Knox Mine Disaster Memorial, Port Griffith
This monument commemorates the victims of the Knox Mine disaster which resulted in the deaths of twelve miners on January 22nd, 1959. The incident occurred when miners of the River Slope Mine, owned by the Knox Mine Company, were ordered to dig tunnels under a river. These tunnels were too close to the bottom of the river, causing the tunnels to fail and millions of gallons of water filling the mines. The tragedy cost the lives of twelve miners and led to trials that revealed unsafe practices and corruption throughout the industry. The breach resulted in a whirlpool emptying millions of gallons into the massive mine and a recovery effort that cost millions of dollars. This disaster played a pivotal role in ending anthracite mining in northern Pennsylvania. It also exposed negligent and even criminal practices on the part of mine operators and the UMWA in the region.
Backstory and Context
On January 22nd, 1959, a normal workday quickly became a disaster, and at 11:20 am, two miners in the Pittson shaft heard an audible crack/pop. A full evacuation of the mine was ordered, though the severity of the situation was downplayed by acting superintendent Robert Groves.
The roof of the Pittson vein collapsed, instantly killing three workers and trapping forty-five miners. Trapped by an estimated flow of 2.7 million gallons of water a minute, the miners could only search for a way out while their families and community gathered on the banks.
The trapped miners were separated but eventually formed into two groups. The two groups trekked through tunnels for hours before escaping through the abandoned Eagle air shaft. Twelve miners were never found, their bodies washed away or destroyed by the tremendous water pressure. (Wolensky, 112-130)
Many people gathered at the banks to wait for word on their family members, while at the same time disaster response officials from the company and state worked to respond to the massive amounts of water pouring into the miles of mines in the area.
The intent was, at least in part, to end the flow and save viable veins in the declining but still profitable mines in the valley around the river (Wolensky, 176). The flow was so intense that a massive whirlpool formed in the river, and it wasn’t stopped until 3 days later.
To seal the mine, tons of railroad cars, mine carts, and coal waste were dumped into the opening (Berger, 5). The state of Pennsylvania pumped millions of gallons of water from the mines and passed a 1.5 million dollar bill to the Knox Mine Company, which later declared bankruptcy (Berger, 8).
Investigators found that Knox management had ordered miners to dig under the Susquehanna River, in violation of Pennsylvania law and mine safety standards, which recommended at least 35 feet between a river and a mine tunnel.
The tunnel that collapsed in the River Slope mine had less than 6 feet between the shaft and the river (Berger, 8). In investigations after the accident, it was found that mine owners were digging under the river illegally in an attempt to remain profitable and their efforts were enabled by corrupt United Mine Workers Association officials and lax state officials (Dublin, 111).
It was this corruption that led to later criminal trials for several figures involved with the affair, and the corruption, lax safety standards, and higher risk of mining is said to have killed the anthracite coal mining in the region.
A subsequent federal and state investigation revealed almost endemic levels of corruption. The parent mine company was found to not only be ignoring violations of safety standards but to be actively encouraging it. Union officials such as UMWA district president August Lippi were also found to be taking bribes in exchange for not objecting to low safety standards.
State officials were shown to be lax in inspection and ignored subsequent operations after the River Slope mine was closed down 9 days before the incident. While ultimately 9 officials were indicted most were overturned on appeal and August Lippi successfully ran for another position within the UMWA (Dublin, 110-113). The criminal trials and the reveal of rampant corruption helped seal the fate of further attempts to operate mines within the region.
Dublin, Thomas and Walter Licht. The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Wolensky, Robert C., Kenneth C, Wolensky, and Nicole H. Wolensky. “Voices of the Knox Mine Disaster.” Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, 1999.