WILKES-BARRE — Sometimes a disaster creates bonds that cannot be broken and legacies that live forever.
Such is the case of Frank and Louise McCabe of Kingston, each of whom had grandfathers who were killed along with 90 other coal miners in the Baltimore Mine Tunnel Disaster of 1919 caused by an accidental explosion.
It was the area’s second-worst mining disaster behind the 1869 Avondale Mine Disaster in Plymouth Township, where 110 workers were killed.
On Wednesday, a state Historical and Museum Commission marker was unveiled to commemorate the event — forever marking the location and preserving the history of the victims’ sacrifice and those left behind.
The marker is at Spring and Pine streets near the entrance to Raymour & Flanigan. The Baltimore Mine was located at the rear of the property.
Frank Wiechert, Louise McCabe’s paternal grandfather, and Michael Harris, Frank’s maternal grandfather, were both killed that June 5 about 95 years ago.
Wiechert had nine children, who would go on to have nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Harris had three children, resulting in 24 grandchildren and more than 100 great-grandchildren and 30 great-great-grandchildren.
Safety laws ignored
Laws at the time required miners to be transported into the mines separately from blasting powder, but, as was the case that morning, such laws were often ignored.
So with the 95th anniversary of the tragedy approaching, the McCabes, who have been married 37 years, and 35 others braved the single-digit temperatures to attend the ceremony. Many were there on behalf of their ancestors who were killed or injured in the explosion.
“It sure does mean a lot,” Louise McCabe said. “It’s about time these men were remembered for what happened that day.”
She said Elizabeth Wiechert, the last living child of her grandfather, died Aug. 23, 2013, at the age of 96.
“I wish she could have been here today to see this,” McCabe said. “She would be very proud.”
John Karazia Sr., 52, of Wilkes-Barre, said his grandfather Charles Vasil Karazia survived the disaster.
“It’s important to remember what happened here almost 100 years ago,” he said. “This event was almost forgotten, but thanks to the efforts of a lot of people, we now have the marker. But I never thought I would have seen it in my lifetime.”
The site is now developed, but Sally Healey of Wilkes-Barre remembered playing in the area where the mine tunnel was located.
“We knew something happened there,” she said. “But little did we realize how tragic that event was.”
June 5, 1919
According to historical records and an account of the disaster that was printed in the June 12, 1919, edition of The Weekly Courier in Connelsville, the accident occurred around 6:45 p.m. Thursday, June 5, 1919, killing 92 men in Baltimore Tunnel No. 2 Mine, due to an explosion of black blasting powder. Another 44 were injured and seven escaped uninjured.
The mine workers were riding to work, crowded into what was known as a trip of mine cars drawn by a motor. The rear car carried 12 kegs of black powder used for blasting loose the coal. A trolley wire snapped when the train had gone about 200 feet from the entrance. The wire sputtered and sizzled and the sparks touched off the powder.
“The terrified men on the cars instantly were aware of the danger that confronted them, but they stood powerless to avert it,” the account stated. “There was a roar and in an instant every man and boy on the train was either dead or dying. Terribly mangled bodies were found everywhere by the rescue crews which instantly rushed into the mine. Firefighters working frantically succeeded in an incredibly short time in subduing the flames which followed the blast.”
To read the entire account, go to: http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/Baltimore_tunnel.htm.
McLaughlin called the marker project “a perfect example of what can be achieved through a strong collaborative effort between the government, private organizations and citizens.”
A King’s College service learning project by history department professors and students did the research to substantiate the historical marker was warranted.
McLaughlin said the property owner gave permission to erect the marker on its land — Sunshine Market Inc., 1492 Highway 315, Wilkes-Barre.