Into a Mine Shaft

Detail of the USGS quadrant map for coal mining in Bureau/LaSalle County, Illinois. There were three coal seams in the Cherry mine, the deepest at 485 feet.

A Twitch-TV streamer played Minecraft in the background as I worked on daily rushes about… coal mining. From there I descended into the mines, at least figuratively, for several hours.

My maternal grandfather mined coal in Bureau and LaSalle Counties in Illinois for at least 30 years that we know. Besides family lore and my interactions with him while young, I knew little about this aspect of his life. He was the guy from Illinois, no longer married to Grandmother, who gave me a handful of pennies each time he visited. Coal mining was a much bigger deal than I thought in the basin of the Illinois River in Central Illinois.

The Saint Paul Coal Company operated the Cherry mine in Bureau County, one of the places Grandfather worked. The company was established in Illinois in 1902 and owned two mine properties in 1909, the year of the Cherry Mine disaster in which 259 men and boys died. The mine operated on 7,217 acres of land, producing about 300,000 tons of coal annually with a daily capacity of 1,500 tons.

Because of the mining disaster, a significant amount of documentation exists, including the 96-page report on the disaster from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At this writing, the Cherry Mine disaster remains the third most deadly in American coal mining history. Grandfather first showed up as a miner on the 1910 U.S. Census in LaSalle County, old enough to have worked at the Cherry Mine during that period.

Rushes are the first draft of a section of my book. My process is to take a topic, typically a couple of paragraphs, and write rushes which will be heavily edited before being added to the draft of my autobiography. It gives me a chance to refine what I want to say without mucking up the main draft of my work. So far the process has served.

I decided the chapter about my maternal grandparents’ early days needed historical background. In a couple of ways, the mining history of LaSalle and Bureau Counties depicts a similar lure of wage work that attracted many European immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This includes my maternal great, great grandfather, who mined coal in Allegheny, Pennsylvania after arriving from partitioned Poland in the 1880s. My paternal grandfather mined coal in the early 20th Century in Southwestern Virginia, although his ancestors were well established in the United States by then.

I found a history of Saint Hyacinth’s Church in LaSalle, written on the occasion of their diamond jubilee in 1950. Established in 1875 by a community of mostly Polish and German immigrants, it is named for the saint, a Polish Dominican priest and missionary who worked to reform women’s monasteries in his native Poland in the 13th Century. The Polish exclamation Święty Jacku z pierogami! (“St. Hyacinth and his pierogi!”) is an old-time saying, a call for help in some hopeless circumstance. Pierogi was a constant topic of discussion during family visits to our relatives in LaSalle. It likely remains available there. According to family lore recorded on, My great grandparents contributed to establishment of the Saint Hyacinth cemetery where they and Grandfather are buried.

I started the day’s research late morning and the next thing I knew, it was time to start dinner. It wanted pierogi, yet we had to settle for enchiladas. I’m not finished with this topic yet.