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A Coal Miner's Story: Mike Babcanik's Week Trapped Underground (1914)

HistoryLink.org Essay 8698 : Printer-Friendly Format

This is an account of a coal mine accident that occurred on February 16, 1914, in the Cannon coal mine, near Franklin, about two miles southeast of Black Diamond, located in east King County. Coal miner Andrew Chernick died in the accident. His partner, Mike Babcanik (1876-1942), was believed dead but survived for seven days trapped underground. This account was written by Frank Hammock, a Maple Valley journalist; researched by JoAnne Matsumura from her private collection and from the archives of the Black Diamond Historical Society; and compiled by Bill Kombol, Manager of Palmer Coking Coal Co. This piece first appeared in Life on the Cedar magazine, Vol. 2, No. 5 (July 2008) and is here reprinted with kind permission.

After All, They Were Miners

By Frank Hammock

Not far from the town of Franklin, and about two miles southeast of Black Diamond, Washington, a wooden bridge spanned the icy waters of the Green River. In the cold, pre-dawn hours, miners and workers made their way towards the partially hidden portal to the Cannon coal mine. The entrance, which was about 12 feet above the river, was tucked tightly into an alcove lined with bedrock and surrounded by a densely packed layer of fir and deciduous trees. The mine’s gangway ran horizontally some 1,600 feet straight in while the coal seam sloped upwards at a 45-degree angle beneath the forest-covered mountain overhead. Tree branches that hung over the bridge and the mine entrance, glistened with moisture from the light of a few lamps that glowed in the near- freezing air. The sounds of boots upon the wooden planks could be heard as men, toting their lunch buckets in one hand and tools and gear in the other, traversed the bridge to begin the day shift. Conversations were relatively quiet, but an occasional laugh or raised voice bellowed out, displaying a blast of breath from the cold that echoed through the river canyon and into the darkness beyond. Talk was simple -- perhaps of the social news of that era, or a personal weekend excursion from the day before. Perhaps, they talked of the job at hand and their goals for the day. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered and an occasional glow was tossed, its red trail arced into the river below, and was gone. After all, they were miners.

The day was February 16, 1914 -- Monday -- a day the small community of Franklin would never forget.

Hungarian born Andrew Chernick and his partner, Michael Babcanik Sr., from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), crossed the Cannon mine bridge as they always did and made their way to the workings at the face of No. 11 chute on the water level of the Gem coal seam. Meanwhile, already inside the mine, a hard working Bess continued to pull the haulage cars to the gangway for transport out and up to the revolving tipples in the newly built bunkers near Franklin. Bess worked 24/7 and always ate light meals, taking 10 to 15 minute naps between haulage trips. It was easier to keep workers like Bess on for 24 hour shifts, rather than hire two additional workers to do eight-hour shifts. Mining coal was important but grueling work, and at $3.80 per day, it was another chance for the miners to maintain a level of control over the ever-present fear of starvation and debt in their lives that always lingered just beyond the next paycheck.   

Many in the mine knew that for a month or so, water had been found working its way into the area of No. 11 chute from somewhere above. The earth overhead could be heard at times, cracking and groaning like a living entity. Winters in Washington are always wet and this one was no exception. One particular stream of water was the width of an average man’s arm and soon gravel began appearing in the chute. It was a sure sign that the surface above was in danger of becoming a part of the workings below. But, rather than risk a day’s wage, Andrew, Mike, and Bess continued their shift. After all, they were miners.

Suddenly, at about 9 a.m., one of the men drove a pick into the ledge of coal that dislodged a rock which supported the water-soaked earth overhead. Suddenly, everything began to move. On the surface, a water bog disappeared into the ground below along with trees and shrubs – sucked into an abyss with great force. Mike heard the groan that turned quickly into a roar and sensing the danger, yelled out to Andrew. In an instant, both men were in motion, running for their lives, along with some 40 other miners who were also working in the labyrinth of tunnels. The strata above had given way, unleashing its daunting power. Tons of liquefied earth and rock flowed rapidly like lava spewing from an angry volcano and filled every chute and passageway in the area the men were working. Mike remembered seeing Andrew lose his footing and as he fell, the liquefied earth poured over him like mold into a cast. In seconds, he was gone. The cold, icy flood began to wrap itself around Mike’s body as he flailed his arms and fought for his life.

Then – the roaring, angry flow came to a stop.

Only Mike’s head, neck and arms were free and he was vertically bound within the tightly packed mass as if someone had just poured wet concrete all around him.

In the ensuing calm, only the sound of dripping water could be heard and a perpetual darkness reigned. Mike’s head and arms became soaked from the sudden wetness and he could feel the water all around him and smell the fresh moist earth. As the moments passed, his legs and torso became numb and he slowly began to lose precious body heat. Every few moments, he could hear an occasional crack as some of the remaining earth settled in the aftermath. But, he also knew that he wasn’t going to escape the mud, because a powerful suction formed around him making it almost impossible to dislodge his trapped body. His only hope now was to wait it out until rescuers could find him -- if ever.

Above ground, some 60 coal miners sprang into action, digging in two-hour shifts with maddening energy in a race against time to free the men they knew were entombed in the onslaught below. Throughout the ordeal, two and three times a day both Mrs. Babcanik and Mrs. Chernick walked the mile and a half to the mine to check on the status of the rescuers attempts to free their husbands from the solidifying yet unstable grave. Sometimes, they stayed until late at night, pacing with a constant, aching fear of the devastating loss that seemed to perpetuate. Yet, no news came. The hours passed into days and the small community grew weary. Prayer kept a vigilance but with each passing day, hope was running out. The rescuers tried signaling for life below by pounding on the coal, but no response came.

Inside the mine, Mike figured that soon he would draw his last breath. He had been buried once before, in a quartz mine in Michigan, but back then it was only for 24 hours. After all, he was a miner, and he knew the dangers of the job ever since he started mining many years ago. Such danger starts way back at the portal and was an anticipated part of his work. You half expected that sooner or later the earth was going to claim you as her prize because through the years, you knew of others who had lost their lives digging the coal. For Mike, fear never really became part of the equation that his mind exercised on a daily basis. The hours passed and he lost track of time altogether in his motionless, saturated pit of cold, dark numbness. In between the moments of drinking, all he had time to do was think, and thinking was all he could do.  What he thought of is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he recounted the accident and how he could have been more careful about the potential disaster in which he now found himself. Perhaps he thought of his family, and how much they truly meant to him. What would become of his six children? Who would take care of his family when he was gone? Perhaps he thought of Andrew and their longtime friendship. Perhaps he wondered how long it would take before the darkness became eternal.

Mike was the type of man who always insisted on doing the heavy labor, taking the risks, and working in the wettest and most difficult sections. He had strength and vitality. With mounting years and a growing fatigue, Andrew was not a man of strength anymore, but his experience was no worse for wear. Mike deeply respected him. Together, they formed a bond where each would take care of the other in their own way, serving each other with acts of kindness and helping one another get through each passing day.

The rescue efforts continued. Inside the watery cold grave, Mike decided that he wasn’t going to give up so easily.

In an interview with The Seattle Daily Times reporter, Roy A. McMillan, Mike recalls the incident in his own words:

“When I found that I was held fast by the gravel, I thought I would be killed, and never expected to get out alive. I knew where I was and thought that I could go across the crosscut leading to No. 13 and get out that way. It took me two days and a half to dig out, and then when I got on the manway the gravel caught me again and fastened my right leg. By twisting on my side I got out my knife and cut on the cleat. I cut there for a day and a half, and then it was four hours before I could move my leg. I thought for a while it was cut off. Then I dug through the dirt and gravel down to the seventh cross-cut and started across to No. 13. This only went a few feet and then I crawled back. There was a space in No. 12 about ten feet long and four feet wide, and eighteen inches high in which there was no gravel and next to the brattice. I could hear the men working. I thought out the plan of using the rocks to pound on the boards as soon as I heard them pull on the brattice and had them in my pocket for three days before they came. When I wanted anything to drink I put my face on the gravel and sucked the water that was seeping through. Tuesday I got awfully hungry, but Wednesday I didn’t think so much about it, and I think that I could have lain in there for two or three days more without anything to eat” ("Miner Who Was Buried Alive ..."). 

Mike further told the reporter that he could tell what day it was by cutting notches in a small stick he had found, every eight hours, as the men would come and go during shift changes. He also added that he had tried to yell till his voice gave out but the men, some fifty feet away, could never hear him through the thick mass.

On Thursday morning, February 19, the body of 50-year-old fallen miner Andrew Chernick was found at the 1st crosscut of the No. 12 chute, about 60 feet from the safety of the gangway. One more body remained to be found. By now, 47-year old Mike Babcanik was presumed dead. After all, they were miners and miners sometimes perished.

One Saturday, February 21, as the rescue efforts began to wind down from disappointment and impending loss, Mrs. Babcanik went shopping for mourning clothes in Black Diamond at the company store. When she was about to enter, a strange but unusual prompting stopped her at the doorway. An intuition gave her the thought that if the rescuers were to resume digging where the efforts had been abandoned and the mangled body of Andrew had been found two days before, they could find her husband alive. She shook away the thought to false hope and went about her daily affairs as sorrow continued to haunt her. Everyone was saying that Mike had more than likely met the same fate as his coworker. The State Mine Inspector, the General Superintendent, the Local Superintendent and other officials reconvened to determine if efforts would continue or not due to the ever-present danger of more gravel being set in motion within the gangway from the unstable mass. It was the fifth day, almost a full week had passed, and still Mike Babcanik’s body had not been recovered.

Then, late on Sunday night, February 22nd, Mrs. Babcanik thought she had been awakened by a knock at the front door. She summoned her youngest son Tommy to go to the door and let his father in. The boy did as his mother asked and upon opening the front door, a young dismayed face found only an empty porch. As she lay in the darkness, she wondered if she had just been dreaming. Yet, she knew then that Mike was alive and was calling to her. The very next day, she hastened to the mine to speak to the mine boss. It was difficult to determine if the boss and the rescue workers truly believed her or not, but they kept digging, spurred onward by the hope that her vision had given them. The rescue efforts continued with renewed vigor.

But, by mid morning on the 23rd of February, an unprecedented decision had been made to pull the plug and end the rescue attempt. Acting under the orders of the Superintendent, rescuers began removing the final wall of boards that separated the manway from coal chute No. 13, where Mike’s lifeless body was sure to rest. In doing so, his body would be flushed out and into the gangway for removal and burial. But, if he was alive, removing the wall would also kill him in the ensuing aftermath. Moments later, one of the rescuers heard a tapping on the No. 12 chute above the fifth crosscut. They returned the tapping and an immediate response came back.

“Mike is alive!” a rescuer yelled.

The cry was ushered in relief as the men quickly replaced the boards to prevent the mass from moving. Joy precipitated the discovery and men began to dig frantically with their bare hands. The Superintendent followed suit by relieving each man every 30 minutes. By about 3 PM that same afternoon, a starved and unshaven Mike Babcanik was pulled free through an eighteen inch opening and, wrapped in a blanket, carried by elated, dirty, and weary rescuers to his home. Their tireless efforts had finally paid off. Mrs. Babcanik’s dream was given reality and a loving father was reunited with his six children and beloved wife. Tears flowed freely as the veil of death was lifted off of a community that had, for the better part of a week, feared the loss of yet another one of their own. After all, they were the families of miners.

For days, Mike Babcanik could not walk and it took five months of recovery before he was finally able to return to work again. Twenty-five years later, Mike was still working in the nearby Ravensdale coal mine. No one ever talked about that dreadful day, nor did they give it much thought until another mining disaster would breathe new life into the memory like an arthritis ache that flares when the weather gets bad. But, like all miners, if they are physically able, they go back to the mines much like a cowboy who falls off of a horse then gets right back up and rides again. It’s a part of who they are; an unwritten code between a man and the laws of nature. 

Mike passed away of natural causes in October of 1942, at the age of 65, and is buried in the Black Diamond cemetery next to his wife Anna and son, Mike Jr.  

What became of the worker known as Bess? When The Seattle Star arrived at the Cannon mine to cover the news of the accident, their lead reporter, Fred L. Boalt, stumbled upon Bess and the unfair labor practice. Bess looked the worst for wear – having been worked day and night, for weeks, was thin as a rail, and was at the point of collapse from exhaustion and starvation. As a result of an investigation by two women, an arrest was made for the abusive labor practice by the former Pacific Coast Coal Company.

You see, Bess was a mule, and mules were often housed below the surface, feeding on hay, and used as beasts of burden until they died. They were intelligent and hard working animals that could learn their haulage capacity and job without the use of reins. It has been quoted that if additional haulage was applied behind the animal, it would not budge until the weight was reduced to that which it was normally accustomed to pulling. News of the animal cruelty practice hit the local papers and from the court case that ensued weeks later, the guilty parties were charged. As a result, the Superintendent was fined $25, along with three mule skinners who were fined $1 each. Later, an appeal sent the final verdict back to the courtroom where, after four minutes of jury deliberations, the original guilty verdict was reversed. You see, Bess, who was brought in for a visual inspection by jury members weeks after the initial discovery, looked fine. And, the Superintendent and mule skinners were lauded for their rescue efforts in saving the life of Mike Babcanik.

After all, this was mining country.

Sources:
“Miner Who Was Buried Alive For More Than Week, and Family That is Reunited By Rescue,” The Seattle Daily Times, February 24, 1914; Report of the State Inspector of Coal Mines, Biennial Period Ending December 31, 1914; James Bagley, Inspector, Seattle; Roy A. McMillan, “Miner Rescued After 7 Days Under Ground,” The Seattle Daily Times, February 24, 1914;  Fred L. Boalt, “Bess Has Her Revenge; Her Boss is Fined,” The Seattle Star, March 11, 1914;  Boalt, "Boalt Says He's Through Helping Mules!," Ibid., March 18, 1914;  “Boalt Witness for Mule ‘Bess,’” Ibid., March 26, 1914; “Saved By The Faith of Wife,” The Tacoma Times, February 24, 1914;  “Sob Squad Blind to Toils of Men, Weeping for Mule,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 29, 1914;  “Little Home Desolated by Mine Disaster,” The Seattle Sun, February 19, 1914;  “Rescue Crew Still is Searching for Miner,”  Ibid., February 20, 1914; “Two Men Penned in Franklin Mine,”  The Seattle Daily Times, February 18, 1914;  “Body of Miner Found in Chute,” Ibid., February 19, 1914;  “Hope for Two Miners Wanes,” The Seattle Sun, February 18, 1914;  “Inquest on Franklin Disaster Clears Co.,” Ibid., March 6, 1914;  “Humane Agent Rescues Bess; to make Arrest,” The Seattle Star, February 25, 1914;  “Mule Brought to Court for Judge’s Inspection,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 28, 1914;  “Woman’s Death Recalls Mine Accident Husband Suffered,” The Enumclaw Herald, December 10, 1953;"'Tip from Heaven' Saves Miner From a Living Tomb," The Seattle Star, February 24, 1914;  Fred L. Boalt, "Mules Are Cheap, Therefore Bess Keeps on Toiling," Ibid., February 19, 1914;  “County Humane Society to aid Bess, The Mule,” Ibid., February 20, 1914;  Berton Braley, "The Mule," Ibid., March 21, 1914;  Jim Kershner, “Death Didn’t Scare Mike Babchanik," The Valley Daily News, November 11, 1987.


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Michael Babcanik (1876-1942), 1936
Courtesy JoAnne Matsumura


Seattle Times headline on Mike Babcanic Sr, coal miner buried alive for seven days, February 24, 1914
Courtesy The Seattle Times


Grave of Michael Babcanik Sr. (1876-1942), Black Diamond Cemetery



 
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