The Cherry Illinois Disaster

Posted on September 12th, 2017 by Bradley Dworkin

Did you know that Illinois had a fundamental but grim role in the creation of Workers’ Compensation across the nation? It all started in 1909 at a coal mine in Cherry, Illinois. The mine, founded in 1905, supplied coal for the trains of its supervisory company, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. As you may know, it was the sophisticated development of the Midwest railroad systems that enabled many Midwest cities to thrive – cities like Minneapolis, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and of course Chicago. Boys as young as 11 worked within the dark shafts of the mine.

In 1909, on Saturday, November 13, 500 men and boys went to the mines to earn their pay. Due to electrical issues from earlier in the week, workers labored by kerosene lanterns and torches. Mules with wagons strapped to their backs moved slowly along the cavern with heavy coal weighing them down.

In the early afternoon a coal car that was filled with hay to feed the relentlessly moving mules was set on fire by a lantern settled within a groove in the wall. From there the fire spread, trapping coal miners without oxygen, and exposing them to a deadly mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, known as “black damp.” While others died of suffocation, many others met their doom from being burned to death. Overall 259 boys and men died during the fire.

This tragic event caused the state of Illinois to establish mine safety regulations and two years later, in 1911, Illinois founded another law that evolved into the Illinois Workmen’s Compensation act. In 1971 the Illinois Historical Society and the Illinois Department of Transportation erected a monument to honor the hardworking men and boys that lost their lives on that November day. There was another monument raised in 2009, located at Cherry Village Hall, in remembrance of the dedicated workers.

The tragic loss of life in Cherry, Illinois, forged the way for the safety of the blue-collared workers of today. Their deaths brought to the forefront the need for safer work conditions, and treating employees with more respect and fairness. After Wisconsin and then Illinois implemented stricter safety requirements and regulations, states across the nation founded similar laws, laws that still keep employees protected till this day.

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