Book Recalls Tragedy of Monongah Mine Disaster

By Colleen Rowan WHEELING— At Mt. Calvary Cemetery in the small town of Monongah lies a simple lot of graves, some marked and others unknown. It is the final resting place of hundreds—fathers, husbands, sons—who came to America in search of a better life, yet perished in the horrific Monongah Coal Mine disaster of 1907. Their journey to the U.S., their life in Monongah, the disaster, the Church’s role in relief and healing and the aftermath of the tragedy is depicted in the book “Monongah: The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History” by J. Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration who served as special advisor to Gov. Joe Manchin on the investigations of the Sago and Alma mine tragedies of 2006. For the book, McAteer was awarded the bronze medal in the classification for history books by the Independent Publisher Book Awards this summer. The Monongah disaster occurred at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 6, 1907, when an explosion below ground rocked the town and claimed the lives of hundreds—the majority being immigrants from Italy, Poland, Hungry and Ireland who worked in the mine. McAteer, who is currently vice president of Special Projects at Wheeling Jesuit University, found the number of those who lost their lives to be significantly higher than the historic toll. “The official number is 362,” he said, “but in my research we came up with a more accurate number—close to 517.” The majority of the miners were Catholic and the Church in West Virginia and its shepherd at the time, Bishop Patrick J. Donahue, responded immediately. “The Church was extremely helpful in taking care of the families through this process,” McAteer said, “and (Bishop) Donahue assigned additional priests there.” Following the disaster, Bishop Donahue and local priests began celebrating Masses for the deceased at churches, yet much to their dismay, they were ordered to stop. “Bishop Donahue had come down from Wheeling and started to work with the local priests” with the celebration of funeral Masses, McAteer said. “At the request of the public health officer for Marion County the Masses were suspended and the corpses were buried within an hour of coming out of the mine. … You had an hour to identify your loved one. A lot of them were buried without the names being on the grave.” Masses were stopped, McAteer said, on the grounds of a public health risk, the reasoning being that with bodies underground, contagious diseases could develop. The company, he said, had asked the public health officer to eliminate the Masses for quicker burials. “That created resentment that lasted for a long time against the company and against the county,” McAteer said. The book also relays the immigrants’ journey to a new country, what they endured and how their lives changed after leaving their homeland to embrace a new home. “This is a story not just of the accident itself, but about the immigrants,” McAteer said. Describing what their journey was like, he said, “You left the mountains of southern Italy or of Poland and three weeks later you were underground in a coal mine in West Virginia, having never seen a coal mine in your life.” Despite “absolute dreadful conditions” where the miners worked, he said, they made a life for themselves and their families, struggled and remained in the community even after the disaster. McAteer said he feels fortunate to have told their story—a story that is at the core of the heritage of all West Virginians. “It’s our history,” McAteer said. “It’s the history of the people of the diocese; it’s the history of the people of the state.”