Avondale Mine Disaster

The Avondale Mine Disaster was a massive fire in the Avondale Colliery in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, United States on September 6, 1869.

It caused the death of 110 workers, making it one of the largest mining disasters in Pennsylvania history. It started when a wooden coal breaker built over a shaft entrance to the underground mine caught fire. This shaft was the only entrance to the mine, and so the fire trapped and suffocated the workers. Among those who died were five boys ages 12 to 17, as well as two volunteers who suffocated while they were attempting a rescue.

One of the first global relief efforts occurred after the disaster, with donations for the widows and families of victims coming in from all over the world. Another result of the fire was the passing by the Pennsylvania General Assembly of legislation establishing safety regulations in the coal mining industry, making Pennsylvania the first state to pass such legislation. These laws mandated, among other things, that there must be at least two entrances to underground mines. The disaster also caused thousands of miners to join the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, one of the first unions to represent coal miners in the United States. Continuing labor and social strife in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal fields led to an increase in the activities of the "Molly Maguires", a controversial organization that conducted violent attacks against anthracite coal mine operators. These conflicts eventually resulted in the trial and execution of twenty members of the Molly Maguires in Pottsville and Mauch Chunk.

At about 10 a.m. on Sept. 6, 1869, Alexander Weir, engineer at the Avondale Colliery in Plymouth, was startled by a sudden rush of fire up the shaft. It came with great fury and with a sound like an explosion.

Two hundred feet below, 108 men were at work. Mr. Weir blew the whistle, and workers began to remove blasting powder from the site to prevent an explosion.

But the breaker was built directly over the 200-foot shaft, a practice that had been banned some years before in England but was common in our region, as it eliminated the need to transport coal from the mine to the breaker. The fire ignited the breaker. A steam fire engine arrived from Scranton, and bucket brigades fed engines from Wilkes-Barre and Kingston.

A wooden breaker constricted over the shaft opening to the underground workings caught on fire. The shaft was the sole means of exit from the mine; consequently, the men working underground were trapped and died of suffocation.

Although gas hazards were due mainly to poor ventilation, many of the mines in [the] early days had but one shaft to the surface. One morning in September, 1869, in an Avondale, Pa. mine, the wooden beams and planking lining the shaft were set afire by sparks from the ventilating furnace. Flames quickly made the shaft a roaring inferno inferno which no man could approach. For hours water was pumped into the shaft, and along toward evening rescue parties were able to descend.