Cumnock Mine Disaster 1900

Privacy Level: Public (Green)
Date: 23 May 1900 [unknown]
Location: Cumnock, Chatham County, North Carolinamap
Surnames/tags: Mining_Disasters North Carolina Disasters
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Disasters | Mining Disasters | United States Mining Disasters |Southeast United States Mining Disasters| Cumnock Mine 1900 Disaster

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History and Circumstances

  • Date: May 23, 1900
  • Location: Cunmock, North Carolina
  • Victims: 23
  • Cause: Explosion

Area History
The presence of Deep River coal was first noted in print in 1820 in a letter to the American Journal of Science by Professor Denison Olmsted, chair of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology at the University of North Carolina. Olmsted, and later H. M. Chance in an 1885 report, noted that earlier uses of coal to meet local needs most likely dated to before 1775. The Deep River Coal Field is the only noteworthy source of coal in the state. [1]
Note that the disaster area is now in Lee County, North Carolina.

Mine History
Attempts to develop commercial mining efforts in the Deep River Coal Field began during the early 1850s, and had a rocky history. The Western Railroad, chartered in 1852, was the first railroad to reach into the region. Completed in 1863, its purpose was to connect the coal mines centered at the village of Egypt (renamed Cumnock in 1895) to the riverside port of Fayetteville on the Cape Fear to the southeast. Coal was mined at three towns within a four-and-a-half mile band, all within close proximity of the Deep River: Egypt, Gulf (upstream to the west of Egypt) and Farmville (downstream and directly to the east of Egypt). [2] This is the second explosion this mine has had with the past 5 years. The former one having occurred on 28 Dec 1895 when 43 men lost their lives. [3]
Mine Disaster Circumstances
There was an explosion at Cumnock Coal Mines, Chatham County, North Carolina about 3:30pm on 23 May 1900. Twenty two men lost their lives. The accident was in the east slope of the mine. Between 40 and 50 men were in the mine at the time of the explosion. Five were brought out alive from the east slope while none of the men in the west slope were injured. Rescue work began quickly and by night all the bodies except two or three had been removed. Four of the five men brought out alive were still living at 10:45 pm and it was thought three of them would recover. They had no knowledge of what happened. Some think the explosion was caused by a broken gauze in a safety lamp while others think it was caused by the explosion of a dynamite cartridge. The men had noticed that a great deal of gas had accumulated in the east heading during the past few days. The explosion was very quiet and it was some time after the explosion that the miners in other parts of the mine learned of it. [4]
Although the explosion occurred at 3:30pm, news did not get out until almost midnight and then was vague. J.F. Harrill superintendent of the Cumnock Railroad arrived the following morning. He reported the explosion occurred in the 460 foot east level where 20 men under Superintendent Connolly were working. It was about half a mile east of the shaft. Many of the dead miners were burned and damaged by the explosion. The dead and injured were placed in the little cars and taken to the shaft and then lifted to the surface. All bodies except one had been recovered by midnight. Final tally of cause of death were 19 were killed by the explosion and four by after-damp. Harrill reports this after-damp has a peculiar and most loathsome odor. There was a great deal of fire-damp in the mine; it appears that this has always been the case. [5]

Rescue Efforts

Results and Findings

Investigation Report
Assistant Labor Commissioner W.E. Faison did the investigation of the disaster and its causes. “There is much mystery and several theories about it.” Most likely explanation is that an open flame ignited gas (fire-damp/methane). Many of the bodies not burned were found together near the air shaft and were probably the victims of the after-damp (which is gas found after fire that has no oxygen in it). Judge T. B. Womack, attorney for the mining company accompanied Mr. Faison on his inspection. He had a different view of what had happened. He stated that an open flame could not have been used to set fire to a blast. This was conclusively shown not to be true and it is reasonably certain that the explosion was the result of a unavoidable accident. “It appeared from the evidence that more or less gas is constantly generated in this mine. And that safe guards had been provided to deal with it and render it harmless." [6]
Judge Womack’s theory was “concurred in by all the more intelligent miners” there had been a sudden generation of gas in the extreme eastern workings, about a quarter of a mile from the main shaft and that this gas entered the room where Sim McIntyre worked and he did not notice but his lamp became overheated and cracked. [7]
“A coroner’s jury was convened to investigate the accident. W.J. Tally, auditor of the Cumnock Mining Company named dead and injured. J.D. Hart, Sr mine inspector (gas man) testified that “there was a good deal of gas in the mine.” He described the ventilation system of shafts, fans and doors. He reported that the air was stronger and better the morning of accident than for some days. He explained there was a 20 inch seam of coal underneath workings. Gas suddenly accumulates in mine by forming in this seam of coal and breaking through the floor. He believed there was a sudden outburst (of gas) from the floor and there was no way to provide against it. He went down into the mine within an hour and said the air was “all right”, Patrick Daley, miner testified and also assisted with rescue/recovery. He saw no fire and said that no open lamps are used in the mine. Miners are not allowed to open the lamps except at points where keys are kept.[8]
George N. McNath was responsible to clean, light and give out lamps except a few that are owned by individuals. The broken lamp belonged to the company. Joe Glass had it that morning. McNath has the key but apparently Glass also had a key. McNath always locks the lamps. He does not allow a lamp into the mine that gas or air can get through (such as a cracked glass). “Lamps in use are considered absolutely safe.” [9]
The Coroner's Jury report, dated May 24, 1900, noted, ‘We, the jurors summoned by the Coroner, have investigated the Cumnock Coal Mine disaster, and find that these twenty-one men came to their deaths by the explosion of gas and the after-damp, but how the fire originated, we can not say.’” [10]
Additional Information
The laws of 1897 imposed the duty of inspecting the mines in the state on the Commissioner of Labor Statistics. B.R. Lacy, Commissioner of Labor was asked by a reporter whether such an inspection had been made. Mr. Lacy replied that no inspection of mines in North Carolina was made for the very sufficient reason that the Legislature failed to make any appropriation to carry out this law. He said there had never been an inspection of mines in this state. [11]
The week following the disaster, there was an article in a newspaper reporting that some of the miners themselves were saying a match was struck to light a fuse because the electric battery was not working and that caused the explosion. These miners further asserted that miners were in the habit of picking the locks of their safety lamps and that some actually have keys to them. [12]


Name Sourced Bio Connected Category
Allie Bynuni
Clegg, Wesley
John Connelly
Joe Fagan
John Gatewood
Robert Gatewood
Joe Glass
Dan Goldstone
John Hankey
John Hubbard
Jim Maks
James McCarthy
Slim McIntyre
Jim Palmer
John Lee Palmer
Peter Palmer
Robert Reeves
Will Reeves
Joe Taylor
William Tyson
Charles Wesley
John Willett


  4. “Cumnock Explosion”. The Charlotte Observer, 24 May 1900, Thu, Page 8
  5. Charlotte Observer
  6. ”Mine Explosion Still a Mystery”. News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina). 26 May 1900, Sat. Page 5
  7. News and Observer
  8. ”Mine Explosion Still a Mystery”. News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina). 26 May 1900, Sat. Page 5
  9. Mystery
  10. Hairr, John. Coal Mine Disasters of North Carolina. 2017, pp. 42-43
  11. ”Twenty-Three Men Killed at Cumnock”. The Raleigh Times (Raleigh, North Carolina). 23 May 1900. Wed. Page 1
  12. Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina) 28 May 1900, Mon. Main Edition. Page 2

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