Friday, May 21, 2021

Robert Roberts and death in the coal mines

Welsh coal miner Robert Roberts, whose eroded tombstone stands in Fry Hill Cemetery near Lucas, is among many Lucas Countyans who died as a result of injuries sustained while engaged in that dangerous occupation during the 60 years or so between 1880 and the early 1940s when mining was a major industry here. He was in his mid-30s but single at the time of his death on June 8, 1888, so no one was left behind to tell his story.

And his death did not occur here --- but in an accident in Bureau County, Illinois, where he and other experienced miners from the mining camp Cleveland had been sent to carry out development of a new enterprise for the Whitebreast Fuel Co.

The Chariton Herald's Cleveland correspondent, "Joe," reported his death this way in that newspaper's edition of June 14, 1888: "A cloud of gloom spread over our town on Friday last on receiving the news of the accident at Arlington, Ill., in which 4 or 5 of the men that went from here two weeks ago were badly hurt. One, Robert Roberts, a single man 34 years of age, died and was brought here and buried in the Cleveland cemetery last Sunday. The K. of P. and I.O. of O.F. attended the funeral in a body. It is said that Phillip Davis, Thos. Morgan and Isaac Morgan are hurt, but few know how much yet."

The Herald's Lucas correspondent, "Kate," reported the death this way: "The largest funeral ever attended in Cleveland was that of Mr. Bob Roberts, who was killed in a mine in Illinois. Three different orders marched to the cemetery to see their brother laid in his final resting place."

I found only one record of Mr. Roberts' life in Lucas County --- he was enumerated in the 1885 Iowa census of Cleveland as a single miner, age 31, born in Wales, who was boarding with the family of another Welsh miner, Eli Nichols and his wife, Margaret, and their five children.

The Whitebreast Fuel Co., which had developed and was operating the Cleveland mines during the late 1870s into the 1890s, had purchased the rights to mine coal underlying some 10,500 acres of Bureau County land during the spring of 1888 and then dispatched experienced miners from Cleveland to sink the first shaft.

According to an online history of the village of Ladd --- a small town that developed from the original Whitebreast mining camp in Bureau County --- "The miners had a great deal of difficulty sinking the shaft. The soft, treacherous ground was full of pockets of sand and water that would rush in and make the shaft unusable, and it was also interspersed with large boulders. After a year and a half and six attempts at sinking a shaft, they finally had three viable shafts."

So we know the setting of the accident that killed Robert, although not the precise circumstances.

Twenty years later, during mid-November 1909, long after Whitebreast had sold its mining interests in Bureau County, the nearby Cherry Mine was the scene of one of the greatest U.S. mining disasters --- 259 men and boys lost their lives

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