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118 killed in 1891 Frick massacre and mine explosion to get markers

Sunday, September 24, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They were slurred in life and forgotten in death.

Now the mass grave dedicated to 118 immigrant laborers killed in 1891 in Westmoreland County will be marked.

Two Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission markers will be placed on the site Friday. A pair of personalized headstones also will be added to the grave, which has never been graced with anything so elaborate.

The recognition is for men and boys who were part of Pennsylvania's struggle for safe and fair working conditions, though most of them never knew they were part of any labor cause.

Of those killed, 109 were coal miners from Eastern Europe. They died Jan. 27, 1891, in the explosion of Mammoth Mine No. 1, near Mount Pleasant. After their deaths, mine safety reforms became a political cause.

The other nine laborers were striking coke oven workers who were shot to death April 2, 1891. Their early morning clash with deputized agents of Frick Coke Co. began with words and escalated to bullets as the deputies fired at their adversaries.

In labor lore, the strikers' deaths became known as the Morewood Massacre, for the men had been employed at Morewood Mines of the Frick coke works.

Most of the bodies from both events ended up in a common trench in St. John's Cemetery in Mount Pleasant. The Pennsylvania Labor History Society believes 79 of the miners and seven of the strikers were buried there.

Many miners were mangled so badly in the explosion that there was little left to bury.

Like the coke workers, they were employed by Henry Clay Frick, the industrialist who was born only minutes away from the spots where the 1891 deaths occurred.

Frick, a millionaire before he was 30, was a legend while he lived. A certain animosity hung over his laborers. Mostly Poles and Slavs, they struggled with English and with the customs of a strange, new world.

They were welcome to pick up a coal shovel and go to work. But if they dared to ask about pay or safety, they were quickly reminded that plenty of other foreigners with strong backs could replace them.

By word of mouth and in the newspapers, they were often referred to as "Hunkies," a generic slur for Eastern Europeans who were considered dim and unimportant.

Only in death did the miners get a bit of empathy. The Mount Pleasant Journal wrote these sentences about the gas explosion that killed them:

Of the 109 who went to work that day, "not one escaped to tell the awful tale of how death came. Even the fire boss, William Snaith, who had made out his report at an early hour, showing that the mine was safe, met the same fate that befell those who were permitted to enter the mine only by his order.

"It was about 9 o'clock that the explosion occurred, and soon a black vapor poured out of the top of the 107-foot shaft, telling those above ground plainer than words could do that death lurked in the depths."

Thirty-one men left families behind. The other 78 were single or mere boys.

Though they remained anonymous in their mass grave at St. John's Cemetery, the miners played a role in Pennsylvania politics. The Mammoth disaster prompted state legislation that strengthened mine safety inspections.

The strikers shot dead were far less sympathetic to the public and the press. They were among 16,000 who walked out for higher wages in the coke region.

A march and rally put them in the path of the company's militia. After the bloodshed, the shooting deaths went largely unquestioned by the citizenry and the newspapers, whose natural sympathies were with Frick.

The seven strikers who died immediately were buried in the same mass grave with the miners.

"These were people who had nothing," said Russell Gibbons, a labor historian. "It's amazing that they didn't end up in a pauper's cemetery."

The coke workers' strike collapsed a month after the shootings.

For more than a century, the stories of these miners and strikers have been largely overlooked. But the state has decided that both are compelling enough to be noted by the historical marker program.

"The events must have statewide or national significance for that to happen," said Marilyn Levin of the state Division of History.

Along with the formal markings of the grave, the Pennsylvania Labor History Society will make both events part of its 27th annual conference Friday and Saturday.

Its theme is the struggle for worker organization and safety -- both centerpieces of Mammoth Mine and Morewood Massacre stories.

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