Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster

Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Coal miners in the early 20th century risked their lives just to go to work every day. In the first decade of the 20th century, around a half-dozen miners died on the job every month in the coal mines of northern Illinois. Nationwide, more than 2000 coal miners died on the job every year between 1905 and 1930. But the workers at Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois, which included some underage workers as young as 10, never expected a disaster on the scale of the 1909 fire that killed 259 miners.

Cherry Mine, which was operated by The St. Paul Coal Company, opened in 1905 and was producing 300,000 tons of coal annually just four years later. The mine consisted of three veins of coal, two of which were being mined in 1909; each day, approximately 300 men went to work on the second vein and another 200 on the third and deepest vein.

The mine was state-of-the-art for the time. It had two vertical shafts: One, the escapement shaft, had steps and a fan to blow fresh air into the mine; the other, the main shaft, had two cages that lowered men and supplies down and carried coal out—but only to the second level. To reach the third level, miners had to walk to the escapement shaft and take a different cage to the third level. Though the mine was equipped with electric lights for safety, by November 1909, the electrical system had not been working for some weeks, and old-fashioned kerosene torches were attached to the mine walls for light.

Just after lunch on Saturday, November 13, a wagon carrying six bales of hay for the underground mules was lowered into the mine.At some point during the transportation from the main shaft to the escapement shaft, it’s believed that the hay was left too close to one of the kerosene torches and was ignited—but the fire was small, and the miners thought they could control it. Some passing by to catch the 1:30 cage out thought so little of the danger that they didn’t even mention the fire when they reached the surface.

Miners tried to dampen the fire with water from the mule stable, but they couldn’t see because of the smoke, and when they attempted to lower the wagon to the third level, where there was a water hose used to wash off the mules, it got stuck in the cage. They eventually dumped the wagon with the burning hay down the air shaft. It was easily extinguished on the third level—but during the hour or so of firefighting on the second level, the wind from the air shaft had fanned the flames until the wooden supports on the second level were ignited.  

When miners on the third level noticed the air quality falling, they called for the cage and got no response. They climbed the ladder to the second level and found the cage station abandoned and the passageway on fire. The fan at the surface then had been reversed, and was now drawing air out of the mine in an attempt to suffocate the flame. A few men were able to climb the escapement shaft ladder to the second level, but the ladder was on fire above them, due to the fan that was now sucking air upward.

The miners on the third level rushed to the main shaft. The main shaft only lowered a cage to the second level, but there was a fairly new emergency cage installed between the second and third levels. It had yet to be put into operation, and no one knows for sure if it had ever been attached to the hoisting equipment. 

The cage brought dozens of miners up to the surface from the second level, but many more were succumbing to smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen in the mine. A dozen Cherry residents, some with relatives below ground, volunteered to go down and help the miners out. They alternated on trips down in order to bring as many men up as possible in each lift, making seven trips down. On the last mission, the cage operator received nonsensical signals from below. He hesitated, not sure what to do. When the cage was finally lifted up, all 12 men aboard were dead. There were no more rescue trips.

That evening, the two shafts were closed. There were 280 men still below ground, but no one knew if any of them were alive. Once a day, the openings were checked, but the fire raged on. By Wednesday, one person was able to enter the mine wearing heavy equipment, and on Thursday, firefighters entered to try to extinguish the remaining flames. Then emergency workers spent several days bringing up the dead.

Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

But for Walter Waite, Thomas White, and a handful of other miners who were excavating a remote region of the second level that day, work continued as usual until George Eddy, the mine examiner, arrived to warn them of what was going on and try to coordinate an escape. They rang the bell for the cage, but there was no response, so they gathered a group of 21 men and headed back to their remote work spot, where the air was better. (When the disaster was investigated, the possibility was raised that the signals from those miners were what confused the cage operator, leading to the death of the 12 men in the cage. The time of the events coincided exactly.)

On Sunday, a day after the blaze began, the men built a wall between themselves and the fire—but the air was getting worse. They knew that if the fire didn’t reach them, they could still die from “black damp,” a combination of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, the unbreathable mixture left over when the air’s oxygen is depleted. Eddy and Waite, the leaders of the group, ventured out to check the fire and were forced back. On the third such trip, they encountered black damp, which told them that the mine had been sealed. The kerosene lights gave out, and there were only the small carbide lanterns left. The men sealed up the last of the wall, leaving them in an enclosed passageway between 300 and 500 feet long. They wrote letters to their families as they waited.

I write these few lines to you and I think it will be for the last time. I have tried to get out twice, but was driven back. There seems to be no hope for us. I came down this shaft yesterday to help to save the men's lives. I hope the men I got out were saved. Well. Lizzie, if I am found dead take me to bury me in Streator and move back. Keep Esther and Jenny and Clarence together as much as you can. I hope they will not forget their father, so I will bid you all good-by, and. God bless you all.

They found a spot where water trickled into the chamber, and made a small reservoir to collect it. By Tuesday, the carbide lamps refused to burn in the deteriorating atmosphere. By Thursday, the water was almost depleted, and Eddy assigned a guard to make sure no one took more than their share. The water then replenished itself. Some of the men started talking to themselves in gibberish. They all grew weaker.

On Saturday, November 20, a week after the fire began, the miners partially breached the wall and discovered that the air beyond it was a little fresher, indicating that the shafts were open. The strongest of the men left the chamber in two groups of four at a time. A few hours later, a signal of two whistles was heard, meaning the men had found good air further out in the mine. At about the same time, the wandering miners ran into recovery workers. All 21 men were removed from the mine alive—several had to be carried out—but the oldest, Daniel Holafick, was unconscious by the day of the rescue, and died a couple of days later.

The news of the survivors spurred more rescue attempts, even as firefighters continued to battle the burning areas of the mine. No more were found. Eleven days after the fire began, it was determined that the coal seam itself was burning, and the mine was sealed once again. It wasn’t reopened until February 1910, when the temperature underground had finally stabilized.

Around 160 women were widowed by the disaster, and around 400 children were left without financial support. An investigation determined that the Cherry Mine had employed at least nine boys below the age of 16, a violation of the law, and four of them died in the disaster. The St. Paul Mining Company was fined $630 for violating child labor laws, and was compelled to pay the families of the dead $1800 each. The public was appalled at the low amount, and raised another $1800 for each family through private donations. In the wake of the tragedy, new federal safety standards for mines were established, and the United Mine Workers gained hundreds of new members. A campaign was started that eventually led to the Illinois Workmen's Compensation Act.

The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.


A roasted turkey on a platter.

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!


Pan of breaded stuffing.

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.


Dish of cranberry sauce.

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.


Bowl of mashed potatoes.

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.


Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.

Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!


Plate of corn.

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.


Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.


Plate of green bean casserole.

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at, contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.


Slice of pumpkin pie.

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.


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