Answer Man

‘There is no hope, girl’: Card memorializes third-worst mine disaster

Illinois safety regulations were strengthened after the deadly mining disaster in Cherry.
Illinois safety regulations were strengthened after the deadly mining disaster in Cherry. Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Q. I recently found some kind of funeral memento of a James H. Stearns, who died in the Cherry Mine, which was northwest of LaSalle-Peru. The card was prepared by his wife, who wrote her 40-year-old husband entered the mine on Nov. 13, 1909 — and his body was taken out eight days later. It also recorded his farewell to his wife: “There is no hope, girl. We are lost; we are choking to death slowly. I am going to die like a man for the kid’s sake. Make a man of him, but for God’s sake tell him the last thing his dad said was: ‘Don’t go into the hell mouth of a coal mine.’ Jim.” What can you tell me of the disaster and how I might return this card to his heirs?

— B.E., of Belleville

A. Of 727 mining disasters in the United States since 1839, the horrendous tragedy near the tiny village of Cherry, remains the nation’s third deadliest on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A historic marker erected in 1986 says the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad started the St. Paul Coal Co. in 1905 near Cherry to produce a steady supply of fuel for the railroad’s trains. Cherry was named for James Cherry, who would become superintendent of the mine (and who would die two months before the disaster). By 1909, the mine was shipping out 300,000 tons a year.

But on Saturday, Nov. 13, 1909, workers apparently were taking a load of hay to mule stables at the bottom of the mine. As the hay passed underneath a kerosene torch, burning oil dripped into the hay, setting it alight and touching off a conflagration that spread rapidly. A dozen men who were sent down to try to rescue the miners perished as well.

“They got into the cage and it was shot down into the mine,” a United Press story related the next day. “When no signal was received, the cage was drawn up again. The twelve rescuers were all there — dead. Their faces were burned almost beyond recognition, and their trunks were still smoking hot when the cage reached the surface.”

By building a protective wall, 21 miners managed to stay alive by drinking water dripping from a coal seam. They emerged alive a week later, but of 473 in the mine at the time, 259 perished, placing it behind only the explosions on Dec. 6, 1907, in Monongah, W.Va., that killed 362 and the explosion at the Stag Canon No. 2 mine on Oct. 22, 1913, in Dawson, N.M., that claimed 263 lives. In 1910, the Illinois Legislature passed stricter mine safety regulations, which were followed in 1911 by the establishment of the Illinois Workmen’s Compensation Act.

As for getting that somber memento back to the family, trying to trace three or more subsequent generations of an obscure Northern Illinois family would be a little beyond my capabilities, so I hope that by writing about it, it will pop up on someone’s Internet feeds and he will contact me. If so, you’ll be the first to know.

Q. While a few of us were klatching recently, the subject of the “40 riders” came up. Many of us said we had heard of it, but none could explain it. Can you tell us something about it and how the name arose?

— C.S., of New Baden

A. In part, perhaps, from a bad German translation. Here’s one account of the story:

While Licinius and Constantine were battling for supremacy of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, a group of 40 young Roman warriors was stationed in Sebaste, Armenia. While they pledged allegiance to the emperor, they also had promised to serve Jesus Christ, which angered Licinius no end. He ordered them to worship the pagan Roman gods or face torture and death.

When they refused, he made them stand naked on a frozen lake, where they would eventually die of hypothermia in the cold winds. There they stood in defiance until one man weakened and began crawling toward the fires on the shore, but died before he reached them.

Finally, as the warriors neared deach, a band of angels reportedly descended from heaven and placed crowns on their heads. One pagan guard was so overcome by the spectacle that he tore off his clothes and ran to join the dying men, thus bringing the number back to 40. The next morning the bodies were burned. They became known as the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste with March 10 as their feast day in the West (March 9 in the East).

“Rider” may be a sloppy translation of the German “Ritter,” which means “knight.” In any case, like a holy Groundhog’s Day, many believed that if it froze on March 10, there would be 40 more days of frost before spring, according to “Maeystown Recalled” by Gloria Maeys Bundy and Cynthia Schein. According to folklore from Adams County, Ill., rain on March 10 means 40 days of rain, so you might want to start building your ark if you see clouds on that day.

Today’s trivia

How did Madrid’s world-famous art museum come to be called “the Prado”?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: While “As Time Goes By” is now synonymous with “Casablanca,” the song had been around for more than a decade by the time the classic Bogart-Bergman flick debuted in 1942. Herman Hupfeld wrote the piece for the 1931 Broadway musical “Everybody’s Welcome,” and it reportedly became a modest hit after several recorded versions were released later. But it didn’t become ingrained in American culture until Arthur “Dooley” Wilson sang it for Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca.” (Wilson actually was accompanied by Elliot Carpenter because Wilson couldn’t play piano.) Ironically, Wilson reportedly could not issue a recording of the song after it became a hit, because of a long-running musicians strike from 1942 to 1944, so Victor reissued an old Rudy Vallee recording, giving Vallee an unexpected hit in 1942. Lovers of “The Big Bang Theory” might appreciate that for those who have never listened to the entire song, the first verse has a reference to Albert Einstein, relativity theory and the fourth dimension.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.