was being taken days after the explosion. Two miners went to Washington D.C. seeking congressional support for a federal mines inspection bill, according to a {em}Daily Telegraph story published four days after the tragedy. In 1941, Congress empowered federal mine inspectors to enter coal mines. The new inspections were not the only change that came from the Bartley disaster.

Another development was the National Association of Mine Rescue Teams. The Welch Post No. 1 “Smoke Eaters” was established after the Barley Mine Disaster, Archer said.

“That brought a lot of change to underground mining, significant change,” Archer said Monday. “That was a turning point in the industry.”

Memories of the Bartley Mine Disaster linger in the coalfields today. Mayor Louise Stoker of Bramwell said Monday she remembered people talking about the explosion while she was growing up and the miners who lost their lives.

“They still talked about what a disaster it was because we were in the middle of the coal community and they were all brothers,” Stoker said. “Every coal miner felt a kinship to all other coal miners. In that context, when anything like that happens, any disaster, it really affects emotionally all others in that industry that work those same jobs.”