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On March 25, 1947, a mine exploded in Centralia, Illinois killing 111 miners.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor reports:

"The explosion was caused when an underburdened shot or blown-out shot ignited coal dust. The mine was exceedingly dry and dusty. Heavy deposits of coal dust were present along the roadways and on the roof, ribs, and timbers in working places and entries. At the time of the explosion most of the men were at the man trips on the entries waiting for the shot firers to complete lighting the shots so they could ride to the shaft bottoms on the man trips. At the time of the explosion 142 men were in the mine. Of those, 65 were killed by burns and violence and 45 by afterdamp. Eight men were rescued but one died from the effects of afterdamp. Twenty-four escaped unaided."

Although the explosion was a tremendous tragedy, loss of life in underground coal mines was a common occurrence. United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President John L. Lewis stated, "There were more casualties in coal mining than in the armed forces in 1942." The United Mine Workers of America had emphasized mine safety since the 1930's.

jllewis01 Following the disaster UMWA President John L. Lewis invoked the union's right to call memorial days. As a memorial to those killed at Centralia, the miners did not work for six day, beginning March 29, 1947.

Maier B. Fox writes, "The disaster was of such magnitude that both the House and Senate held committee hearings on mine safety. Lewis used those forums to castigate both the operators and the government. He told the representatives that historically the operators philosophy was, 'We kill them, you (the union) provide for their widows and orphans.'"

In his testimony Lewis also stated:

If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die.

For years, Lewis and the UMWA had vocally advocated for improved mine safety as well as a welfare and retirement fund. The Centralia Mine Disaster provided the catalyst to force the government to act and the mining industry to acquiesce. The UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund continues to this day.

A comprehensive history of the United Mine Workers of America is available at many public libraries.
United We Stand: The United Mine Workers of America 1890-1990 by Maier B. Fox and published by the UMWA.

"And I long to see the day when Labor will have the destiny of the nation in her own hands and she will stand as a united force and show the world what the workers can do." --- Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1830-1930

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