Remember when: Harwick mine explosion killed 179 miners and 2 rescuers
The greatest industrial tragedy in the Alle-Kiski Valley 118 years ago led to the creation of a national award that continues today.
On January 25, 1904, a huge explosion took place at the Allegheny Coal Co. mine in the Harwick section of Springdale Township.
The explosion claimed the lives of approximately 179 miners and two rescuers, although reports of the number of miners dead have varied slightly over the years.
The disaster still ranks among the 10 worst in US coal mining history.
The mine opened around 1900 and quickly became productive. In 1904, about 500 men worked in the mine which produced about half a million tons a year.
As the mine was only a few years old, it used the most modern equipment of the time.
But the weather played a major role in the tragedy.
The ice formed in the mine shaft was ordered to be removed by mine inspectors in the days and weeks before the explosion. The ice in the air shaft had restricted ventilation.
On January 23, the temperature at Harwick fell below freezing and ice formed again.
This time it caused a buildup of methane gas.
At 8:15 a.m. on January 25, workers blew dynamite into the shaft, which not only ignited the methane, but also blew up the accumulated coal dust and spread throughout the mine.
The explosion was so powerful that it destroyed the exterior of the mine shaft.
Rescue efforts began immediately, despite 4 inches of fresh snow that morning. Men from all over the Alle-Kiski valley and as far away as Slippery Rock descended on Harwick in what quickly became a recovery effort.
After the entrance to the mine was cleared of rubble, ventilation had to be installed so that volunteers and medical staff could find and remove the dead.
One person survived – Adolph Gunia, 16 – who suffered severe burns to his body.
The bodies were moved by sleds to a primary school in Harwick. A blacksmith near the mine hastily provided 27 coffins. Fifty more coffins from outside the community arrived and were immediately filled.
Two rescuers, Selwyn M. Taylor and Andrew Lyle, were not so lucky. They died after entering an area filled with methane.
The Carnegie Hero Fund
Sometimes good can come out of tragedy.
Industrialist Andrew Carnegie was so touched by Taylor and Lyle’s efforts that he had medals struck for their families.
Two months later, Carnegie set aside $5 million to create the Carnegie Hero Fund, which still exists.
More than 10,000 civilians received the award dedicated to “individuals who perform extraordinary acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada.” Each received a medal and a scholarship.
Seventeen recipients were named last year.
Another result of the disaster was a set of new laws regarding the safety of bituminous mines, including the water used to reduce coal dust so that it does not ignite.
The mine eventually reopened and most of the coal produced was used to supply the Duquesne Light power station near the Springdale-Cheswick border by way of a rail spur along Tawney Run.
Duquesne Light closed the mine in 1970. Roughly only a few cement abutments and steps remain outside the Harwick neighborhood and the bridge over Pittsburgh Street near the plant.
On June 10, 2021, GenOn Holdings LLC announced the closure of the plant.
George Guido is a contributing writer for Tribune-Review.