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Avondale Disaster

Avondale Disaster, extracted from History of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, H.C. Bradsby, 1893, by Marcia L. Heinz

Avondale Disaster--Monday morning, September 6, 1869, the civilized world was startled by the news of the disaster at the Avondale mine, situated one mile below Plymouth in this county, where 108 people perished. Fire broke out in the shaft at 10 a.m. and soon passed up to the headhouse, and this and the coal breaker and all the other buildings near the shaft were quickly wrapped in flames, that first seemed to come up the shaft roaring like a storm. This explosion was the first notice the engineer, Alexander Weir, had of the fire, and so rapidly did it spread in the buildings, that he barely had time to arrange the machinery to prevent explosion of the boilers and escape without his hat. The buildings extended 300 feet to the track of the Bloomsburg railroad. At one time the rows of miners' houses were threatened, but the wind fortunately carried the flames toward the mountain. The families of the men down in the mine instantly realized the horror that came so suddenly, and the people for miles of the surrounding country hurried to the spot. The telegraph called the fire companies from every surrounding town to Scranton and these, too, hurried by special trains to stay, if possible, the holocaust.

By the middle of the afternoon the combined fire companies had control of the fire and a stream of water was poured into the shaft through a tunnel and the mouth of the shaft cleared and soon preparations made to descend. A small dog and a lighted lamp were first sent down at 6 o'clock and both came up all right. Loud throng of thousands, excited and strung to utmost tension, imagined they heard a feeble response and the heart-broken wails turned momentarily to expressions of joy and hope. A volunteer to descend was now called for, and Charles Vartue stepped forth, took his place in the bucket, and no man probably were was followed with more prayers and hopes than was this brave fellow as he descended. He had only gone half way down when he met obstructions in the shaft. Two fresh men were now sent down. They found a closed door and pounded upon it but received no answer; returned and reported, and now hope was gone from the coolest-headed of the crowd; but the families of the imprisoned were wild with fear and hope still. Two other men were sent down---Thomas W. Williams and David Jones---a voyage of death to the poor fellows. The deadly gas was rapidly gathering and had struck them down and they were brought up dead---the first of the many victims whose bodies were recovered. Air was not pumped into the mine. Parties of two were now sent down at frequent intervals and after a few minutes were hoisted up suffering greatly and many were resuscitated with difficulty. The first bodies were found the Wednesday following at the stables. At 6:30 o'clock a.m. that day, R. Williams, D.W. Evans, John Williams and William Thomas descended and made an extended search, and came to a closed brattice in the east gangway and breaking this down, found the dead, sixty-seven, together, all grouped in every position in this place where they had shut themselves in; the others were found in groups and singly in other places of the mine, having fled as far as possible from the burning shaft.

A relief fund for the families was set on foot and the willing charity of the people in all parts of the country soon reached the figures of $155,825.10, and the distribution committee met and agreed upon a plan of distribution. This meeting was held September 13, following, and the first payment was made October 1, according to the regulations of the respective payment as formulated by the executive committee, Hendrick B. Wright, George Coray and Draper Smith.

This shocking disaster called the attention of the country to the necessities of putting up every possible protection for the miners. It was made evident by the testimony before the coroner's jury that had there been a second outlet to the mine the men might have been saved. And laws were passed to that effect, as well as providing mine inspectors much as the laws are now. Still disasters follow, and at this writing, December, 1891, but a few weeks ago, a quiet Sunday morning thirteen lives, of the fourteen in the mine were sacrificed by a gas explosion in a mine.