If you lived in Eccles, West Virginia in 1914, you or someone in your family most likely worked at the Eccles Mine Number 5. Eccles was a tiny town in Raleigh County. Mine number 5 was opened in 1905, and by 1914, the mine employed most of the local men and even the teenagers. Life was mundane for the most part. Not much happened in the town, and April 28, 1914 promised to be just another boring day. On that Tuesday morning, dozens of local men and teens left their homes to go to work at the Eccles Mine Number 5, which was one of group of coal mines in West Virginia owned by the New River Colliers Company. Everything was going along fine, when suddenly, at 2:30pm, a sudden explosion rocked the Number 5 mine. In an instant, more than 180 workers who had left home as usual that day, would never go home again.
The explosion was caused by coal-seam methane. At least 180 men lay dead, at least that was the death roll published as of 2011 by the National Coal Heritage Trail. A monument at the cemetery lists 183 victims, and the records of the county coroner list 186. When the mine was rocked by a series of violent explosions, parts of the mine collapsed while other parts were heavily damaged, which trapped the miners inside. Of course, the people of Eccles and officials from the mining company rushed to the scene to aid the rescue efforts. Despite their best efforts, it was soon obvious that this would be a recovery effort, and not a rescue. That day, all of the miners in Eccles Mine Number 5 were killed, including five who were under the age of 14 years of age. In addition, nine workers in a nearby mine were killed when deadly gas from Mine Number 5 seeped into their mine. Ironically, one of the men who died in the nearby mine, was an insurance agent from Charleston, West Virginia, who had only gone into the mine to solicit business from the men. He was only there for a few minutes. It was there that the salesman, who had unfortunately chosen that day to visit the mine and sell insurance to its workers, was also killed. The blast and the subsequent damage to the mine, left many of the victim so mangled and torn apart, that most of them could not be positively identified because of their horrific injuries.
In the early 1900s, coal was in great demand. Production in the United States had increased from 50 million tons of coal in 1850 to 250 million tons of coal in 1903. Unfortunately, the increasing demand and the rush to supply, brought with it worsening work conditions. The danger occurred when the men were digging for coal in deep mines, in which chambers of gas lay just underneath. That meant that highly explosive gasses could come into contact with carbide headlamps. The next thing they knew, they had an explosion on their hands. The mine disaster brought attention to an overall safety problem in the West Virginia mining industry. Sadly…at least in that it didn’t happen sooner, the disaster actually aided the unions’ attempts to improve the workers’ conditions. The labor union helped to ban carbide headlamps in West Virginia. It was suspected that the headlamps were most likely the cause of the Eccles explosion, as well as a second mine explosion 18 years later in Illinois.