The memorial commemorates the victims of two mining disaster, the first in 1914 and the second in 1926. The 1914 tragedy was the second-worst mine disaster in West Virginia coal mining history. On April 28, 1914 the No. 5 mine of the New River Collieries Company exploded in Raleigh County about four miles from present-day Beckley. The explosion carried over to the connecting No. 6 mine. A total of 183 men died in this mining disaster as a result of a faulty ventilation system. A second disaster occurred twelve years later when nineteen miners were killed on March 8, 1926. Both disasters were preventable as they were caused by the ignition of methane gas by mining equipment.
The mine at Eccles was first opened in 1905 and was owned by
the Guggenheim family from New York. At the time, the Eccles Mine was believed
to be a relatively safe mine that was up to the ventilation standards. However,
around 2:10pm on April 28, 1914 the No. 5 mine exploded. The explosion is said
to have been caused by a miner blowing a hole through a coal barrier in order
to shorten his walk between his working areas. This caused a problem to the mine's
ventilation, leading to a buildup of methane in the air which was then ignited
by another miner’s open-flame lamp (1). The subsequent explosion killed all 174
workers in Eccles Mine No. 5 that day. Blackdamp, the deadly gas resulting from
coal mine explosions, traveled from No. 5 to the connecting No. 6 mine. Nine
men in the Eccles No. 6 mine died due to asphyxiation from the afterdamp. One
man from mine No. 6, William Derenge, survived both this explosion in 1914 and
a second explosion at the Layland Mine on March 2, 1915 in which 112 men died.
In both instances he survived by barricading himself from the deadly afterdamp.
It took recovery crews a total of four days to reach the
victims of the disaster. A temporary morgue was established on site to help
with body identification, however the explosion was so violent many bodies were
unable to be identified. Five of the dead miners were only fourteen years old and
many of the miners were immigrants. New workman’s compensation laws provided
assistance to widows of the miners. They received $20 every month until
remarriage or death and $5 a month for every child under fifteen, up to three
children (2). The state also provided coffins and burial boxes for the dead. This
was the deadliest coal mine explosion in the United States in the year 1914.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Mines a total of 2,451 miners died on the job
that year. This was 334 less than the casualties of 1913 (3).
On March 8, 1926, Eccles experienced another explosion which
killed 19 miners. The mine at this point was operated by a subsidiary of the
Stonega Coal Company. Fine coal particles present in the air contributed to
this explosion. Similar to the 1914 disaster, both connecting mines No. 5 and
No. 6 were affected by the explosion. A total of 45 workers survived this second
Eccles Mine continued in operation until 1928, and the coal seam utilized by the mine continued to be extracted for many decades afterwards from other shafts. There are historical markers and memorials dedicated the the Eccles Mine Disasters.