History is rich and powerful. There is something so empowering about knowing what happened almost a century ago. These people in this small community lost so much. There is more yet to tell. I hope you will contact me if you know anyone that was injured or fatally injured during this explosion.
November 22, 1922
Pleasant Grove is a small community on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama. The people that settled there in the late 1800’s were farmers by trade. In 1916, Woodward Iron and Coal Company opened a mine in the community and became the employer of most of the men in the area.
It was Wednesday, a chilly damp November morning when the miners left their homes and headed off to the Woodward #3 mine. November 22, 1922. True it started as all mornings began in this small farming and mining community between Bessemer and Birmingham Alabama. Children watched their fathers and older brothers leaving for work at the Woodward # 3 mine just as they did every other morning. Children would run alongside their fathers as they drove the truck to work with their lunch buckets and containers of milk in hand. Children would make a game of racing the family truck down the dirt drive to the main street. This morning was no different. The younger children went to school, the men went to work.
These men, old and young passed the Methodist church and the town cemetery on their route to the mine. Arriving to start their shift that morning, no one knew that so many would never make it out at the end of the day.
Everything was normal and work was progressing until the middle of that Wednesday afternoon when there was a freak accident. Three mine cars loaded with coal from deep inside the mines were being hauled to the mine entrance. As they reached the top of the incline there was a break in the cable and all three cars roll back into the entrance of the mine. As they rolled back, they severed an electric cable, which caused a spark. When the spark ignited the coal dust, there was an explosion in the mine opening.
The explosion which was both heard and felt in Birmingham, which is nine miles away. Over 400 miners were inside the mine at the time. The wreckage of the coal cars, the fires, and the poisonous gasses that remained in the mine entrance trapped them inside. The fifty men that were working in and around the mine entrance were immediately killed as the flame shot 1000 feet up and out of the mine and flared 400 more feet across the yard to the Tipple. At this point, no one knew the fate of the others trapped inside.
The family members heard the explosion from all over the community in western Jefferson County. The noise caused all the women and children to come out of their homes and start heading to the mine. They came on foot, in cars, and trucks. They carried the small children as the older children helped with their brothers and sisters. No one knew what to expect. There was smoke over the mine and they knew that they were going into a situation they had all dreaded and feared. No one at this time knew how bad it was. The entire community raced to the number three mine.
Dolomite coal mine
Inside the Mine
The scramble that took place inside the mine made news once survivors came out of the tunnels. The stories told that were then reported in the newspaper about the acts of individuals. One such story told of the Foreman that asked thirty men to remain and help secure the area with canvas and stone to block the “after-damp gas”. One man refused to stay and his body was later found, once the fans had been turned on and the air cleared, just a few feet from the brattice they had built.
Many men were able to escape using the underground tunnels arriving at the other entrance in the neighboring town of Dolomite several miles away. The tunnels had allowed them to escape the gasses which were released by the explosion at the front of the mine.
Men told of stepping into slight niches and blocking themselves in with their own clothing to escape the gas. The rescue of the men trapped inside continued all night with family standing as close to the mine as allowed. Mothers, wives, and children watching as one by one a man would struggle to the top and exit the mine. They would gather the miner close and hurry home relieved that their little family had been spared the fate of the families of those 89 that never made it out.
The Associated Press reported the next day that the vigil went on all night with men struggling to exit the mouth of the mine. Some men appeared leading the wounded out with them. Some of the men that eventually were found dead had gone back to help others. The AP also reported what they called a Joyous Reunion,
“Joyous reunions occasionally relieved the sorrowful scenes. One small girl gave a cry of delight as a grimy miner emerged, his face smoke-blackened and his clothing bearing mute signs of his struggle to reach the surface in safety.
The girl threw herself into his arms and they hurried off. Another aged woman collapsed as she greeted two sons after hours of waiting. The boys, meeting rescuers in the mine on their way out and learning the workings were safe from poisonous gases, had turned back to help in the rescue, keeping their mother in suspense until they reached the surface exhausted.”
This was a community in every sense of the word and everyone felt the effects of that day. These men were family, friends, and co-workers and they were heroes going through a nightmare of unfathomable proportions.
Many of the ones that died are buried in the small Pleasant Grove cemetery. The cemetery that is right outside the entrance to the #3 mine. The cemetery is located directly across the street from the Pleasant Grove Methodist Church. Tombstones that state that men like B.T. Dobbs a thirty-three-year-old man were killed in the Woodward Iron Company’s #3-coalmine explosion November 22, 1922.
Twenty-one-year-old Hershell Warnick and Tom C. Warnick, his thirty-eight-year-old brother both were lost that day.
Young men like Hugh Connell who was just twenty-four and men like fifty-eight-year-old D. A. Busby (Andy) all left families grieving their loss.
There are two Bolton’s, John and Will as well as Marvin and Tim Brown. I have not been able to discover if they were brother, father, and son, or any other relation or even their ages. The news did not carry the same information about the black victims of the explosion as they did for the white. They rarely mentioned their name and gave no tributes or details. I was able to find a list of black victims on the Alabama Mine Accident report online. Doc Byars and Arthur Carlisle are both explosion victims of that day.
The men that were wounded or killed that day touched most of the families in the area known as Pleasant Grove.
Their tombstones stand as a silent tribute to the 89 men, marking the most tragic day in the history of one small farming community in Alabama.
In researching this article, I found that the news of today is much different from the news coverage of the 1920s. The newspaper’s from all over the United States shared the tragedy and yet they gave sparse information about the majority of the dead as they were black. The heroics of those black survivors and victims have not had their story told. I have already mentioned a few of the dead that did not get their stores told. More names are, John Cheecom, Layman Claudin, Will Coleman, Arthur Davis, F. Davis, Cornelious Dixon, and the list goes on.
I would love to find the family of any of the victims that were black to share the stories have made it down their family line. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to share your ancestor’s story. You can also leave me a comment and I will respond and share the family oral history.
It is a wonderful time we live in today where everyone is just as important as the other especially when tragedy strikes. I am also on this 95th anniversary paying homage to the almost 60 black miners that did not make it out alive on November 22, 1922.
© 2010 Sojourner McConnell