On November 13, 1909, the electricity was out in the Saint Paul Coal Company’s mine in Cherry, Illinois, 100 miles southwest of Chicago, so nearly 500 men and boys were working by the light of candles and kerosene lamps. Around 1:30 PM a coal car carrying hay to mules in an underground stable stopped under one of the lamps, and the hay ignited. Some of the workers were able to get out of the mine before the escape shaft burned; others were rescued through the main shaft before the mine was sealed off to extinguish the flames. But scores of people were trapped.

A group of 21 workers fled to the farthest recesses of the mine, hastily building a wall of mud and rock to close themselves off from the “black damp,” an asphyxiating gas that’s produced when coal is burned where there’s little oxygen. Over the course of a week they prayed and sang hymns, ate pieces of their shoes and clothing, and rationed the foul water that collected in a hole they’d dug in the ground.

On the eighth day a few of the strongest men dug through the wall to see if they could breathe the air in the rest of the mine, then went in search of water. One man who stayed behind later recalled being “too weak to lift a hand, with my lips and tongue swollen and caked from thirst, waiting either for the return of the men we had sent for water, or for death to end my misery–I scarcely cared which.”

The next thing he remembered was seeing lights and people. The miners who’d dug themselves out had found workers retrieving dead bodies. All but one of the Eight Day Men, as they came to be known, survived.

A total of 259 men and boys, including 12 rescuers, had died in the fire. It was one of the deadliest coal-mining disasters in U.S. history, and it prompted the state legislature to pass laws requiring mine owners to keep firefighting equipment in their mines and provide compensation when workers were injured or killed.

Photographer Mark DeBernardi saw the story on the Internet and drove down to Cherry, where the old slag heaps still loom over the town–the mine reopened in 1910 but was abandoned 17 years later. He calls them an “eerie monument” to the men who died, and he intentionally stepped on and scratched the negative for Cherry, IL (Slag Heaps), then scratched, drew on, and painted the surface of the print to reflect the disturbing history of the site.

DeBarnardi’s work–including this image, part of a series of little-known historical sites in Illinois–will be in a group show at Flatfile, 118 N. Peoria, through May 29. The opening reception is from 5 to 9 PM on April 30; regular hours are 11 to 6 Thursday through Saturday. For more information call 312-491-1190.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark DeBernardi.