Honoring Central Illinois Mine Casualties

Coal mining was extremely hazardous work during the early years of the 20th century, when labor was cheap and plentiful and workplace protections few. After ”shot-firers” blasted the coal seams apart (or took down the walls of coal), other men loaded “trips” of cars full of coal. “Clod men” cleaned the rooms and passageways of fallen slate. Timbermen timbered ceilings to create supposedly stable passageways and work “rooms,” but as you’ll see from the casualties below, rock or slate (roof) falls were extremely common causes of death and injury.

In the early days, mules were used to haul the trip cars to the surface. Men got to go home after their 10+ hour shifts. Mules spent six months at a time in cramped and dark underground stables, subjected to frequent overwork and cruelty and often perishing in fires. In many ways, men and mules were alike in the eyes of the mine owners and bosses, except, as one mine boss was famously quoted as saying, “I have to pay to replace a mule.” (From Carl Oblinger’s book, “Divided Kingdom: Work, Community, and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression.”)

In fact, human casualties were so common that some historical records only log accidents in which two or more miners died. Public blame usually fell on victims, despite routinely dangerous working conditions that would never pass muster today (mainly improperly timbered or buttressed walls and ceilings, explosive coal dust and a lethal cocktail of gases called “afterdamp.” ) There were no death or injury benefits from the company (only from the newly founded union) for surviving families or the disabled.

The local Lithuanian-American casualties listed alphabetically below, almost all of them immigrants, form part of a much larger number of Lithuanian miners who were crippled or maimed in mine accidents or lost years of health and life due to the complications of black lung. (I personally remember the 1990s Springfield funeral of Lithuanian-born miner Tadas Rizutis, a friend of my father’s, who was crippled in a coal mine in the 1960s.)

Most of the deaths recorded below are from Sangamon County, although a few are from Christian and Macoupin counties, and several from the catastrophic Centralia Mine Disaster. We have this listing thanks to the meticulous research of newspaper articles and genealogy websites by retired Springfield police officer Tom Mann. Among the sources he combed were archives of the Illinois State Journal-Register and the Sangamon County Coal Mine Fatalities web pages from “Wayne’s World of History and Genealogy.” When in doubt, the ethnicity of the deceased miner was verified by newspaper or U.S. Census records. (Unfortunately, birth towns and cities were almost never recorded by either of these sources.) Please see http://hinton-gen.com/coal/sangamonfatal.html

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John Adamitis, age 32, 16th & Sangamon Ave., married with four children. Reportedly stuck his pick into a keg of powder to open it to prepare a “shot” to blast coal from the wall of his “room.” The powder was ignited and exploded. He died about a week later from his burns. Illinois Midland Coal Co., Springfield, Sept. 28, 1907.

John Adamates (Jonas Adomaitis), 31, of Springfield or Sherman (buried in Gillespie). A trip rider, he was killed when he fell in front of a trip of cars and was run over. Peabody Coal Co. No. 6, Sherman, Nov. 19, 1920.

Anthony J. Augustine (Antanas Augustitis), age 66, 2332 Peoria Rd., survived by wife Marcella, daughter Mrs. Bernice Povse, brother Frank and sister, Antoinette Rafalowece. Died two days after being crushed by a slate (roof) fall—and two days before his 67th birthday. Peabody Coal Co. No. 59, Springfield, Aug. 15, 1945.

Joe Bendick, age 24, single, of Divernon. A laborer employed to clean away slate taken down by the day shift, he was killed at 1 in the morning by falling slate about three feet thick, 10 feet long and three feet wide. Madison Coal Corp.’s No. 6 mine, Divernon, March 5, 1914.

Joseph Benneky (Juozas Benikas), 36, of 1023 N. 15th St., member of the St. Vincent’s Society and UMWA No. 317, leaving a wife. Buried under 16 tons of slate that fell on him when he was walking along the main entryway to his “room.” Peabody Coal Co. No. 8, Tovey, Sept. 3, 1907.

Anton Brazinsky (Antanas Brazinskas?), age unknown, presumed of Springfield. Died of pulmonary embolism in St. John’s Hospital after surgery to treat injuries sustained in a roof cave-in five days earlier. Sangamon Coal Company No. 2, March 5, 1926.

John Budwites (Jonas Budwitis), age 35, 1127 Percy Ave., survived by his wife and three sons. Died from the explosion of a “windy shot” while working as a substitute shot-firer 2.5 miles from the mine pit. Springfield Cooperative Coal Co. mine, Jan. 10, 1923.

Frank Embrolitus (Aubrutis), age 50, single, of Gillespie, World War I veteran, member of the Progressive Miners of America. Survived by his aged mother Eva, brothers Peter and Tony, sisters Marcella of Lithuania, Mrs. Tony Krakakusky, and Mrs. John Moleski, with whom Frank lived. Buried under a rock fall at the entrance of the mine. Liberty Mine, Macoupin County, Nov. 25, 1941.

Peter Gerchey, age 55, single, of Auburn. Killed instantly by a crushing rock (roof) fall. Springfield District Coal Mining Co.’s No. 54 mine, Auburn, Sept. 15, 1919.

John Gudesky or Guduskus (Jonas Gudauskas), 32, single, of Kincaid. Crushed by a slate fall, Peabody Coal Co. No. 7 mine, Kincaid, June 12, 1919.

Kazimier (Kazimieras) Gedudis, 40, 1418 S. Pasfield St., leaving a wife and three children. A naturalized citizen, and “a man of perfect physical mold, sinewy, big-boned and of a strength almost phenomenal…worked with an industry that was most admirable.” While he was working alone in his room, a slate (roof) fall crashed down. “The first fall battered in the back of his head, and the following avalanche of rock struck him on the left breast as he lay prostrated. It broke the ribs of the left side and crushed through to his heart.” – “Death in the Shaft: Giant in Build Meets Tragic End Alone,” Illinois State Register. Springfield Coal Mining Co.’s Black Diamond Mine, Aug. 16 1904.

Andrew Janesky, 17, of Auburn, single. Killed by a rock fall, Chicago-Virden Coal Co. No. 2 mine, Auburn, Jan. 21, 1902.

Stanley (Yasukinas) Jasukenas, age 49, single, Auburn. Crushed in a rock fall, Peabody Coal Co.’s No. 8 mine, Tovey, Aug. 18, 1944.

Joseph Kasulis (Juozas Kisielius?), 35, 1629 E. Washington St., with a wife three children, member of St. Joseph’s Lithuanian Society and the UMWA. A shot-firer, he was killed in the explosion of a black powder keg near him in his room. Alternate explanations are that he pinched off an end of fuse, tossed it away, and it fell through a hole in the top of the keg—or that he bent over to examine a faulty fuse, and a spark from his oil headlamp fell into an open powder keg. Sangamon Coal Co. No. 2, Riverton, Dec. 10, 1907.

Tony Malkowski, age unknown, of Auburn, leaving a wife. Killed by a cave-in estimated at 50 tons of slate when a trip of empty coal cars jumped the tracks, and was driven forward by the motor as the cars knocked out supporting roof timbers. The State Journal-Register article described the two Lithuanian victims as “shapeless masses,” except for their faces. Solomon Mine, Feb. 26, 1916.

Alexander Malisky, age unknown, 1716 E. Adams St., miner’s asthma by ruling of a coroner’s jury. March 5, 1915.

Frank Markunas, 54, of Springfield, with a wife and three adult children. Killed by a rock fall, Peerless Coal Co. mine, Oct. 13, 1920.

Frank Meszeika (Meszeikis), age unknown, 1815 N. 9th St., leaving a wife, Magdelena, two adult daughters, two adult stepsons, and seven grandchildren. A resident of Springfield for 45 years and member of Progressive Mine Workers of America Local 63. Crushed by a roof fall, Panther Creek No. 5, Dec. 23, 1947.

William Mickalites (Mykolaitis), 57, of Benld, survived by a wife, a son, a daughter, step-son and step-daughter. Born in Jurbarkus, Lithuania. Died in an accident at the Superior Coal Co. No. 1 at Eagerville in Macoupin County Nov. 12, 1943.

William Muckakitas, age unknown, Auburn, unmarried mine carpenter. Crushed by a ceiling cave-in estimated at 50 tons when a trip of empty coal cars jumped the tracks, and was driven forward by the motor as the cars knocked out supporting roof timbers. The State Journal-Register article described the two Lithuanian victims as “shapeless masses,” except for their faces. Solomon Mine, Feb. 26, 1916.

John Pauliski, about 60, of Moweaqua, widower with many grown children. Died in a roof fall in the Moweaqua coal mine July 8, 1900.

Stanley Payauys (Pajaujys), 57, of 1904 Peoria Road, UMWA and Lithuanian Alliance of America member, married with a grown son, two daughters and one grand-daughter. Died in a roof fall while loading cars in a room three miles northeast of the shaft entrance. Peerless Mine No. 59, three miles East of Springfield on Sangamon Ave., April 19, 1939.

Charles Pittcavich (also Pattecabbage), 55, of Auburn, married with five children. Killed in a roof fall in Springfield District Coal Co. No. 4 two miles south of Auburn, Dec. 8, 1916.

Anton Skrobul (Antanas Skrabulis), 53, of Beckemeyer, survived by a wife and eight children. Killed with 110 other miners in the infamous Centralia Mine Disaster, when a blown-out “shot” ignited a profusion of dry coal dust in Centralia Coal Co. No. 5, March 25, 1947. At the time of the explosion most of the 142 men in the mine were at the entryways of their “man trips,” waiting for the shot firers to complete their work knocking down the coal. Sixty-five miners were killed by the blast and burns, and 45 by afterdamp (lethal gases). There were Congressional investigations, and Woody Guthrie later memorialized the notes miners left for their families in a song called, “Dying Miner.”

From the list of the dead, I surmise that victims Frank Paulauskis, Anthony and Stanley Tickus, and Joe Zinkus were also Lithuanian-American.
For more information, please see http://www.chs68.com/minedisaster/ and http://kbbgenblog.blogspot.com/search/label/Centralia%20Coal%20Mine%20Disaster

William Strunk, age unknown, of Springfield, widower with a step-daughter, UMWA member. Died in a roof fall, Springfield Coal Co. mine, Taylorville, Oct. 30, 1914.

Tony Tutorites (Totoraitis?), 48, Wilsonville, Macoupin County. Killed in a slate (roof) fall, Superior Coal Co. No. 4, Litchfield, Sept. 12, 1930.

Paul Widowski, 34, of Divernon, unmarried, survived by two sisters, a veteran of World War I and a member of the American Legion and UMWA. Killed while investigating why a “shot” hadn’t fired, when it suddenly exploded. Madison Coal Corp. No. 6, Divernon, Oct. 22, 1923. (As a veteran’s benefit, the U.S. government furnished a simple headstone free of charge.)

John Wisnoski, 46, of 1430 E. Carpenter St., survived by a wife, a son, two daughters, one brother, four sisters, and parents Mr. and Mrs. Peter Wisnoski. His brother Clements, with whom he was working in the same “room,” suffered a fractured leg, and John died on route to the hospital after being crushed in a roof fall in Sangamon Coal Co.’s No. 2 mine at 2300 E. Phillips St., Nov. 26, 1928.

Joe Yanushitis (Janusitis), 22, of Taylorville, survived by a wife and one child. Had fired a shot on the left side of his room and was buried by a sudden avalanche of coal while loading his car. Christian County Mine No. 58, Dec. 15, 1904.

Ike Yaris (Jaris?) 54, of 1928 N. 14th St., immigrated in 1902, survived by a wife and three sons. Died of an apparent heart attack while drilling and loading coal into a car in Sangamon Coal Co. No. 2, Springfield, Nov. 23, 1935. As he fell, his carbide headlamp ignited his clothing and the smoke attracted help.

Stanley Yasukinas (Jasukinas), 55, Auburn, survived by a nephew. Member of the Lithuanian Alliance of America # 27. Killed in an undescribed mine accident in Tovey, August 19, 1944.

Michael Zilkus, 35, of Pawnee, survived by a wife and two small children. Killed by a coal cutting machine, Peabody No. 7, Kincaid, March 9, 1914.

Peter Zubles, 42, single, boarded with Joe McKinnis of Bulpitt. Fell between the cars of a “trip” and was run over, Peabody No. 8, Tovey, July 8, 1925.

John Zwingles (Zvingilas?), 43, 218 W. Scarritt St., survived by a wife. Crushed after the loaded coal car he was pushing along a shaft alley was hit by another car that had become detached from another “trip” and careened down a slope. Panther Creek Coal Co. No. 1, Auburn, March 16, 1920.

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