October 10, 2009 - by Michael G. Matejka, Vice-President, Illinois Labor History Society
When a worker is injured, they turn to workers' compensation for relief. It's not a perfect system, but it does provide financial support to pay doctor bills and compensate for time off work.
Imagine a world without workers' compensation. If someone was injured, they had to rely on family, friends, or corporate benevolence. In 1911, Illinois passed its first workers' compensation law. The passage of that law can be directly tied to a disaster in the tiny village of Cherry, Illinois.
In 1909 Cherry was a booming mining town. Almost 500 men and boys labored underground, mining coal to feed the locomotives of the Milwaukee Railroad. The mine was relatively new, having opened in 1905, featuring an underground electric lighting system.
On November 13, 1909, that electrical system failed. Miners went back to the old-fashioned method of torches and lanterns. Unfortunately, a small fire broke out in a hay wagon bringing feed to the mules underground. Because there was no quick action to extinguish it, the fire spread, as one misjudgment after another fueled the flames. Before the day was over, 259 miners laid dead, either from asphyxiation or immolation. Brave rescue attempts were made and a rescue crew also sadly perished. Twenty men retreated deep in the mine and sealed themselves off, surviving for a week underground before rescue.
The shock and outcry over Cherry led to political action and calls for mine safety legislation. As public donations came into the community, a review board was established, modeled after the recently passed British Workers' Compensation law, to hear claims from the bereaved families and survivors. The United Mine Workers helped serve on that committee. Approximately $1,800 was given to each surviving family in the summer of 1910. The next year, Illinois passed its first Workers Compensation Act. Thus workers would no longer have to simply rely on charity after an industrial accident.
This November 14-15, the Village of Cherry will commemorate the disaster and the miners. A full weekend of ceremonies is planned, free and open to the public.
On both days, there will be walking and trolley tours of the town, mine site and cemetery. Videos on labor topics are scheduled, along with displays and genealogical workshops. On Saturday, November 14, a new monument will be dedicated at Cherry's Village Hall. Chicago Fire Fighters' Local 2's color guard will lead the procession to the dedication. In 1909, Chicago fire fighters came to Cherry to help extinguish the blaze. Preceding the dedication, labor musician Bucky Halker will sing coal mining and labor songs.
Confirmed speakers for the dedication include Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, United Mine Workers Vice-President Steve Earl, Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, State Senator Gary Dahl and State Representative Frank Mautino. Confirmation is still pending on other speakers.
On Sunday, November 15, the tours and displays will continue. At 11:45 a.m., people will gather at the Cherry Grade School. For many years it was traditional for Cherry children to march to the cemetery on the disaster's anniversary. After a march to the cemetery, there will be speeches from Italian representatives. Many of the immigrant miners who died were recent arrivals to the U.S. from Italy. Speakers include Italian Consul General Alessandro Motta, Charles Bernardini, immediate past-president of the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest – Chicago; and Silvia Bartolini, President of Emilia-Romagna Citizens Abroad.
Cherry is on Route 89, about five miles north of I-80, in Bureau County. The small village has kept alive the story of the workers who never came home. The events in Cherry are free and open to the public.