Kentucky’s worst-ever mine disaster to be remembered Friday in Clay

CLAY, Kentucky — The 100th anniversary of the worst coal-mining accident in Kentucky’s history will be solemnly commemorated at a ceremony this Friday evening in Webster County.

At approximately 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1917, 153 men and teenage boys were proceeding to their work places underground at the West Kentucky Coal Co.’s No. 7 mine near Clay when a disastrous explosion occurred.

While a few dozen succeeded in escaping the mine in the immediate aftermath, more than 100 miners were trapped, most of them dead, dying or injured. A frantic effort was made to extinguish the resulting fire and to exhaust the mine of the lethal gases that lingered. Repairs had to be made to equipment in the shaft before a rescue effort could begin.

Help came from around the region. The U.S. Bureau of Mines dispatched its mine rescue railroad car from Evansville, and miners with breathing apparatus arrived from Sturgis.

But the outcome was grim: 62 miners died, mostly while still underground. Mine foreman Charles Wallace and his brother L.T. Wallace survived the explosion but lost their lives while attempting a rescue without breathing apparatus.

Fifty-one of those killed were African Americans. A labor strike was taking place at the time, and inexperienced replacement workers had been recruited from around the South. Some of them were buried in unmarked graves in nearby Rock Springs Cemetery. So many people died that the area ran out of available coffins and rough wooden boxes had to be built to serve in their place.

There were survivors. Under the direction of an experienced miners, 43 men managed to seal themselves off in an unaffected portion of the mine and were rescued in 3½ hours.

But the trauma was unavoidable. Wives with babies in their arms and children clinging to the dresses arrived at the mine and refused to leave, even to eat, until they learned the fate of their husbands. Grief hung over the county.

Webster County remains a mining community, and many families have had members who have worked underground, so the pain of a mine disaster is real. The Webster County Historical and Genealogical Society dedicated the entire spring edition of its newsletter, “The Wagon Wheel,” to the 1917 catastrophe, and the community has organized Friday’s commemorative ceremony.

“This will be a remembrance of those who passed away as well as the heroes that were involved” in trying to rescue survivors, said Webster County Judge/Executive Steve Henry, who spent 22 years as a miner and served on the Warrior Mine rescue team for five years before taking office in 2016.

Friday’s observance will take place on Main Street in Clay. It will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a performance by children with the Shooting Stars Arts Workshop, followed by the commemorative service at 6 p.m. Mike Nemes, Kentucky’s deputy secretary of labor, will be among those speaking. Judge Henry will provide an account of the disaster. Mitchell Knight’s poem, “Clay’s Darkest Day, will be recited, and the names of the miners who died will be read aloud.
The event will conclude with a performance by The Joy Boys. Food booths and a display of mining memorabilia will be available. The event is sponsored by Webster County Tourism and Rebuild Downtown Clay.
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