Historic Coal Mining Disasters in Pennsylvania

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Importance of Coal Mining and Safety Regulations

Coal, the first fossil fuel burned for energy, and the steam engine were the catalysts of the Industrial Revolution. Coal mining was crucial in the economic and industrial development in Pennsylvania. Coal mining began in the late 1700s, in both the bituminous and anthracite deposits in Pennsylvnia. Bituminous coal is a lower grade, composed of 46-85% carbon, and is distributed throughout the western part of the state. Anthracite a higher grade, composed of 85-97% carbon, and is distributed in smaller areas in eastern Pennsylvania (PA Mining History, 2023). Anthracite coal mining achieved record production rates in 1917, producing over 100 million tons of coal annually. Since then, anthracite production has decreased because bituminous coal is more abundant in Pennsylvania (National Academies of Sciences, 2018). Historically, coal was accessed underground using a mining technique called room and pillar mining. Coal mining was initially done manually, with the help of horses and wagons to haul material to the surface (PA Mining History, 2023).

Despite the economic and industrial benefits of coal mining, there were high risks for accidents, especially during the early years before safety regulations were created. Mining accidents were common, and often deadly. The worst coal mining disaster in Pennsylvania occurred at the Darr Mine (Westmoreland County, PA) in 1907, killing 239 men, including young boys, due to an explosion. The Mather Mine explosion, which happened 21 years later, killed 195 miners, also due to a methane explosion (Underground Coal Mine Disasters, n.d.).

Pennsylvania was the first state to create mine safety legislation almost a century after coal mining began. The Pennsylvania Anthracite Mine Inspection Act was established (1869) and later extended to bituminous mines, the Pennsylvania Mine Inspection Act (1877). The first federal law was the Federal Coal Mine Inspection Act (1941), followed by the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act (1952). Going forward, there were revisions of these regulations to continue to improve health and safety for workers (National Academies of Sciences, 2018).

Summary Tables

The table below outlines the number and severity of the top 40 most deadly coal mining disasters throughout Pennsylvania's history.

County Incidents Total Deaths Avg. Deaths Per Incident
Allegheny 3 216 72.0
Cambria 3 254 84.7
Centre 1 17 17.0
Fayette 6 146 24.3
Greene 2 232 116.0
Indiana 4 128 32.0
Jefferson 1 21 21.0
Juniata 1 19 19.0
Lackawanna 1 73 73.0
Luzerne 9 371 41.2
Schuylkill 3 49 16.3
Somerset 1 19 19.0
Washington 2 252 126.0
Westmoreland 3 394 131.3

The second table summarizes the frequency and severity of each type of disaster.

Disaster Type Incidents Total Deaths Avg. Deaths Per Incident
Explosion 33 1855 56.2
Fire 4 234 58.5
Inundation/Flood 2 44 22.0
Roof Fall 1 58 58


Background image source: Velp Scientifica, 2022.

About coal mine health and safety regulations: National Library of Medicine: Appendix E, Coal Mining in the United States, 2018.

PA mining history: Department of Environmental Protection, 2023.

Mine incidents: US CDC: Underground Coal Mine Disasters 1900 - 2010, 2023; and US Department of Labor: Mine disasters, 2023.

Map and webpage created by: Kelly Brubaker, Spring 2023.

Modifications by: Dr. Geiger, 2023.