‘Three-Sixty-One’: Myth, Memory, and the 1907 Monongah Coal Mine Disaster

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For those who heard the blast at mines No. 6 and No. 8, the number three hundred sixty-one bore a personal significance. Indeed, for many, it was etched in their minds like the mines themselves, cut deep into the grassy hillside along the Monongahela River. It was etched into the mind of Catterina Davia, who in honor of her late husband, Victor, hauled coal from the lowest mines to her house at the top of the hill—four times a day for twenty-nine years. It was etched into the mind of the poet Louise McNeill, who honored the ‘Hunkies,’ the ‘Tallies,’ the natives, and the boys who perished at “ill-starred Monongah.” And it was etched into the mind of Reverend Everett F. Briggs, who faithfully preserved the memory of the ill-fated, immigrant miners, who travelled far across water to die deep underground. For these and others, however, three hundred sixty-one spoke as much to lives lost as to lives never found, the names left absent from the ‘three-sixty-one’ reported dead at Monongah.

For my research proposal, I intend to examine the ways in which the death toll from the 1907 Monongah Coal Mining Disaster was determined, falsified, reported, and preserved to influence relief efforts and to create the mythos of the Monongah disaster. From local gravediggers’ claims of six hundred twenty bodies to the Italian commemoration of over nine hundred deaths, from the embellished casualty report of Mayor W. H. Moore to Reverend Brigg’s estimate of over five hundred lost, the death toll is as significant to the Monongah narrative as the “one survivor” folktale and the runaway minecart that—in regional legend, at least—caused the explosion. In my own research, I hope to contribute to the long-standing narrative of Monongah as well as the recent scholarship that has emerged since the disaster’s centennial in 2007.

Three questions will guide my research: Who were in the mines on December 6, 1907? Who of these persons—if any—were missing from the death reports? And how were these unknown miners remembered?

In my research, I will rely on a collection of both primary and secondary sources. Though the recent scholarship of regional historians Davitt McAteer and Joseph Tropea is most relevant to my proposed topic, I will consult a much broader list of secondary source material, including—though certainly not limited to—works examining the contemporary coal mining industry, the regional histories of immigrant populations, the philanthropic and legislative responses to industrial disasters, and the social histories of coal mining towns. For primary sources, I will likewise consult a breadth of materials. To uncover which miners were listed among the dead, I will consult the records of the Monongah Mine Relief Commission and the Fairmont Coal Company. To understand how the death toll was reported, I will examine national and local newspaper articles detailing the disaster. And to analyze the ways in which unlisted miners were remembered, I will review the poems, stories, songs, and paintings of those who commemorated the disaster. Such research, I believe, will not only shed light on the Monongah disaster narrative, but further explain the significance of ‘three-sixty-one’ in the minds of those for whom Monongah bears a personal significance.

Works Consulted

Briggs, Everett F. “Mine Disaster.” Science 146, no. 3640 (October 2, 1964): 14.

Gunn, Angus M. “Monongah, Pennsylvania, explosion.” In Encyclopedia of Disasters:     Environmental Catastrophes and Human Tragedies, edited by Angus M. Gunn, 231-5.         Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

McAteer, Davitt. Monongah: The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History.     Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2007.

McNeill, Louise. “Monongah (December 6, 1907, Marion County, West Virginia, on the Monongahela River).” In Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems, edited by Maggie        Anderson, 93. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

Rittenhouse, Ron. “Catherine Davia’s Memorial Mound of Coal, Monongah, 1907.” 1907. In       Italians in West Virginia, edited by Victor A. Basile, Judy Prozzillo Byers, 31. Charleston,        SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.

Spignesi, Stephen J. “The 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster.” In The 100 Greatest Disasters of All Time, edited by Stephen J. Spignesi, 216-9. New York: Citadel Press, 2002.

Tropea, Joseph L. “Monongah Revisited: Sources, Body Parts, and Ethnography.” West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies 7, no. 2 (2013): 63-91.

——. Review of Monongah: The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History, by             Davitt McAteer. Appalachian Journal 35 (2008): 358-64.

“December 6, 1907: Monongah Twin Mines Disaster.” In West Virginia Disasters. Logan, WV:   The Logan Banner, 2003.