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LocalLit book review: 'Cherry Mine Disaster of 1909'

The author, a former investigative reporter, has written 25 books of Illinois history, and several have won awards from the Illinois State Historical Society.
The author, a former investigative reporter, has written 25 books of Illinois history, and several have won awards from the Illinois State Historical Society.

"The Illustrated History of the Cherry Mine Disaster of 1909" by Jim Ridings was one of the most painful books I've read in a long time.

Not because the books is a bad read. But because the book is a comprehensive look at what some experts consider the second worse mining accident in the U.S.

With photos, some of them startling.

Here is the book's abridged Amazon description: "Nov, 13, 1909 was like any other day for the 480 men who went into the coal mine at Cherry, Illinois, to begin another day's work. The mine at Cherry was just a few years old, and it was considered the safest mine in America.

However, within hours, a fire in the mine would take the lives of 259 men and boys. It would make widows of more than 100 women and orphans of 500 children. Eight days after the fire, 20 men emerged in a miraculous tale of survival.

The Cherry mine disaster remains the third worst coal mining disaster in United States history. But it brought about sweeping reform. It changed child labor laws in America and it resulted in the first workmen's compensation laws...This book provides the most comprehensive collection of these photographs which document this American tragedy."

Where do I start?

First of all, I love history, especially local history, and the fact this disaster took place in Illinois grabbed my attention immediately.

Although I've always known mining to be an often low-paying, dangerous job, I never came this close to the industry as I did in this book.

The way Ridings lays out the story gives the reading an almost chilling "in person" view of the events as they unfold.

Also, I've read (and written about) other books by Ridings, so I expected plenty of detail. And the detail was grim, heartbreaking, inspiring, and full of heroism.

Grim because the details of how one becomes trapped in a mine - and dies in a mine fire - are straightforward and stark.

Heartbreaking when you read about the loved ones who gathered at the site during the rescue attempts and later fighting the establishment to take home two fans (you'll see).

One widow crooned in a sing-song way about how her husband died in the mine.

Children picking up their deceased father's checks (after expenses such as rent and union dues were deducted) and identified their deceased brothers by their socks, as one young girl did (she recognized the socks because she had darned them the previous night).

Inspiring because you'll read the details of how 21 men survived eight days in that mine after the mine was sealed shut (although one 50-ish man died a few days after his rescue from an asthma attack).

Or how dying men wrote notes of comfort to their loved ones and pinned them to their clothes, so the notes would come out with their bodies. One note from a young man let his girlfriend know he had was planning to propose to her - and he gave instructions on where to find the ring.

And the rescue attempts, especially by 12 brave men who took a cage down into the mine seven times to bring up miners. When the cage was brought up after the seventh round, well the description by the Mendota Reporter is one you won't forget for a long time.

Buy this book on Amazon.

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