The Illinois General Assemply approved a law in 1905 designed to safeguard coal miners from black-powder explosions. It didn’t work that way for John Stratton, Thomas Hiscock, William Wilson, Herman Kownatzky, Robinson Ridley and Loren Dunbar.
The six men, all shot-firers in coal mines in and around Springfield, died in accidents that took place within a month of each other in October and November of 1906.
At the time, most area coal mines used black-powder charges to break up the face of a coal seam. Once the seam was shattered, miners would dig out, load and transport the coal to the mine surface. A miner’s pay depended on how much coal he brought out of the mine. (For more on this process, see SangamonLink’s entry on Coal mining.)
Until 1905 in Illinois, regular miners (“practical miners”) handled most black-powder shots in the course of their other work. The process involved drilling a hole into the vein of coal, filling it with powder, tamping the opening so the force of the explosion was directed into the seam, and then igniting the charge. It was a dangerous element of mining. According to state mining reports for the early 1900s, a typical year saw a couple dozen miners killed in powder explosions.
Miners developed a whole vocabulary surrounding black-powder hazards. A “windy shot” or “blown-out shot” was an improperly tamped or overfilled charge that led to the powder exploding outwards into the mine instead of inwards to break up the coal. Blown-out shots also could be caused by “dead holes,” holes drilled so deep that the seam was impervious to the blast; the explosion had nowhere to go except, once again, out the drill hole into the mine.
In 1905, the General Assembly, bowing to mine union lobbying, passed legislation that allowed only designated shot-firers to ignite black-powder charges, and then only when no other workers were in the mine.
While that seems an obvious safety step, the law still left it up to practical miners to drill, fill and tamp each charge. The specially trained shot-firers were supposed to inspect the practical miners’ work before setting off any blast. Working in twos in otherwise empty mines, the shot-firers typically ignited multiple charges during their eight-hour shifts.
Mine operators opposed the shot-firer law on two fronts. For one thing (probably the operators’ biggest objection), employing shot-firers and clearing out mines increased expenses. If the mine unions wanted the law, the operators said, the miners should pay the shot-firers’ wages (miners already paid for the powder itself).
Under the union contract in effect at the time, a practical miner made 60 cents for each ton of coal he produced. According to calculations by a Girard coal miner who wrote the Illinois State Register in 1906, tonnage pay amounted to about $3 a day per miner in 1904 and $2.60 in 1905. Shot-firers, by contrast, were paid a flat $4 a day.
An arbitration panel eventually ruled the two sides should split the cost, on the grounds that fewer accidents benefited operators as well as miners.
But the operators also contended the law increased, not decreased, the chance of mine explosions. The Illinois State Register quoted an anonymous operator during debate over the proposal in May 1905:
Without going into details it is a fact, which can be easily proven, that the loss of life and destruction to property have increased one hundred fold in this state under the shot firers regime as compared with any equal period when miners fired their own shots. … Where a miner prepares a blast and does not have to fire it himself, he is known to be much more careless than otherwise. Men in their anxiety to get out large quantities of coal will put into the blasts more powder than they should, thereby imperiling the shot firer’s life.
The same operator conceded, however: “The cost of hiring the shot firer … is not the least consideration brought up by the passage of the bill.”
Mixed though their motives may have been, the operators may have had a point about safety, as shown by the October/November 1906 blasts in Sangamon County. An Illinois State Journal story on Nov. 4, 1906, began:
Four deadly explosions in less than a month involving shot firers in coal mines near to this city were recorded when Robinson Ridley and Loren Dunbar suffered perhaps fatal injuries at 6 o’clock last evening in the Peabody mine at Sherman.
Both men are now at St. John’s hospital in a critical condition as the result of an explosion caused by a so-called “windy shot.” In the four explosions, two men have been instantly killed, two died after lingering suffering, one recovered, and two are now in a dangerous condition.
The other men who died were (most information below taken from the Coal Report of Illinois for 1906-07).
Oct. 10, Springfield Colliery Company mine (off Sangamon Avenue two miles east of the Illinois State Fairgrounds)
- John Stratton (b. 1848). Northumberland, England. “His death was caused by firing a dead hole, the shot blowing the tamping causing the explosion. He leaves a widow and six children.” Stratton, his obituary added, “was prominent in United Mine Worker circles and … was a staunch supporter of the shot firer’s law.”
- Thomas Hiscock (b. 1860, Wiltshire, England), widower. “Deceased was firing shots in company with Stratton at the time of the explosion. He leaves four children.”
Hiscock and Stratton both died of suffocation, not injuries from the blast. A practical miner at Springfield Colliery, John McNichols, was accused of improperly drilling and charging the three holes whose blowbacks led to the deaths of Stratton and Hiscock. He was cleared in court, however.
October 25, Cora Coal Co. mine at Andrew.
- William Wilson (b. 1874). Killed “by an explosion caused by the firing of dead holes. He leaves a widow and one child.”
- Herman Kownatzky (b. 1887?). “Died at St. Johns Hospital, Springfield, from injuries received at the Cora Coal Company’s mine,while firing a shot in company with Wilson.”
The fourth explosion cited by the Journal took place Oct. 13. Shot-firer George Suddes was checking an apparent dud shot in a mine east of town when the shot went off late. “Though he suffered severe injury, he has now almost recovered,” the Journal said Nov. 4.
The Coal Report for 1905-06, written a few months after passage of the shot-firers’ law and almost a year before the Sangamon County deaths, defended the law, but predicted that it wouldn’t be enough – partly because, the Report said, with surprising candor, practical miners were often poorly trained and sloppy.
These facts, regrettable as they are, fully confirm and justify, in the interest of life, the necessity for … that provision of a recent law requiring that all employes be out of the mines during the process of blasting. … Instead of removing any of the safeguards which recent legislation has placed about the mine workers, it will in the future be necessary, unless a different and better qualified class of men be employed, to absolutely prohibit them from handling or being in any way connected with dangerous explosives. Under the present practice the only lives endangered are those of the shot firers. While the law leaves much to their discretion in the matter of shots that ought not to be fired, they are in many instances forced to take chances, and the death toll among that class since the new regulations became effective indicate with what fatal results. The provisions of the law (limiting powder amounts) have been persistently disregarded by careless, indifferent and incompetent men. …
The only effective way of avoiding such contingencies, thereby saving the lives of the shot firers, is to absolutely divorce the present class of miners from all contact with powder or other explosives. This plan contemplates the employment of a corps of practical men in each mine … whose duty it would be to drill, prepare and explode all blasts. This system would leave to the so-called miners the work chiefly of loading coal, (the only) task for which … most of them are adapted.
The Report’s recommendations were ignored – neither the mine operators nor the mine unions saw much profit in them. But, perhaps because shot-firers became better trained and more cautious over the next few years, the 1905 law gradually had its intended impact.
“It is interesting to note that the loss of life caused by the use of powder has been decreased to a remarkable extent since the passage of the shot-firers’ law and speaks volumes in its favor,” the 1910-11 Coal Report concluded.
Hat tip: To reader Steven G. Powell, a distant relative of Thomas Hiscock, whose inquiry to SangamonLink prompted this entry.
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