Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Along the Way: The Stockton Mine Disaster

Sign along the road marking the site of the disaster
The collection of houses known as Stockton lies approximately two miles east of Hazleton, and in all honesty, it is one of those places one has to want to visit in order to get there. The only reason I knew I was on the correct road was due to its name: The Stockton Mountain Road. At one point though I passed the intersection with Stockton Road, but the directions I had at hand told me to stay on the Stockton Mountain Road.

A little over a mile south of this intersection I saw the sign for the memorial and parked in the grassy area next to it. Stepping out into the cool autumn air I quickly took in my surroundings. The wooden sign at the edge of the road marked the disaster and a short walk away was another memorial. This one was a granite slab surrounded by an iron fence.

Walking over to it, I noticed the names written on it. Elizabeth Rough. Margaret Rough. Isaac Rough. Elizabeth Rough. George Swank. William Swank. Next to the granite marker is a second stone; this one was a government marker provided for veterans and I noticed it was for Isaac Rough.

These victims didn’t appear to be miners, but instead appeared to be members of two families; the Swanks and Roughs. I suddenly realized that I was not standing at a memorial for the disaster, but instead was standing at a cemetery for the victims.

The marker for those whose bodies were never recovered
The mine disaster happened on December 18, 1869, at five in the morning. That morning the ground shook before opening up, swallowing two homes as the mine shaft collapsed. The shaft was part of the East Sugar Loaf Mines. A note: there does seem to be a debate about how often the mine shaft was being worked. Just about every article I’ve come across begins by saying that the shaft had been abandoned for close to fifteen years, but ends with the statement that two miners working in it were believed to have perished.

After I first posted this article, I received a note from a good friend who were up in the region. David states that often companies would pay other to go into the mine and "pillar rob." To "rob the pillar" means that the miners would destroy the pillars that were holding up the roof of the mine. As the pillars were being destroyed more weight was being supported only by the walls of the mine. The unsupported weight would eventually cause the roof to collapse. Looking into this a little deeper, it also appears that many of the small one or two person operations would apply this tactic, going into the abandoned mines and "robbing the pillars."

Early in the morning of December 18, 1869, a hole opened up, dropping three houses roughly forty feet into the mine with no warning. The first two houses that fell into the mine belonged to the Swank and the Rough families. A third house also fell into the opening, but those inside managed to escape. Those who were unable to escape were killed as the mine collapsed. Another note: there is some debate on how far the buildings fell. The original articles state that they fell forty feet. However a later article that covered the placing of a stone for Isaac Rough states they bodies were buried under four hundred feet of earth. I do believe that the four hundred is a misprint.

The official list of victims is: George Swank, his wife and three children; Mr. Rough, his wife, daughter, and mother. Please read the after note about the victims at the end of the article.

One girl did manage to survive the disaster. One young girl (I’m not sure which family the girl was a member of) managed to escape the house, but the ground crumbled under her feet and she fell into the pit. Landing on top of the ruins, she would quickly be rescued.
Marker for the six bodies
That were never recovered
After saving the young girl, rescuers began the task of recovering the deceased. By the evening of December 19, the bodies of George’s wife and two of his children were recovered; they would be interred at St. John’s Cemetery near Hazleton. The bodies of Mr. Eaton and Mr. Baker, listed as miners in newspaper accounts, were recovered on Monday evening, but their identities remain elusive.

The cause of the disaster was due to the closeness of the shaft to the surface. Only twenty feet of earth existed between the surface and the mine shaft. When the mine collapsed, the falling dirt blocked the shaft off, making it impossible to recover the bodies via the mine. If these men were "pillar robbing," then they may have caused tbe disaster that occurred that fateful day.

In 1924, a marker for Isaac Rough was placed at the spot, honoring him for his service with the Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

I finished paying my respects to those buried here and to those who lost their lives in the mine collapse and left them in the silence of the cool afternoon sun. If you choose to visit, please be respectful of the area.

Marker placed in 1924
Honoring Isaac Rough's military service
An after note: In doing the research for this, I’m still pondering how many perished that day. The official count is ten people killed in the disaster. However, I've done a number of counts, and ten is not one of the numbers I've come up with.

Possibility Number One, using the newspaper accounts at the time of the disaster: George and his wife, their four children; Isaac Rough and his wife, daughter, and Isaac’s mother; plus two miners. This gives a total of twelve killed in the disaster.

Possibility Number Two, using the newspaper account for the dedication of Isaac’s tombstone: George and his wife and their nine children; Isaac and his wife and two children. This one has no mention of Isaac’s mother or the miners. This gives a total of fifteen victims.

Possibility Number Three, using cemetery information: Six are buried at the cave-in spot and three bodies were recovered. This count brings the total to nine victims. Adding in the two miners listed as being killed, that would bring the total victims to eleven. This is the number that I believe to be correct.

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