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Born Through Tragedy: The Cherry Mine Disaster and Workers' Compensation

In the early part of the 20th century, the second industrial revolution in the United States was in full swing. Between 1870 and 1915, the U.S. economy and population experienced one of its greatest periods of growth and change, with industries like railroads, oil, steel and coal enjoying unprecedented expansion and demand. However, this era was also punctuated by numerous industrial tragedies as a result of little to no public and worker safety regulations or oversight. Those injured or killed in these events often had little recourse or justice available to them. However, some tragedies were too devastating to ignore. And it was one such event that ultimately led to sweeping changes in labor and compensation laws – the Cherry Mine disaster.

In 1909, the Cherry Coal Mine in Cherry, Illinois was experiencing high demand. Opened by the St. Paul Mine Company in 1905 to supply coal to the railroads, the mine was producing hundreds of thousands of coal a year. Nearly five hundred workers were employed at the mine, many of them newly-arrived immigrants. Though child labor laws existed, the Cherry Mine still employed a number of boys as young as ten years of age. Despite being a “modern” mine for the time that utilized electricity, conditions for the workers were not easy. Mining was notoriously dangerous, with over 2,000 U.S. miners in this period killed annually through events like mine flooding, collapses, dangerous gases and explosions. As the Cherry Mine workers were not paid hourly, but rather by the amount of coal they produced, speed was usually more important than safety. However, with many of the workers desperate for work, few complained.

On the morning of November 13, approximately 480 workers were working at the mine without the benefit of the electrical system. The system had been broken for nearly a week, so the miners were forced to use kerosene lanterns and torches to light the tunnels. That morning, a coal car full of hay was left beneath one of the burning kerosene torches. Eventually, the hay ignited, and a devastating fire quickly spread. Attempts to put the inferno out not only failed, but further spread the fire to escape routes and caused a fatal build-up in other areas of poisonous gases. Of the workers at the mine that day, 259 perished, including twelve rescuers who were killed on their seventh foray into the mine to retrieve those still trapped.

The outcry following the tragedy was fierce. Outrage grew over the disregard for safety, the absence of regulations, and the lack of assistance available to the survivors and victims’ families. Compensation for the event was a paltry $1,800 per worker, regardless of the seriousness of injuries or losses. At the time, Illinois had no real workers’ compensation laws, and the mine company had declared bankruptcy, further diminishing any likelihood of victims receiving assistance. However, as a result of the tragedy and outcry, the Illinois legislature developed a commission to study the need for compensation for such industrial tragedies. And on May 1, 2012, Illinois’ first workers’ compensation act took effect.

Not only was this era a period of growth, it also became a period of progressive reformation and change in safety standards and worker protection. Today, dedicated oversight by safety, labor and Chicago workers compensation attorney organizations continue to maintain employee rights so that workers are never again left unprotected from and after an on-the-job injury.

About the Author: Brooke Haley marketing associate at Millon & Peskin, Chicago workers compensation attorney that practice in the areas of Civil Litigation, Workers’ Compensation, and Personal Injury. Millon & Peskin is a General Civil Litigation Practice with the goal of representing the interests of injured workers, throughout all applicable Courts within the State of Illinois. For more information, please visit http://www.millonpeskin.com.

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