Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy

Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy

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In the late 1870s, Jefferson County, Alabama, and the town of Elyton (near the future Birmingham) became the focus of a remarkable industrial and mining revolution. Together with the surrounding counties, the area was penetrated by railroads. Surprisingly large deposits of bituminous coal, limestone, and iron ore—the exact ingredients for the manufacture of iron and, later, steel—began to be exploited. Now, with transportation, modern extractive techniques, and capital, the region’s geological riches began yielding enormous profits.

A labor force was necessary to maintain and expand the Birmingham area’s industrial boom. Many workers were native Alabamians. There was as well an immigrant ethnic work force, small but important. The native and immigrant laborers became problems for management when workers began affiliating with labor unions and striking for higher wages and better working conditions. In the wake of the management-labor disputes, the industrialists resorted to an artificial work force—convict labor. Alabama’s state and county officials sought to avoid expense and reap profits by leasing prisoners to industry and farms for their labor.

This book is about the men who worked involuntarily in the Banner Coal Mine, owned by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company. And it is about the repercussions and consequences that followed an explosion at the mine in the spring of 1911 that killed 128 convict miners.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817390402
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/21/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Robert David Ward is Professor Emeritus of History, Georgia Southern College. William Warren Rogers is Professor of History, The Florida State University.

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Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy

By Robert David Ward, William Warren Rogers


Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9040-2


Death at the Banner

It was Saturday morning, April 8, 1911, another day to be marked off by the convicts in the Banner Mine prison. Days and weeks and months were the slow but cumulative units of progress that eventually could bring freedom from the coal mine.

That spring morning in the hills of north Alabama the sun first rose at 5:39. It was wrapped in clouds and mist. Those leaving the mine from the night shift would have cool sleeping, and deep in the mine, the rain would not disrupt the incessant labor of the day gang.

Before the sun came up the guards had aroused the convicts on the day shift. They left their peculiar swinging beds and ate their breakfast; they made their preparations for the last shift of the week before Sunday finally brought a day of rest. At 5:45 they marched out of the prison enclosure and entered the 1,700-foot chute that ushered them like cattle from prison wall to mine shaft entrance. They walked quietly, inured to another ten hours of back-breaking labor. The burden of another day's quota of coal would be borne, as usual, with stoic acceptance.

At 6:00 the night shift left the mine. Night fire boss William Sparks announced that the mine was in good condition. Mine boss John Cantley was not present; thirty minutes later he still had not entered the shaft. As the convicts filed past, the free laborers who ran the cutting machines lounged around the entrance. The shot firers collected their supplies of bituminite and fuse and paper and prepared to follow the convicts into the mine.

Convict foreman O. W. Spradling, a veteran who had worked with prisoners for twenty years, led his day shift into the shaft and issued his orders. The convict miners dropped off in the side galleries to start their work. They went into four left, five left, six left, seven left, and still deeper into the mine that already ran a mile into the earth. There were five free men in the mine that morning. Foreman Spradling, fifty years of age, lived with his large family in the town of Leeds. The other free men were the shot firers. They handled and fired the explosive bituminite that blasted the coal from the face, permitting the fragments to be loaded into the cars. The shooters were Lee Jones, white; Mose Lockett, black; Dave Wing, black; and Daddy Denson, black. They went down the shaft, and they may have stopped near seven left. Near the shooters was John Wright, a white convict, doing electrical work in the mine as legal penance for assault and battery on a female.

The moment had arrived. At 6:30 an explosion and blast of flame occurred near seven left. John Wright was blown to pieces, and the four shooters were killed instantly. The next moments were that surreal interim of emergency when, for participants, time slowed down and every motion was magnified. There was noise, and the air was filled with dust. The miners near seven left entry heard and felt the explosion, while those deeper in the mine had no warning of danger. The huge twenty-foot Crawford-McCrimmon fan, recently installed at a cost of three thousand dollars, was blown out by the explosion. The steady movement of fresh air through the mine slowed and stopped, and the auxiliary fan, far away in number one shaft, did not come on.

Clarence Nicholson, working in five left, knew there had been an explosion. Experience told him that time was critical and that the deadly blackdamp would soon flow through the corridors, killing everyone in its path. The black convict, who could have run to safety, raised the alarm as he moved deeper into the mine, yelling a perhaps less stilted version of the reported "Get out, men, or you will all be destroyed." Eight men fell in behind Nicholson, and others joined them. They raced for the shaft, and probably forty made it unharmed.

Another convict, Charley Brown, heard the yells and ran to safety but went back to lead twelve other miners out. Warned by Nicholson, Curlie Smith escaped. Like his fellow convicts Nicholson and Brown, Smith reentered the shaft and guided three miners to safety. James Franklin, a black convict serving time for grand larceny, heard Nicholson's cries, dropped his pick, and started running. He saw Nicholson collapse, and he had a "horrible feeling ... a most horrible feeling." Franklin found his way blocked by fallen coal and rock and turned back. Nicholson somehow revived and, according to Franklin,

He urged me to try to get through some old work and I grabbed up my pick and started to work with him. The blackdamp came on us. I felt it. We renewed our efforts; we pushed on hard. Nicholson was about to give up when we succeeded in getting into a new air course and then we struggled out. It was an awful experience, believe me, an awful experience. I didn't believe I was going to get out.

As Nicholson and Franklin struggled to escape, J. T. Massengale, the white assistant foreman, was able to lead sixteen men out.

J. Flavious Erwin, agent for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L & N), maintained communications for the line between the mine and Birmingham, twenty-five miles to the east. He left his home that morning to walk to work. It was raining lightly as he strolled along, but there was little cause to hurry. There were records to check and paperwork to complete, but the morning train from Birmingham was still hours away. As Erwin neared the Banner he heard the rumble of an explosion. In confirmation of his hearing, Erwin saw the ventilating fan stop, its constant roar now extinguished. He first ran to the mine's entrance to see if he could help; then Erwin hurried on to his office to send the first news of the explosion to the outside world. The agent tapped out his message to W. F. Wyre, agent in Birmingham: "Banner Mines were blown up just now, about two hundred men in there and killed." If Erwin was in error in detail, he was quite correct in scope and magnitude.

Fifteen minutes after Wyre received the message from Erwin, the news was delivered to the Brown-Marx Building, which housed the corporate offices of the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company. Although the company learned of the explosion as early as 7:00 and no later than 7:30, it did not notify the office of the state mine inspector nor that of the United States Bureau of Mines until 8:30. On notification, Angus B. Brown, in charge of the Bureau of Mines office in Birmingham, immediately sent a telegram to Chattanooga, Tennessee, requesting the dispatch of rescue car number six. The car, specially equipped by the Bureau of Mines, carried respirators that would allow rescuers to penetrate the gas and dust in their search for survivors. In any event, it took 16½ hours for the car to travel the 150 miles from Chattanooga. The train stopped at Mineral Springs to load mine timber and "the needed equipment for building brattices," which probably accounted for what otherwise was described as "a record run from Chattanooga."

If Bureau of Mines aid was far away in miles and time, there was a closer source of mine rescue equipment. Even before Brown wired for the Bureau of Mines car, the officials of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI) heard of the explosion and offered to send their rescue car and trained men to the scene. Their offer was declined by the Pratt Consolidated — the official who made the decision was never named — on the grounds that it would be to no avail. The conclusion was correct, but it was drawn before there was sustaining evidence.

Not until 9:30 that morning did an L & N train leave Birmingham bound for the stricken Banner. Aboard were James Hillhouse, the state mine inspector; his son James Hillhouse, Jr.; and T. W. Dickinson, an assistant state mine inspector. Twenty years earlier the avuncular Hillhouse had come into the Birmingham area and had directed coal mining operations for different companies. "Uncle Jimmy" was a dedicated mine inspector and, of necessity, had wide experience in coping with mine disasters. The fifty-seven-year-old Dickinson had twenty-three years' experience with mines and had dug coal himself. He had the respect and confidence of the miners. Also on board were officers of Pratt Consolidated: E. P. Rosamond, general superintendent of mines, and H. E. McCormack, vice president and general manager. Neither Erskine Ramsay, another vice president and general manager, nor George B. McCormack, company president and brother of H. E., was present.

The explosion that apparently had claimed the lives of an undetermined number of miners, most of them black convicts leased from counties across the state, would inevitably have far-reaching ramifications. The accident's occurring at the Banner was particularly disquieting. The Banner, as its name implied, was the safest mine in Alabama. It was owned and managed by men of impeccable credentials. Personnel in the Brown-Marx Building were shocked. Could it really be true? Pratt Consolidated was Alabama's largest miner and seller of coal (its holdings included fifty-four mines and eighty-five thousand acres of land in Alabama and Tennessee).

A consolidation of six companies, the corporation was formed in 1904. At fifty-two, George B. McCormack was at the height of his energy and influence. He was a Scotch-Irish native of Missouri with a flair for inventiveness and a capacity for hard work. Intense and sharp-featured, he had moved to Tennessee and had begun working for the Tennessee Company, which became TCI, and then was assigned to Birmingham. McCormack had layers of thick straight hair, an aquiline nose, and a mustache and was a formidable executive, a master of detail. He rose to top management posts with TCI before forming the Pratt Coal Company in 1896 and Pratt Consolidated in 1904. By 1911, he was also president of the Alabama Coal Operators Association and was renowned for his common sense. A contemporary wrote that he had "those qualities of cool judgment, practical wisdom, and personal force" that made him "the great captain of modern industrial Alabama."

With his quiet demeanor, low-key air of confidence, conservative dress, and balding head, Erskine Ramsay might well have been mistaken for a professor of classics. Instead, the forty-seven-year-old Ramsay was a gifted mining engineer. Of undiluted Scottish descent, Ramsay was Pennsylvania born and college educated. His father was the chief mining engineer for the powerful Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Young Ramsay came to Birmingham in 1887 and became an associate and friend of George McCormack. Ramsay also ascended to the upper echelons of power within TCI and patented several significant inventions. After fifteen years with TCI he joined Pratt Consolidated.

H. E. McCormack was two years younger than George. The journey from Missouri that brought him to Birmingham was similar to that of his brother, although he had once searched for gold in the Dakotas. Less aggressive than George, the younger McCormack was described as "a most indefatigable worker, keen, quiet, and alert."

Ramsay was the Pratt Consolidated official most disturbed by the news from the Banner. The mine had opened in 1904 and was the special interest of the brilliant mining engineer. He had carefully set up the mine, and within the company it was known as his "pet." The Banner was the first mine in Alabama to install electric lighting, electric haulage, and electric coal cutting. And yet the unthinkable had happened. The officers would have to deal with the situation. They had dealt with other crises, but for the moment they did not even know the facts.

As the L & N train left Birmingham to climb the hills to the Banner, events at the mine moved from immediate shock to response and positive effort. L. W. Friedman, a reporter for the Birmingham News, gained a seat on the train, and his stories would be the first accurate accounts of the disaster.

Most of the forty men who managed to escape reached the main shaft and from there were led to safety by convict Charley Brown and Assistant Foreman J. T. Massengale. But following that first evacuation, only Clarence Nicholson and James Franklin appeared at the shaft. Now the mine was quiet, with only shifting dust in the air to mark the recent explosion. Somewhere in the Banner more than one hundred men still lived if they had avoided the blackdamp, or they were dying from the gas, or they were already dead. Outside the mine there were only questions and conjectures. The answers lay inside along the corridors of the Banner.

Two men made the initial effort at exploration. Clark McCormack, the son of H. E., accompanied by former miner J. R. Baird, went into the mine. Their first discovery was less than reassuring. Not far from the mine entrance and pathetically near to safety, they found a man, seated but leaned forward and quiet as though asleep. He was convict boss O. W. Spradling, dead from the blackdamp. The air was foul, but McCormack and Baird pushed on. Next, they found "a rough pile" of dead men and dead mules, all apparently killed by the blast. The two rescuers, now choking and dizzy in the suffocating air, could stand it no longer. They turned back and staggered to the surface; it was lucky that two more fatalities had not been added to the toll.

When the rescue train arrived from Birmingham, a council of war was held between the company officials and Hillhouse and his rescue team. Clark McCormack and Baird reported that falls of rock blocked some of the corridors, and the high concentrations of gas were duly noted. There was scant reason for optimism. But if reason argued that all were dead, it was still possible that somewhere in the twisted tunnels some men still lived and waited, crouched and fearful and clutching at the hope of rescue.

Inspector Hillhouse and his six rescue men had changed into overalls and jackets on the train and were ready to penetrate the Banner. They were accompanied by sixteen convicts who volunteered for the mission. The twenty-three men entered the mine and in single file moved quietly down the shaft. They came to the body of Spradling, paused, and then moved on. Then they reached the pile of men and mules reported by McCormack and Baird, and they went no farther. The air was suffocating. With heaving chests and aching heads they loaded the bodies on a tram car and headed for the surface. Surrounded by only a small crowd, silent and subdued, the Hillhouse team unloaded the bodies of Ernest Knight, William Garth, and Columbus Nave — the first of a four-day procession of bodies that left the Banner. Sam Lively, one of the convicts who had accompanied Hillhouse, collapsed at the surface and was taken away to the prison hospital.

With little rest or recuperation the Hillhouse team reentered the mine. The gas remained, but the men pushed even deeper, and by 1:00 on Saturday afternoon they had returned to the surface with three more bodies. By this time news of the disaster was spreading, and a crowd of several hundred from neighboring mining communities clustered around the mine shaft. But the tableau common to countless other mining disasters was missing at the Banner. These were convict miners, and their families were far away. The crowds, more detached than bereaved, stood in the rain and watched with professional interest as the rescue efforts continued.

As Saturday afternoon wore on, those rescue efforts began to slacken. The high gas concentrations left the rescuers increasingly groggy, and Inspector Hillhouse had to be brought to the surface twice after lapsing into unconsciousness. It seems now far better strategy to have concentrated efforts on repairing the ventilation fans and building brattices to direct the airflow so that the rescuers could enter the mine with some safety. Although it was not publicly stated, it was clear to the decision makers that there was no chance for any of the miners to have survived. Mine repair and body removal were the actual jobs at hand. But as the sun began to set on Saturday there was speculation among those who watched and waited that a few men might still be alive. President McCormack made his judgment public with a pronouncement that, if any of the miners were still alive, "it would be by intervention of some power more than human." That at least narrowed the possibilities.

At 1:35 A.M. on Sunday morning the Bureau of Mines's rescue car finally arrived from Chattanooga. Dr. J. J. Rutledge was in charge of the car, and he was joined by Angus Brown of the Birmingham bureau. Rutledge and Brown immediately placed themselves at Hillhouse's service, and a conference on strategy ensued. But if the train brought this additional professional help, it also brought the image makers and the politicians. Three members of the State Convict Board, headed by President James G. Oakley, were also in attendance. Oakley had been at Centreville (the county seat of Bibb, a peripheral mining region) when he received a telegram from Governor Emmet O'Neal. The terse communication informed him that there was an "explosion at Banner Mines today killing over one hundred" and ordered him to "go at once and investigate."


Excerpted from Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy by Robert David Ward, William Warren Rogers. Copyright © 1987 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Death at the Banner 2. The Convict Lease System 3. "The Facts Should Be Known" 4. "At the Mercy of the Earth": The Mine Safety Law 5. "A Principle of Justice": The Convict Lease Question 6. "According to the Best...Experts" 7. "The Moral Question Obtrudes" Appendix Notes Select Biography Index

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