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Area mine disaster to get historical marker

State commission to recognize Wilkes-Barre’s Baltimore Mine Tunnel tragedy with official plaque.

April 02. 2013 11:28PM

In this photo, provided by the Luzerne County Historical Society, pews inside St. Mary

The site of the second-worst mining accident in the history of the Wyoming Valley claimed the lives of 92 men on June 5, 1919. And thanks to two King’s College professors, the tragic incident will be commemorated with a state historical marker.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced Tuesday that among the 12 new markers approved for erection this year will be one near the site of the Baltimore Mine Tunnel Disaster in Wilkes-Barre’s East End.

History professors Daniel Clasby and Thomas Mackaman applied for the marker, which will be posted at 41 Spring St. The site of the actual disaster, the Baltimore Tunnel of the Delaware and Hudson Coal Co.’s mine, stands nearby — just behind The Home Depot.

“The inspiration for the project came from Katie Lavery of Wilkes-Barre, who lost two uncles in the disaster,” Mackaman said. “She contacted Drew McLaughlin at the mayor’s office, who brought it to the attention of King’s College Department of History. We decided to build a class around the mine disaster and Wilkes-Barre in the year 1919. From there, the students led the way, doing the research and working on the application.”

The disaster made national news when it occurred, but for some reason it faded into the background, perhaps because it wasn’t as deadly as the 1869 fire at the Avondale Colliery in Plymouth Township that claimed 110 lives or as well-publicized as the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster in Jenkins Township that killed 12 when the Susquehanna River broke through the mine roof.

Historical markers are erected at the sites of other area mine disasters, including Avondale, Knox and the Twin Shaft Mine in Pittston, where 58 were killed in 1896. But the lack of a marker doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the event and the changes that it caused in the mining industry.

Local accounts were graphic and detailed what happened at 6:40 a.m. “The women and men who were called to the scene by news of the accident made a sight of woe and sorrow that has not been duplicated by anything that has happened in the history of the city or vicinity,” said an article in that morning’s edition of The Times Leader.

In the next day’s edition, survivor Jacob Milz recounted his ordeal: “Every second the smoke became more dense, agonizing shrieks were heard on all sides. I really can’t say now how I managed to escape. All I remember is I kept crawling for the longest time.”

The incident resulted in an order against the practice of transporting explosive powder and miners on the same rail car.

Bill Hastie was 8 days old when the explosion occurred. Now 93, he has spent decades sharing tales of the tragedy and questioning why no marker has ever been erected.

“It was terrible neglect,” the West Pittston resident said.

But when told of the news of the marker on Tuesday, he said his day got better. “That’s wonderful,” Hastie said. “This is a major, major disaster.”

Clasby and Mackaman said they were elated. “I’m very pleased that the commission awarded a marker,” said Mackaman. “I think it’s a testament to the dimensions of this tragedy, to the memory of the 92 miners who died, and the scores of wives and children left behind.”

The students should be commended for all their hard work, Clasby said.

“They understood the magnitude of the event and worked to do right by its victims and their families,” he said. “The marker will keep the memory of this event alive for generations to come.”

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