“Unseen by the World:” Johnstown’s 1902 Rolling Mill Mine Disaster

“Unseen by the World:” Johnstown’s 1902 Rolling Mill Mine Disaster

Posted: May 29, 2024 11:39 am

by Nicholas Lasinsky, guest contributor. Nicholas Lasinsky is a historian born and raised in Cambria County with a passion for local stories. Currently enrolled at Simmons University in Boston, he hopes to become an archivist and published author. He is currently writing a book on three Pennsylvania coal mining disasters of the early twentieth century, and hopes to reignite interest in bituminous mining history more broadly. He wrote this piece for JAHA in advance of the presentation of “Lights Low: The Rolling Mill Mine Disaster of 1902” on June 9, 2024.

Before men died, the city sizzled.

July of 1902 was unusually hot in Johnstown. The Tribune Democrat reported, “the mercury is…hovering in the nineties,” the heat so intense that many laborers were “obliged to stop work” (1). Sun-soaked citizens languished, and the Schwartz Brothers’ Department Store advertised “cool, dainty things for this hot weather,” tempting customers with relief (2). Summer had settled over Johnstown, lulling the city into delirious haze.

The greatest heat of the season, however, came not from the sun, but the hills, where men toiled and machines rumbled—and a burst of violent fire grew.

Lunch Break of Rolling Mill Miners, Ca. 1900. Courtesy of Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

The Mine and Its Coal

Johnstown’s Rolling Mill Mine was already old in 1902. Established in 1856, its operation instantly “raised the number of working miners in the Johnstown area to two hundred,” galvanizing mining in the region (3). For the next fifty years, it prospered; tapping into the “C Prime” seam of bituminous coal, the mine splintered and branched under the Westmont hillside, probing deeper and deeper in search of “black diamonds,” those nuggets of dusty fire that kindled every element of Johnstown industry.

The mine was opened by The Cambria Iron Company, changed to Cambria Steel in 1898 with a swap indicative of a dawning century of prosperity. Historian Ewa Morawska notes that this “reorganization was accompanied by further expansion. An additional steel plant, as well as by-product coke ovens, were constructed. In 1900, the erection of four new blast furnaces was initiated; in this one year alone the net earnings of the company increased by 300 percent” (4). This was Johnstown’s heyday; with memories of the 1889 flood rapidly fading, the city swelled with possibility. With bountiful raw materials, labor, and capital, the city’s industrial core felt unstoppable. American industrialism was in full swing, and Johnstown was a national player in steel production. As long as the city’s mills prospered, its future was secure—for without steel, there was no Johnstown, and without coal, there was no steel. In this way, the Rolling Mill Mine powered Johnstown’s success, its reliable coal the bedrock of the city’s expansion.

But coal does not mine itself. That takes strong arms, stiff backs, steady hands; long days, little pay, fearless minds. This was the deepest foundation of Johnstown’s prosperity—because a final layer supported the city: without men, there was no coal.

When the city hungered for coal, the city hungered for labor. The mine’s insatiable harvest of the mountains needed men to blast, cart, and carry product. While Irish, Welsh, and English miners flooded Johnstown in the early nineteenth century, by 1900 the city’s labor consisted of a new class of immigrants: Southeastern Europeans. Italians, Hungarians, Croatians, Greeks, Serbs; a flood of cultures and beliefs flowed into the labor gap. It was immigrants who shoveled coal into cars powered by compressed air; immigrants who returned home covered head to toe in choking dust; immigrants who pried each chunk of coal from the mountains by the sweat of their brows. And it was immigrants who paid the price for its extraction.

A Quiet Catastrophe

Few sensed disaster in the air on July 10, 1902. In the weeks following the explosion, multiple company officials claimed that the mine was the safest they had ever known—that it enjoyed such a reputation for safety as to make disaster unimaginable (5). But safety is relative; tragedy rarely strikes where it is expected. Indeed, the belief that one mine was safer than others could lead to complacency; why take extra care when you work in the safest mine around? In this way, the Rolling Mill Mine’s reputation for safety was precisely the origin of its risk.

Accounts differ, but the majority agree that the ignition was blunted, almost timid, leaving the city largely undisturbed. Rumor, not tremor, shook its foundations. The Pittsburg Gazette reported that “it was a beautiful day in Johnstown, and the streets were thronged with women busy on shopping errands, and with men carrying on business affairs. No thought of trouble or death touched any of these, when suddenly an intangible something, a rumor as sudden as it was horrifying, seemed to sweep over the city, and in a moment the news of the disaster had spread from one limit of the town to the other” (6). Rumor ignited as surely as the mine, inflaming the souls of wives, parents, and children, as fear gripped the streets.

Johnstown was undisturbed because the mine explosion was relatively small; one estimate made after the disaster claimed that its “actual property loss was less than one hundred dollars” (7). While a few doors were flung open, and three men scalded, the detonation quickly petered. No fireball ripped through rafters. No aftershock shook the earth. No flames baked the mine in hellish heat.

For the killer of the Rolling Mill Disaster was not fire, but air.

The laborers liberated more than coal. Any coal miner worth his salt knew the danger of “damps”—mine vapors. Two gases spelled the doom of the men who perished: methane and carbon monoxide. Methane, or “firedamp,” seeped from coal veins, sealed in the rock as a byproduct of decaying plant matter. Firedamp is incredibly flammable; without a veiled “safety lamp,” open lights could ignite the gas in massive explosions.

When methane ignites, it produces carbon monoxide—the dreaded “afterdamp”—in inverse proportion to the fuel burned; the more methane consumed with oxygen, the less resulting afterdamp, and vice versa. Insidiously then, the subdued explosion was not a blessing but a curse. The uneven proportions of methane and oxygen generated a wave of carbon monoxide, and afterdamp saturated every chamber of the mine.

“Striving to Save Flickering Life,” in “Johnstown Victims Number 195,” The Pittsburg Dispatch July 12, 1902.

The hours and days following the explosion are difficult to understand without a sense of the coal mine—its distinct structure, logic, and feel. Branching and twisting, it expanded beyond a mere sequence of tunnels. The mine was a labyrinth, a tangled maze of dead ends and interminable corridors, rooms and tracks, pillars and passageways. With abandoned sections and evolving aisles, it was easy for the inexperienced to lose themselves in the darkness. For the mine was also a city—complete with main streets and alleyways, communal spaces and private rooms, traffic and business and life. It was a dark reflection of the metropolis above, carved from slate and coal like a grid on graph paper, darkness in place of sunshine, vapors in place of breeze, rats in place of the squirrels scampering above. This was the terrain of the explosion: difficult to navigate in the best of times, unforgiving in the face of disaster.

Just as townspeople on the surface were oblivious of the initial detonation, so too did it fail to ruffle many miners. Rescuers found one central corridor in which “45 men…had fallen as they were walking out of the mine with their dinner buckets on their arms. [The mine foreman] said that it seemed peculiar even to him to see these miners in the face of danger stopping for their dinner buckets before running out of danger” (8). The minor ignition failed to warn the men, who laid down their picks and casually strolled into the choking plume; by the time many realized how deadly the mine had become, it was too late.

While a powerful fan “forced 130,000 cubic feet of air per minute down the shaft into the mine,” it was unable to clear the main headings of afterdamp (9). Some miners stayed put, or were able to retreat when they felt the dizzying effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. These were dire circumstances. Carbon monoxide is fatal in minuscule quantities, and without additional ventilation, stale air lingered in the corridors of the mine. Two entrances provided access to the Rolling Mill Mine: the Westmont and Mill Creek shafts. Of the four hundred or so working that day, more than half were able to exit through the Mill Creek shaft. Only those in the “Klondike” section were trapped, pinned between their rooms and the poisoned headings of the entryway.

The Men in the Mine

The story of the men inside the mine involved essentially three groups: those miners trapped in remote rooms, fighting to remain conscious; the supervisors who turned back; and the posse of rescuers outside the mine working to get in. Each group provides one perspective on courage, resilience, and folly—and each shaped who escaped, and whose names graced the growing death roll.

Rescue operations within and without the mine began immediately; “when the explosion occurred, a little after 11 o’clock yesterday morning, Mine-Foreman Rodgers and his party were about to quit the mine, having completed their day’s labors, when they received the first intimation of the disaster in the sudden impact of air being driven in on them by a tremendous cataclysm…Immediately they left the cars and began to retrace their steps in an endeavor to investigate” (10). These eight supervisors included Mine Foreman Harry Rogers; Assistant Foremen Blanch and Thomas Foster; Fire Bosses Joseph Tomlinson, John Retallick, Griffith Powell, and John Whitney; and Labor Foreman John Thomas Sr. In an act of true heroism, all eight turned back, plunging into the heart of the mine in search of survivors.

At the Westmont entrance, Mine Engineer Marshall G. Moore and his assistant Al Prosser attempted to penetrate the cloud of damp. Only a few hundred yards from the entrance, they were forced to turn back. “I can’t say anything as to the condition of things in the mine,” Prosser told a reporter later that day, “except that they are very bad. I had all I could do to get out alive and had I had to go a hundred yards further I would be there now, instead of outside. I had no time to notice things in the mine. How many are dead I cannot estimate. We can only wait and see” (11). Confusion reigned. With Westmont impassable, mine officials resolved to enter through the Mill Creek shaft.

Yet the time it took to access that shaft was costly. Modern first responders speak of the “golden hour,” when medical treatment is most effective for the gravely wounded. One of the many tragedies of the disaster was the total loss of this and subsequent hours. It took time to appraise and plan; time to travel the 2 miles between Westmont and Mill Creek; time to outfit rescuers with primitive oxygen tanks and medical stimulants. Precious seconds slipped away in the chaos and confusion. It would take almost 24 hours for the rescuers to reach the heart of the mine—24 that the men inside did not have to spend.

The eight supervisors almost immediately split up; Rogers, Retallick, and Blanch “decided to go in search of imprisoned men and…left orders for the others to follow. Labor Boss Thomas Sr. went after [them], and so far as can be learned, was not seen alive again” (12). Tomlinson joined them. The remaining party slammed into a “wall of afterdamp.” Carbon monoxide is not a flamboyant killer. It hones, settling into lungs and bones, overtaking its victims with a wash of dizziness, then darkness. This was the fate of John Whitney, who “despite the buffeting of will against weakness…gradually slipped away from the upright posture to an attitude of sprawled-out surrender” (13). Powell and Foster attempted to haul Whitney to safety, but the effort proved too difficult. It was at this point that Powell and Foster decided to turn back. “Several times Foster…was about to collapse, but the cheering words of Powell aroused in him once more the thought of life’s sweetness and he continued to flounder and struggle on” (14). The two men barely escaped, bringing word of Whitney and the others to the surface, and igniting an effort to rescue the rescuers.

While there are a few surviving accounts from those trapped in the mine, none is clearer or more tragic than that of Antonio Kohler. Described by one paper as “27 years old” and “a natural leader of men,” Kohler was “somewhat of a political power among the foreigners of Johnstown” (15). His story illustrates another dimension of the tragedy: the youth of its victims. Many of the miners were younger than 30, and a sizable contingent younger than 20. These men had their entire lives ahead of them; many believed in the opportunity of Johnstown and the opportunity of America, no matter how improbable the realization of their dreams. These were fathers and husbands, breadwinners and brothers, sons and friends, each filled with youth and possibility—each one snuffed out like candles.

When disaster struck, he “understood it to be an explosion at once,” but recalled that “it was hard for me to convince any others than John and Jacob Crook, my brother Victor and my brother-in-law” (16). Shaking his pick in fury and fear, Kohler chased and cajoled his men into a room with compressed air pipes; the machinery of the mine became their salvation. Working quickly, the men smashed the pipes “at about 4 o’clock in the evening” (17).

“Death Ever Hovers Over the Naked Lamp of the Miner” in “Work of Rescuers is Almost at an End,” The Pittsburg Chronicle-Telegraph, July 12, 1902.

It is worth sitting with them in this place, pausing to imagine its horrors. They crouched in total darkness, lamps extinguished to prevent additional explosions. Lunch pails were forgotten; hunger gnawed, and death crept around the corner. The gas did not hurry. It was patient; there was time enough to do its work. The men understood that they were doomed to die hungry and cold, never again to feel the warmth of the sun; to bring support to their aging parents; to hoist their children up on their shoulders. They were sealed in the tomb of the earth, coated in inky dust, waiting to reap the consequences of delving too deep—victims-to-be of decisions made by powers beyond their station or control.

Men trembled. Men broke. “Finally,” Kohler records, “at 5:30 one husky fellow fell upon his knees and began praying. His example was followed by another, and soon there were prayers and shrieks…I commanded all to lie flat on the ground, knowing that gas goes up first, and that the heading would have to become filled almost entirely before it would kill the men lying on the floor. But they refused to obey me. Their kneeling placed their nostrils and mouths well up toward the roof of the heading, and it was not long before they showed unmistakable signs of being overcome” (18). And in that dark place, as the cold air filled with screams and poison, the desperate voices began to fall still.

The surface scene was no more serene. “When the rumor spread that all were dead, women and children whose husbands and fathers were somewhere, dead or alive, beneath the bright green of the hillside, rushed to the point, some with dry eyes and set faces, some crying, some moaning, but all gazing steadfastly at that dark opening in the hillside, the only visible object that connected them with the loved ones in the dark beyond” (19). The city gathered. First loved ones, then curious townsfolk, then strangers—rubberneckers and the morbidly curious swarming the city, spilling from packed trains and straining the cordons posted by state police.

“Relatives and Friends of Entombed Miners at the Entrance of the Mine,” in “Appalling Disaster, Entombing 350 Miners,” The Pittsburg Dispatch July 11, 1902.

A macabre assembly took shape. “Among the people who appeared at Mill Creek during the afternoon were Catholic priests and ministers of the Protestant churches. People arrived late in the afternoon, bringing sandwiches and other things to eat. Edibles were ordered from stores in the city and sent to the rescuing parties” (20). Indeed, the entire city began to mobilize—sluggishly, wasting precious hours—but steadily, momentum for rescue building. The massive fan was pushed to its limits, pumping “200,000 cubic feet of air…into the mine every minute” in a desperate attempt to expel the noxious gas (21). As July 10 slipped into dusk, Marshall Moore and other officials took command, sending doctors and fellow miners into the unknown. One paper described the dramatic call for rescuers: “About 8 o’clock in the evening…Marshall Moore, chief mining engineer of the Cambria Company, mounted the end of one of the cars. There was no need for a plea for silence so that he could be heard. The thousands were hushed in the instant. ‘Men,’ he said, struggling with his voice to maintain firmness, ‘Men, there’s some of us wanted in there.’ He paused briefly. ‘Who goes?’ he asked simply, then took his seat in the foremost car. Not a word was spoken by any of the miners assembled. Scores of them stepped forward and sat in the cars. They were all ready. The spirit of bravery that rules the miners’ heart at such times as this, is unlike anything else” (22).

Every ounce of bravery was needed to bear the horrors of the mine; many rescuers stumbled over tens of bodies in their search for survivors, ignoring corpses in the hope that they could salvage remaining sparks of life. “A tremendous cheer arose as the doctors passed into the dangerous subterranean passage,” carrying stimulants and oxygen, the crowd’s baited breath broken only by sobs (23). For the desperate onlookers, waiting was the only task left to them.

Valor in the Depths

While Powell and Foster stumbled into the light, Harry Rogers faced death in the deep. After departing Whitney, Foster, and Powell, Foreman Rogers and his companions reached No. 5 and found the canvas brattice damaged. “Rogers and Retallick set about replacing it, and Blanch becoming exhausted, the foreman ordered Tomlinson to go to No. 4 and see how its brattice had stood the shock” (24). Tomlinson would never return. Rogers soon felt himself succumbing to the afterdamp, and began to retreat with Retallick, Blanch falling to the gas. Rogers stumbled across Whitney, abandoned by Powell and Foster; “Quickly raising him to his feet and by violent exertion, they succeeded in restoring consciousness for a brief moment. Rogers urged him to come with them and the old fire boss replied with feeble voice, ‘Harry, I can’t go.’” (25). By this point both Retallick and Rogers wavered on the edge of consciousness. Stumbling towards an open air pipe, the two men fell to their knees, unable to take another step. “Still, [Rogers’] faculties were active, despite the paralysis of his physical power, and, taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he tore it in two, dipped the pieces in the black water of the ditch and placed one piece over Retallick’s nose and mouth and the other over his own.” (26). His breaths ragged, his strength spent, Rogers lay still, listening to the hiss of escaping air escaping until all was darkness.

A similar fate awaited the men trapped with Tony Kohler, their souls winking out one by one as gas inched into the room. “I had been holding my brother and my brother-in-law under the air pipes at different times when they showed signs of weakening,” Kohler recounted, “and when they were beyond danger I treated the men likewise. By vigorous rubbing I brought back respiration and some of the men who were sinking and saved their lives thereby…About 11:30 o’clock I dropped from utter exhaustion and was fast losing my senses, when I suddenly realized that I would have to keep up the courage of my fellow prisoners. I had been holding my brother and brother-in-law under the pipe, but when I opened my eyes I found that my brother-in-law had crawled away from me and hid under a car. I went after him, but was unable to drag him away” (27). By Friday morning, with no sign of salvation, Kohler “really began to fear that all of us would be dead before any rescuing party reached the room where we were, and I told…John and Jacob Crook and my brother that some of us would have to take desperate chances in breaking through the old workings and try to find a way out. We realized that the chamber we were in was now being filled to its capacity with gas and space around the air pipe was getting scarce, despite the fact that death was rapidly cutting down our ranks” (28). The desperate gambit failed, and the Crook brothers exited the room only to fall silent in the darkness. A reporter later summarized the sinister patience of it all: “Death itself was loose in that place…and it simply breathed upon its victims till they lay still” (29). Their situation was beyond hopeless; men crowded around the faint stream of air as poison surrounded them, picking off the weakest. Rescue seemed an impossibility; escape was futile. Like the crowd above, these miners had only waiting left to them, endless seconds piling into endless hours, as the grip of fellow hands grew limper.

Slowly, haltingly, fearfully, rescuers of the surface probed the deep. Through the night and into the gray hours of morning, they poked and pried at the darkness, illuminating its obscurities and horrors. Rotating in shifts, groups of volunteers faced the pit until their knees tottered and their minds slipped. Reflecting on the disaster, State Mine Inspector Josiah Evans noted that “…the daring and bravery of miners when the lives of their fellows are at stake is never surpassed, if indeed equaled, by any other class of men living” (30). Indeed, miners shared a firm bond, tied by a fraternal understanding unbroken by fear. More than a hundred rescuers worked in tandem to save the lives of their fellow workers—friends and rivals, bedmates and strangers, neighbors and foreigners. Observers were quick to tie the heroism of rescue to the heroism of war. One preacher, in his sermon on the disaster, claimed that “they were soldiers there, brave as any at Gettysburg or Waterloo, some of whom would have been alive today had they not laid down their lives for others” (31).

There was indeed valor in the depths of the mine—but deeds in the dark go unrewarded. No general promoted you in the tunnels; no medals were bestowed to the best rescuer. These men were brave far from prying eyes, far from accolade and praise, hidden in the depths where their only witness was the God invoked in muttered prayers. There was humility in their mission—for they pushed deeper not in search of glory, but because they believed it to be the right thing to do.

No victim of the disaster exemplified this spirit more than Joseph Tomlinson. A member of the eight who turned back, Tomlinson was separated from his companions, at which point his story grows murky. We know only that he was found “lying between and slightly to the rear of two foreign miners, each of his hands [with] a firm grasp on the arms of his dead comrades, showing that he had been forcing them ahead of him up to the main entry, where he knew a current of pure air was to be met with. Had he deserted the helpless foreigners, doubtless the fire boss would be alive to-day…In the broad sunlight, with the eyes of thousands of their fellow-soldiers to view their valorous acts, incentive is not lacking, but deep in the bowels of the earth, in darkness and deadly afterdamp, Joseph Tomlinson performed an act of bravery, unseen by the world and only known when his dead body was found by the observant rescuers” (32).

“Crowd and Hearse,” 1902. Courtesy of Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

For the miners trapped beneath the earth, mere survival was heroism enough. By the afternoon of July 11, Tony Kohler danced on the edge of death. Afterdamp flooded his chamber, crowding out the tiny stream of salvation. Carbon Monoxide is lighter than air, but the ceiling of poison sunk ever lower, crushing the few remaining survivors into a desperate puddle about the pipe. “I was in a terrible frame of mind when Friday noon rolled around,” Kohler recalled, “and I can assure you that my heart began beating with joy later when we heard the approach of the rescuers” (33). After over 24 hours spent fighting for his life, salvation finally arrived. Of the 42 men gathered in the tiny chamber, only 18 escaped with their lives.

Kohler’s account is only one of many desperate tales of life and death. One survivor “told a pathetic story at the Cambria hospital this afternoon. He said a fellow Hungarian had his boy, 13 years old, by his side when the explosion came. He clasped the lad to his bosom for five minutes, then relinquished his hold and the boy dropped. The father was dead and the son died half an hour afterward” (34). Many of the bodies “lay flat on their faces, and others had dug their faces into the hard…coal and thrown their arms about their heads and faces in a forlorn hope of preventing the suffocation that the deadly afterdamp was forcing on them” (35). A desperate struggle preceded death: men fled with clumsy desperation, panicked and groggy with gas. Many dropped, their faces in puddles, their noses buried in the earth. John Dutko, another survivor, “lay across two dead bodies. The remains of two other men were above me. Half the time I was suffocated. I felt that I would die any moment and had asked God to forgive me my sins. The other miners were praying aloud. None of us expected to reach the open air again. I would rather starve than enter a coal mine again.” (36).

Foreman Harry Rogers and Fire Boss John Retallick “were [found] seated by the stream. Their handkerchiefs had fallen from their hands and were in the water. It was apparent that they had been holding water to their mouth and keeping their nostrils covered until consciousness left them” (37). The two officials were quickly removed to the Memorial Hospital, one of two Johnstown medical facilities and the destination of many survivors. Retallick lingered in a state of semi-consciousness until his death on July 20, the final victim of the mine. Rogers eventually recovered, though he bore deep mental and physical scars. Almost two weeks after the disaster he noted, “I am still a little weak in my legs; as soon as I am seated I feel all right, but as soon as I stand or begin to walk around, I feel as if my limbs would give way. The effects of the afterdamp seem to linger in my bones” (38). Reclined in a hospital bed, Rogers told his story to a curious public—but his focus turned ceaselessly back to those desperate minutes, their trauma lingering in his conscience: “If I only could have had another half hour,” he said repeatedly, “I would have saved many more” (39).

Bodies and Burials

Loved ones waited at the Mill Creek entrance with dread and exhaustion, many keeping vigil through Thursday night. Finally there came a handful of survivors, sprung from the depths in small clusters; so few “out of so many missing made but little impression, and all eyes were turned to the track again, waiting for the next trip” (40). Most onlookers were destined for disappointment. Of the 150 men entombed in the Klondike portion of the mine, perhaps 50 were brought out alive, some of whom later perished from their injuries. Soon the final death tally—112—settled over the city. “Business has not been suspended, but it is still transacted in a perfunctory way and the question on every tongue is, ‘What news from the mine?’ There is a subdued air about the city and the clang of the ambulance gongs rolling from the mine entrance to the morgue and hospital is the only sound that seems to attract attention” (41).

“Bringing Victims in Cars from Entrance of Mine” in “Risk Lives to Save the Buried Men’ The New York World, July 12, 1902.

The corpses removed from the ground—“unloaded like carcasses of beef”—were taken to the armory of Company H, Fifth Regiment, N. G. P. (42), (43). The space quickly adopted the look of a charnel house; “bodies were dropped on the slabs, and the attendants went at them with scrubbing brushes. In a few seconds, it was almost surprising to see that this black charred object that has been conveyed across the floor a moment before was really a human person” (44). Every undertaker and aide in the city flung themselves at the task, including John Pendry, Johnstown’s mayor and undertaker. The dark coincidence of the mayor’s profession seemed lost on all involved.

The morgue was deeply repulsive. “Several [attendants] were taken ill and had to leave the place. The officers of the board of health came to the morgue…and gave each one some disinfectant to apply after handling the charred remains. The odor of the burnt clothes is also becoming noticeable. The place seemed to be insufferably hot. The red disinfectant that was being thrown about the floor dried the nostrils of the attendants and made a bloody background to the awful scene” (45). Yet here too was heroism, the determination of a city to tend to its dead. Working around the clock, undertakers embalmed the bodies as quickly as they were delivered, feverishly washing the grit of the mine from faces and (sometimes unattached) limbs in preparation for identification by the public.

When the morgue was finally opened, chaos ensued. “During the morning a mob formed at the entrance to the morgue. The frantic people crowded against the door and the police could not handle them…The jam pushed into the hall and the aisles formed by the slabs were soon filled. The heat became insufferable. People took the covers from the faces of the corpses, looked, then placed them back again. The crowd soon became so large that the hall could not accommodate it. People stepped across bodies” (46). Despite efforts to stagger the crowd, thousands of grieving men, women, and children filed past the dead, the mob liberally sprinkled with strangers hoping to glimpse a fresh corpse. The cacophony was immense, the wrenching outpourings of broken hearts. “Heartrending cries arose from every part of the hall…Hundreds of sympathizers shared the sorrowful feeling. Men who were moved were not ashamed of their tears” (47).

“Interior of McGarvey’s Stable, Where Twenty-Four Caskets Were Piled up Until Graves Could be Dug,” in “Taking Coal From Mine Yet Being Searched for Corpses” The Pittsburgh Dispatch, July 14, 1902.

Tragedy demands pause; a space for reflection and judgment, a moment to grieve and adjust. But business grinds on, and the Bessemer Mills mourned no man. As rescuers pulled the final bodies from the fissures of the underground city, Cambria Steel focused on restarting production. Charles Price, General Manager of mines, proclaimed that “the Cambria Steel Company’s works will not be shut down for a day on account of the mine disaster…we hope to have the mine in full operation again by the latter part of next week” (48). His prediction was well founded. The explosion warped the mine into a mass tomb, turned its numbered corridors into an inescapable labyrinth—but now it needed to be a mine again. With little structural damage, this was a feasible goal, and the final bodies were removed all the more rapidly in service of renewed industry.

But coal does not mine itself—and there was doubt as to whether the laborers of the Rolling Mill Mine would take up their picks again. The Pittsburg Gazette reported that “many seemed satisfied with the assurance given by the inspectors, but some 200 refused to enter the mines again. Those who leave the employ of the company will lose their standing in the Relief association, which has been the salvation of bereaved families” (49). Others were eager to reenter. “Will the miners go back to work in this mine after this accident?” The Gazette asked another miner. “‘Of course they will. Why should not they?’” was his response. “‘I would go back tomorrow if the mine was running. I must make a living, and I can do it down in the mine…It is simply taking a chance all the time and it would not be any more dangerous to go in after the mine gets cleared of gas than it was on Thursday morning. I was lucky this time; maybe I won’t be next time. We have to run the risk.’” (50). Coal miners confronted risk daily; it was part of the job. Other men might work with assembly lines, or timber fields, or electric lines. Coal miners dug coal—and they understood that digging coal shifted rocks, knocked down roofs, and ignited gas. Many men justifiably fled an obviously perilous mine. But others had rent to pay, children to feed, and parents in the old country to support. These men understood the task of a miner, and possessed the flinty mix of resolve and bravery, recklessness and perseverance required to dig coal. And so they returned to dig it once more.

The glut of bodies presented one final challenge for the city of Johnstown: how to lay the tide of corpses to rest? While some families (particularly those of English speaking miners) claimed their loved ones for the manicured rows of Grandview, many foreigners went unclaimed and unidentified. These men would be buried in unmarked graves, and laid to rest in Morrellsville. By July 13, “almost 40 bodies lay in the barn to the left of the foreigners’ cemetery in Morrellsville…There was not even a man left to guard the bodies, and the odor[was] noticeable for acres around.” (51). Local gravediggers refused the task, and the burials were uncoordinated and hasty. Fiasco ensued. “As the entranceway to the ground was blockaded with coffins, carriages had difficulty in entering. At one time a blockade was complete…One driver tried to force his way through the gate, and as he did so one of the horses stumbled over a coffin and its ironshod hoof broke the cover” (52). At another point, gravediggers “made their first big trench so close to a line of graves that they cut into them” (53). Accusations of drunken revelry abounded, and a sense of rushed misfortune hung like a plague over the cemetery.

Telling the Story

As the last victims lingered in the hospital, Coroner E. L. Miller opened an official investigation into the cause of the explosion. From July 22-26, the testimony of state mine inspectors, Cambria Steel officials, and miners painted a portrait of the accident in the G.A.R. Hall. State Inspector Josiah T. Evans planted the blame firmly on the men: “in spite of all these precautions and care, a great catastrophe occurred through lack of care on the one part and on the other through too much liberty…This liberty permitted men who worked in the vicinity of the gas, to take their naked lights into the danger marks made by the fire bosses” (54). One man, Evans claimed, working in the No. 2 room of the sixth right heading, ignited the gas. Marshall G. Moore claimed to have found an open lamp sitting outside of that room, the only portion of the mine with evident fire damage. Ultimately, the blame was fixed on the three miners working in that room, the jury ruling “that said explosion was caused by some person or persons to the jury unknown taking into room No. 2, sixth right heading, where gas was known to exist, an open lamp, and using the same in direct violation of the mine rules and regulations of the Cambria Steel Company” (55).

While the ruling was accepted largely without comment in 1902, fresh scrutiny is in order today. The issue of open and safety lamps was long a cause of unnecessary death in Pennsylvania coal mines—for despite constant critique by state inspectors, the federal government did not mandate the use of safeties in bituminous mines until the middle of the twentieth century. Many miners preferred the brighter light that open flame offered, and men were known to sneak them into gaseous portions of mines. But there were also many instances of men accidentally or unintentionally igniting gas with open flame. While blame for the Rolling Mill disaster has long rested squarely on the shoulders of its victims, modern standards of responsibility are not so simple. Even if the evidence suggests that at least one miner mistakenly brought open flame in contact with firedamp, complete exoneration of Cambria Steel is absurd. Today, we widely recognize that an industrial employee ought to be able to make a mistake on the job without paying for it with their life—or the lives of their coworkers. Failsafes, redundancies, and regulations stand in the way of mass tragedy. If a worker messes up, their equipment may save them; or rapid medical care will contain the disaster; or double and triple checks will prevent the error before it ever occurs.

This was another era; corporations understood risk and responsibility differently. Considered independent contractors, miners enjoyed little protection from Cambria Steel; their errors—and the consequences—were entirely their own. Thus, Inspector Evans’ question: “What can we do when among a hundred or more miners there is one who disregards the safety of himself and others, and recklessly violates all laws and rules in the gloomy caverns of the mine, where detection is no easy matter?” (56). One could answer that the company ought to furnish additional safeguards or regulations, that the men laboring in their mine ought to be protected by their employer. But Evans turned to punishment. “Clearly, but one thing, invoke the law’s extreme penalty upon any such when discovered, provided they have not already caused an explosion or other disaster and have fallen a victim to their own carelessness” (57). Mercy, compassion, or concern for fellow man were thrown from the inspector’s mind, his focus not on prevention, but retribution. The only thing to do was round up the responsible man and punish him—if he had not yet been killed by his own “crime.”

“One of Many Corpses in the Johnstown Mine,” in “15 More Bodies Out, 124 Now Recovered” The New York Journal, July 12, 1902.

The damage of the disaster lingered in the fabric of Johnstown—lingered as surely as the afterdamp lingered in Harry Rogers’ bones. Families were fragmented, dreams destroyed, entire boardinghouses emptied of their occupants. The physical, mental, and emotional damage of the Rolling Mill Disaster was immense. Yet the city persevered. Johnstown remained a center of industry, and for every immigrant suffocated or blown to bits, two more stepped in to take his place; business grinds on. Cambria Steel continued in one form or another to play a significant role in the steel industry well into the late twentieth century, and Johnstown gradually erased the traumas of July 1902. Today, the Rolling Mill Mine disaster is virtually unknown, even to locals, overshadowed by the larger and more sensationalized tragedy of the flood—a footnote for a city of anguish.

Yet there is value in bringing the story back to light. It is true that the Rolling Mill explosion was not a monumental tragedy, on the scale of those catastrophes that etch themselves into national consciousness. But remembrance is a window into the sacrifices and livelihoods of men who struggled to dig coal from the ground—those men who formed the bedrock of modern civilization, those men willing to risk their bodies for the welfare of their families and the dream of a better life. Some of those men are our great-grandfathers. Some laid the foundations for the better lives we live today. And some died before they could harvest that legacy. Their lives were deep and rich, and are worthy of memorial. For while the Rolling Mill explosion was not a monumental tragedy, it nonetheless killed 112 bright, strong, and hopeful souls.

And their story deserves to be told.


(1) “Pittsburgh Is Still Sweltering,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 9, 1902.

(2) “Threatens to Call Out the Militia,” Johnstown Democrat, July 8, 1902.

(3) Eileen Mountjoy Cooper, “Underground riches: The Story of Johnstown’s Coal Industry” in Johnstown: The Story of a Unique Valley (Johnstown, PA: Johnstown Flood Museum, 1985), 319.

(4) Ewa Morawska, For Bread with Butter: The Life-Worlds of East Central Europeans in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 82.

(5) “Inspectors Warm Up The Mine Bosses,” The Pittsburg Gazette, July 25, 1902.

(6) “Johnstown Visited By Another Awful Calamity,” The Pittsburg Gazette, July 11, 1902.

(7) Gilson Willets, “The Terrible Disaster at Johnstown,” in Collier’s Illustrated Weekly Magazine Vol. 29, No. 17., 1902, 83.

(8) “Cause of The Explosion Known to Inspectors,” The Pittsburg Post, July 14, 1902.

(9) M. G. Moore, “The Mine Explosion at Johnstown,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute Vol. 158, No. 2., 1903.

(10) “The Appalling Disaster In The Cambria Mine,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 11, 1902.

(11) “Frightful Disaster in Cambria Company’s Mines,” The Johnstown Democrat, July 11, 1902.

(12) “The List of Dead,” Tribune Democrat.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid.

(15) “Taking Coal From Mine Yet Being Searched for Corpses,” The Pittsburg Dispatch, July 14, 1902.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) “Johnstown Visited By Another Awful Calamity,” The Pittsburg Gazette, July 11, 1902.

(20) “Frightful Disaster in Cambria Company’s Mines,” The Johnstown Democrat, July 11, 1902.

(21) Ibid.

(22) “Story of Death is at an End,” The Pittsburg Press, July 14, 1902.

(23) “Johnstown Victims Number 195,” The Pittsburg Dispatch, Jul 12, 1902.

(24) “Number Of Dead Now Reaches 111,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 14, 1902.

(25) Ibid.

(26) Ibid.

(27) “Taking Coal,” The Pittsburg Dispatch.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Willets, “The Terrible Disaster.”

(30) Josiah T. Evans, Report of the Bureau of Mines of the Department of Internal Affairs of Pennsylvania (WM. Stanley Ray, 1903), 613.

(31) “Mine’s Dreadful List 111,” The Johnstown Democrat, July 14, 1902.

(32) “The List of Dead,” Tribune Democrat.

(33) “Taking Coal,” The Pittsburg Dispatch.

(34) “List Of Known Dead At Johnstown Reaches One Hundred And Twenty-Six,” The Pittsburgh Gazette, July 12, 1902.

(35) “Story of Death,” The Pittsburg Press.

(36) “Taking Coal,” The Pittsburg Dispatch.

(37) “Cause of the Explosion,” The Pittsburg Post

(38) “Story Of Horror As Told To A Jury,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 23, 1902.

(39) “The Dead Are 111,” The Mountaineer Herald, July 17, 1902.

(40) “List of Known Dead,” The Pittsburg Gazette.

(41) Ibid.

(42) Ibid.

(43) “The Johnstown Tragedy,” The Altoona Mirror, July 11, 1902.

(44) “List of Known Dead,” The Pittsburg Gazette.

(45) Ibid.

(46) “Seventeen Living Taken from Mine,” The Pittsburg Press, July 11, 1902.

(47) “Johnstown Victims Number,” The Pittsburg Dispatch.

(48) “List of Known Dead,” The Pittsburg Gazette.

(49) “Sunday was a Day Of Funerals In Johnstown,” The Pittsburgh Gazette, July 14, 1902.

(50) “List of Known Dead,” The Pittsburg Gazette.

(51) “Sunday was a Day,” The Pittsburg Gazette.

(52) “Number of Dead Now Reaches 112,” The Pittsburgh Post, July 13, 1902.

(53) “A Searching Investigation Is To Be Made By Coroner Miller,” Pittsburg Chronicle-Telegraph, July 14, 1902.

(54) Evans, Report of the Bureau, 614.

(55) “Blame For Rolling Mill Mine Disaster Is Laid On No One,” The Pittsburg Post, July 29, 1902.

(56) Evans, Report of the Bureau, 615.

(57) Ibid.

Works Cited

“Appalling Disaster, Entombing 350 Miners,” The Pittsburg Dispatch, July 11, 1902.

“The Appalling Disaster In The Cambria Mine,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 11, 1902.

“Blame for Rolling Mill Mine Disaster Is Laid On No One,” The Pittsburg Post, July 29, 1902.

“Cause of The Explosion Known to Inspectors,” The Pittsburgh Post, July 14, 1902.

Cooper, Eileen Mountjoy. “Underground Riches: The Story of Johnstown’s Coal Industry” in
Johnstown: The Story of a Unique Valley. Ed. Karl Berger. Johnstown, PA: Johnstown
Flood Museum, 1985.

“The Dead Are 111,” The Mountaineer Herald, July 17, 1902.

Evans, Josiah T. Report of the Bureau of Mines of the Department of Internal Affairs of Pennsylvania. WM. Stanley Ray, 1903, 613.

“15 More Bodies Out, 124 Now Recovered,” The New York Journal, July 12, 1902.

“Frightful Disaster in Cambria Company’s Mines,” The Johnstown Democrat, July 11, 1902.

“Inspectors Warm Up The Mine Bosses,” The Pittsburgh Gazette, July 25, 1902.

“The Johnstown Tragedy,” The Altoona Mirror, July 11, 1902.

“Johnstown Victims Number 195,” The Pittsburg Dispatch, Jul 12, 1902.

“Johnstown Visited By Another Awful Calamity,” The Pittsburgh Gazette, July 11, 1902.

“The List Of the Dead Is 105,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 12, 1902.

“List Of Known Dead At Johnstown Reaches One Hundred And Twenty-Six,” The Pittsburgh
, July 12, 1902.

“Mine’s Dreadful List 111,” The Johnstown Democrat, July 14, 1902.

Moore, M. G. “The Mine Explosion at Johnstown,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute Vol. 158,
No. 2., 1903.

Morawska, Ewa. For Bread with Butter: The Life-Worlds of East Central Europeans in
Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890-1940
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

“Number Of Dead Now Reaches 111,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 14, 1902.

“Number of Dead Now Reaches 112” The Pittsburgh Post, July 13, 1902.

“Pittsburgh Is Still Sweltering,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 9, 1902.

“Risk Lives to Save the Buried Men,” The New York World, July 12, 1902.

“A Searching Investigation Is To Be Made By Coroner Miller,” Pittsburg Chronicle-Telegraph,
July 14, 1902.

“Seventeen Living Taken from Mine,” The Pittsburg Press, July 11, 1902.

“Story of Death is at an End,” The Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1902.

“Story Of Horror As Told To A Jury,” Johnstown Tribune Democrat, July 23, 1902.

“Sunday Was A Day Of Funerals In Johnstown,” The Pittsburgh Gazette, July 14, 1902.

“Taking Coal From Mine Yet Being Searched for Corpses,” The Pittsburg Dispatch, July 14,

“Threatens to Call Out the Militia” Johnstown Democrat, July 8, 1902.

Willets, Gilson. “The Terrible Disaster at Johnstown,” in Collier’s Illustrated Weekly Magazine
Vol. 29, No. 17., 1902.

“Work of Rescuers is Almost at an End,” The Pittsburg Chronicle-Telegraph, July 12, 1902.