Past Times

Highway marker stirs memories of 1925 coal mine disaster

A new highway historical marker commemorating the May 27, 1925, Coal Glen mine disaster will be dedicated Saturday, June 3. The marker will be located in Chatham County on U.S. 15/501 north of Sanford. In 2000, historian David Cecelski interviewed a witness to the disaster for The N&O’s “Listening to History” feature.

Margaret Wicker is probably the last surviving witness to the Coal Glen mine disaster of 1925. Her family owned a farm next to the company town of Coal Glen, in southern Chatham County. She was 7 when the mine exploded and killed all 53 men underground. It was the worst mining accident in the state’s history. Losing half of its breadwinners, Coal Glen attracted an outpouring of public sympathy that helped spur passage of the state’s first workers’ compensation laws.

The Coal Glen mine and a larger coal operation, the Egypt (or Cumnock) mine, cut into a 12-mile-long seam of coal that runs along the Deep River. A coal mine may seem out of place in the Piedmont, less than an hour from Raleigh, but the Deep River coal field was worked for 180 years. Plagued by volatile gases, it was racked by several explosions nearly as fatal as the 1925 disaster.

The Deep River coal fields haven’t been mined since 1952, and I didn’t notice any trace of the coal industry when I first visited. But in Mrs. Wicker’s pickup truck, we explored back roads and discovered enduring remnants of the coal fields, the company town and the mine disaster.

She first stopped by a broad field next to her family’s homeplace.

“We were chopping cotton out in this field. I was just little, and my mother had some colored women and white women helping her chop cotton. There was a whole bunch of them out there. I was playing in the dirt with a little black girl.

“All at once, we heard this big noise, like booooom, and black smoke just boiled and rolled up in the sky. All the women started screaming and hollering. Their husbands worked in the mine. Everybody that lived up and down in those houses knew what the explosions were, and people were just hollering and screaming and going every which way. It just got plum dark, black like night, with all that black dust and smoke.

“In just a few minutes, there was another explosion. My daddy didn’t work in the mine, but he worked with them. He cut timbers and cross ties and things like that for them. He got in somebody’s car and came out here to our house to get some sweet milk, because two men had went to open the air shaft’s doors. When the second explosion came, it blew them back up the slope and ‘bout killed them. I don’t know why, but they wanted milk for them.

“That’s where I was, somewhere along here in the middle of this field. I was just a young’un and scared to death. I know there wasn’t any more chopping cotton that day.…

“Some of them were buried here and yonder and different places. It was probably a week or more before they got all the bodies out. There was a fire down there. They said that they were badly burned.

They didn’t have enough caskets. They just had to leave the bodies until they could get more from somewhere out of town.”

She stops and looks down. I don’t think she wants to talk anymore. Then she casts around for a glimmer of light in her memory of that grim day.

“One of the ladies chopping cotton that day with my mama was Mis’ Garner. She had two girls and a son. Her husband worked in the mine. Mis’ Garner thought he was in the mine when the explosion happened. But he didn’t go in that morning, because the old cow got loose. He missed getting killed because he had to go get the cow.” The N&O Feb. 13, 2000

Here is an excerpt from the newspaper account in 1925. Writer and photographer Ben Dixon MacNeill was on the scene.

Nobody has determined how it happened, what caused it, or aught else but that it did happen. Rescue work has been left to the uncommon and very splendid judgment of Claude Scott, superintendent of the Erskine-Ramsey Mine across the river. The latter has shut down and its crews are here helping with the rescue work.

Weeks will be required to remove the tangled debris in the mine and permit the resumption of operation. Thousands of tons of stone have been dislodged from the walls and roofs of the labyrinth; timbers have been smashed. It is terribly unsafe for anything but the necessary work of removing the dead from the depths.

Today the crowds were much smaller. At no time has there been the slightest evidence of disorder anywhere. There has been a solemn hush over the throng since the first hysterical relatives of the entombed men were quieted and carried away to their homes. Thousands have come, but they have come as quietly as men and women could come. There have been no scenes and no disturbances.

Patrol organization was made effective after the blast by Sheriff Blair, of Chatham. Sheriff Rosser of Lee came over with his deputies, and together they have done a magnificent piece of work. They have handled the crowd quietly, as men would try to be with those upon whom has come a monstrous sorrow. Once or twice they have had to be stern and they have been, but not often. They have been firm and quiet and considerate.

This morning there was a brief flurry when a fat, excitable moving picture man from Chicago, blathering about his experience in handling such scenes, undertook to tell some of the officers where to head in. They quietly told him where to head out, and he headed, bleating as he went. His bleating ceased at a firm word from the sheriff, trekking off across the dusty waste of the roads, dragging his equipment after him.

But that is about all. The crowd is a North Carolina crowd. It has been fine, save for an indecent exposition of the picnic spirit by a truck-load of heedless students who came over from the University Wednesday afternoon. They came as for a holiday, elbowing their way in among the drawn-faced mothers who watched for the coming up of their sons. They were quieted by the spectacle.

Old timers among the miners who are here, who have seen disasters in the great coal fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, declare that they have never seen any thing to equal the self-control of the tar heels who are stricken here, or anything that can surpass the heroism of the gangs who have gone down in the face of death, battled with it, snatched its battered victims from it, and come up smiling quietly. The N&O May 30, 1925

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Teresa Leonard: 919-829-4866, @lizardlodge