Cover image for Trapped : the 1909 Cherry mine disaster
Trapped : the 1909 Cherry mine disaster
Tintori, Karen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Atria Books, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiv, 273 pages : illustrations, 25 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TN315 .T56 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On a chilly Saturday morning in the fall of 1909, four hundred and eighty men plunged into the depths of the Cherry Mine in Illinois as they had numerous times before, But this day would be different. At lunchtime, a small fire erupted in the inner recesses of the mine shaft and soon burned out of control. Despite the miners' heroic efforts to save their comrades, many sacrificing their own lives rushing in and out of the blackness, more than half of the men would be either burned to death or buried alive by nightfall. When officials sealed the mine, effectively entombing those still trapped underneath in an effort to contain the blaze, hope for survivors was slim. Miraculously, twenty men emerged alive from the once-raging inferno one week later when the shaft was unsealed. All of these miners -- dead and alive -- would forever be part of the legacy of the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history. Trapped is the riveting account of a tragic day, which inspired the first U.S. worker's compensation laws and hastened much needed changes labor practices in the coal industry. Karen Tintori relates the intimate and devastating details of the Cherry Mine disaster with compassion and conviction, sharing with readers the human drama played out within this historical event. The story, inspired by one intriguing sentence that stayed with a seven-year-old girl long into adulthood -- "Your grandfather survived the Cherry Mine disaster" -- began Karen Tintori's search for her family's role in this horrible tragedy. Along the way, she uncovers a compelling story of victims, survivors, widows, orphans, townspeople, firefighters, reporters, and mine owners, each playing a part in this harrowing drama.

Author Notes

Karen Tintori lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

On November 13, 1909, a fire trapped 480 coal miners--men and boys--400 feet below ground in a mine at Cherry, Illinois. Only 221 escaped. Not until the following March were the bodies retrieved and buried. Hundreds of women were widowed and nearly 500 children were orphaned in what was the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history. The author's grandfather survived by a quirk of fate: a hangover keeping him home from work that day. Tintori describes the life-and-death struggle of the miners below ground and the terror of the women and children gathered at the mine's entrance, praying for their loved ones. She draws on firsthand accounts of survivors, government inquiries and reports, legal correspondence, photographs (there are 14 black-and-white ones in the book), newspaper accounts, pamphlets, court reporters' transcripts of testimony taken at the coroner's inquest, commemorative programs, and memorabilia. Tintori's graphic account of this tragedy is a sad but gripping story. George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Tintori, the granddaughter of a mineworker in Cherry, Ill., has brought to life the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history. Although a fortuitous hangover kept her grandfather home on November 13, 1909, out of the 480 men who went to work that day, 259 died underground. "Trading daylight for a future," these workers, chiefly from Italian and Slav immigrant backgrounds, undertook backbreaking and dangerous work in order to provide a better life for their families. Tintori vividly recounts how a small hay fire in a coal car caused overhead timbers to catch fire. The flames spread rapidly, but the call to abandon the mine was not given until 45 minutes later. Drawing on diaries, letters, written accounts of survivors and testimony from the coroner's inquest, a picture emerges of men running through smoky passages in terror. Twelve men went down six times to rescue trapped miners until they, too, were smothered. Particularly heartrending is the author's description of the 21 men who were trapped underground for eight harrowing days after the mine was sealed to smother the fire. They were miraculously discovered and brought up by rescue workers. An independent investigation of the disaster found the coal company to be solely responsible for the loss of life and in violation of the child labor laws (four underage boys, illegally hired, died in the fire). Tintori's engaging prose keeps readers on the edge throughout her story. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Worked by a variety of European immigrants, the Cherry coal mine in northern Illinois was, ironically, considered one of the nation's safest. But when a kerosene torch accidentally ignited a wagonload of hay bales on November 3, 1909, the flames soon got out of control, resulting in the nation's worst mine fire. The tragedy spawned Progressive-era laws to regulate mines and protect workers. Tintori's grandfather survived the fire, and her genealogical quest developed into an extensive investigation of the calamity. Although this is her first book, the author's writing skills are evident; she crafts a compelling account of beleaguered miners trapped in a living hell and their distraught families on the surface. The lack of an index and a bibliography limit this title to general reading rather than scholarly discourse. Still, Tintori has presented a very accessible and gripping account of a human tragedy that elicited both the best and worst from those involved. Highly recommended. Daniel Liestman, Florida Gulf Coast Univ. Lib., Fort Myers (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Standing like a twin-peaked hill, a spoils dump lush with vegetation throws shadows across the farmland that buries the St. Paul Mine. Cornfields wave at jutting remnants of the hoisting shaft and other mine buildings, and chunks of coal, shale and rock lie scattered among weeds and wildflowers. Nature and nearly one hundred years have reclaimed what was once the most prosperous coal mine in the Midwest. At the village's southern edge, tiny Holy Trinity Miners Cemetery abuts a curve in Highway 89, barely revealing its towering stone monument to passing motorists. Dedicated to the two hundred and fifty-nine men and boys who perished there in one of the most tragic coal mine disasters in U.S. history, the monument's bowed and weeping woman grieves over the final resting place of many of them. Their little-known story is preserved in the tiny Cherry Library, where mine artifacts and photos line the walls alongside poignant missives penned by entombed miners as they waited for smoke, flames and poisonous gases to overtake them. From a vibrant community of twenty-five hundred in its heyday, Cherry has dwindled to a village whose five hundred residents either farm the land or earn their livelihood in neighboring Ladd, LaSalle, Mendota, Ottawa, Peru and Spring Valley. Many live in the original company houses, most of them renovated or expanded, some with water pumps still standing in the backyard. Cherry was born on rolling prairies roughly one hundred miles southwest of Chicago in 1904. Mining experts called to the heart of Bureau County's rich coal region by the St. Paul Coal Company discovered a vast, inexhaustible vein of bituminous coal almost unequaled in quality. The company, licensed to mine coal in six Illinois counties, instantly began to sink the state's largest coal mine, certain that within two years the black diamonds buried there would make it a principal coal center in the Midwest. Forty years before, 62 percent of the world's energy came from wood. By the 1910s, coal had supplanted wood. It owned that 62 percent pinnacle and accounted for 80 percent of America's fuel right before the dawn of electricity while the Wright brothers were still perfecting the airplane and the world traveled by coal steam-powered rail and ship. Today, coal still generates 25 percent of the world's energy, and nine of every ten tons used in the U.S. go to produce electricity. In 1909, the coal industry was booming. The U.S. mined out four hundred and thirty-one million tons a year, but production was seasonal, tied to winter's heavier heating demands in homes and offices. Families spent about $35 of their average $651 yearly income for fuel, and in 1904, only 3 percent of them used electricity. The first electric range, vacuum cleaner and iron would not appear until later in the decade. Beating and mixing, dishes and laundry were all done by hand. Women cooked on wood- or coal-burning stoves, buying blocks of ice twice weekly to preserve the food in their wood-and-metal iceboxes. The steadiest call for coal came from industry, shipping and railroads, and Cherry's entire output -- estimated then at upward of twenty-five hundred tons per eight-hour day, three hundred and sixty-five days per year -- was already earmarked for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, which immediately built a spur track from Ladd. As the northernmost coal deposit in the state, Cherry was the end of the line, both for coal and the railroad. From there, train cars had to travel the three miles back to Ladd in reverse. Word of the astounding find spread quickly to surrounding mining communities and even to Europe, as immigrant miners alerted friends and relatives to the opportunity for steady work. Unlike most mines, which shut down in summer leaving miners with no income, Cherry would operate constantly to furnish coal for the locomotives, machine shops and offices of the giant coal company. Cherry was incorporated in April 1905, and by June the St. Paul Coal Company had sunk $200,000 into developing the mine and the town born to house its workers. It christened both after James Cherry, former Seatonville mayor and the region superintendent of mines put in charge of sinking the hoisting shaft. To ensure lively commerce between the new town and the rich farming community surrounding it, the coal company constructed the largest grain elevator in the vicinity. The Illinois farmers were conflicted about the mining communities springing up in their midst. They welcomed the economic opportunities mining brought with it, but looked down their noses at the foreigners mine companies had to import because few farmers could be lured to the dangerous work. They refused to mine, yet hated the foreigners -- most of whom had been farmers themselves -- for earning more working underground than they could eke from their land. Farmers saw the foreigners as a threat to the country's character and "Eyetalians" were the most disliked, both by the native farmers and other English-speaking immigrants. One farmer interviewed for Herman R. Lantz's study, People of Coal Town , called nine out of ten foreigners "no good." "We would have been a heap better off if they had never been brought here." The few Americans who did mine were threatened by the immigrants as well. To survive, the foreigners were willing to work harder, longer and at more dangerous mine jobs than the Americans. An American miner told Lantz, "No American would work as hard as they did because the foreigners didn't have any sense." The mine company's plan for the new town was charming, calling for a park, a school, a bank and several general stores. Expecting Cherry to be its crowning jewel, the railroad built a first-class railway station two blocks from the main business district. Promising "Money in a New Town," the coal company offered one hundred and twenty acres of land for sale as home and business sites on June 21, 1905, announcing reduced rail fares to Cherry that day and parking a special dining car there to serve lunch. The six-page pamphlet advertising the 10:30 a.m. auction of town lots predicted they would sell out by noon. The coal company built a fifty-room hotel and fifty modern model homes, and while work on the mine continued day and night under the supervision of experts from across the country, a town grew across the prairie. Touted to be the largest coal shaft in the U.S., the Cherry Mine was the epitome of modernity and safety both in construction and equipment. The engineer who built the tipple rated it the world's safest, and it was one of the only mines in the entire country outfitted with electricity. Even the darkest areas of any mine, the mule stables and pumping room, were strung with incandescent light. With a tower of steel, a foundation of concrete and its engine, boiler and fan houses all made of brick and stone, the men who built it declared the Cherry Mine fireproof. Excerpted from Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.