JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania – About 120 years ago, 112 miners entered the Rolling Mill mine gate on the hill above Johnstown, but none returned home.
An explosion caused by an open flame lamp killed all the men underground. The morning accident of July 10, 1902 was the greatest loss of life in a Pennsylvania mine at the time.
Victims of the disaster will be honored at 6 p.m. Saturday with the unveiling of a historical marker during a ceremony at the Casimir Cultural Center, 505 Power St. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.
Barbara Zaborowski, dean of library services at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, called the mine disaster “a Johnstown story that needs to be told.”
Last summer, while raising money for the marker at Cambria City Sunday Markets, she said she was “amazed by the number of people who came” to her stand and “didn’t realized that this event had happened”.
The marker will be located along Roosevelt Boulevard near the ramp to the inclined plane, across the Stonycreek River from the former mine site.
The ceremony will feature remarks from Johnstown Mayor Frank Janakovic, Penn Highlands President Steve Nunez, and Pennsylvania Historical and Museums Commission Community Preservation Coordinator Frank Grumbine. Dan Kane, international secretary-treasurer emeritus of the United Mine Workers of America, will also speak, and Zaborowski will make closing comments.
Zaborowski said the disaster was covered by newspapers across the country. Some international media companies also picked up the story.
“It was pretty catastrophic on many levels,” she said.
Indeed, it not only affected the town and mine owner Cambria Iron Co., but also the families who lost their primary breadwinners and those who lived in company houses who had to move.
News of the disaster reached the state Bureau of Mines in Harrisburg and department chief James E. Roderick was dispatched to investigate, Zaborowski said.
Arriving the day after the disaster, he said: “The streets were filled with anxious and excited people, while in the street in front of the Rolling Mill Mine and at the entrance where the corpses were laid out, they were almost impassable,” according to Zaborowski’s research.
Roderick continued: “I mingled strangers with the sad crowd watching the corpses laid out in rows waiting to be identified by relatives and friends. Indeed, the scene was heartbreaking. I noticed that the vast majority of people looking at the bodies were people who didn’t say a word I could understand, but their grief touched my heart.
Following the ceremony, a remembrance service hosted by Casimir Cultural Center owner Chad Pysher will be held at its location in Cambria City. This will include a remembrance of the dead and Panachida for the deceased as well as a blessing of the families, a reception and a historical display.
“For us to host the memorial aspect of the dedication is an honor,” Pysher said.
This is because those who perished had ties to the many holy sites in Cambria City, such as the old Church of St. Casimir.
Richard Burkert, president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, noted that most miners were members of these churches, including St. Mary’s Greek and St. Stephen’s Catholic parishes.
Pysher added that the men’s wages were seized and sent to the various congregations to build the cathedrals, but they never got to see the fruits of their labor.
“This is an opportunity to give them an honor they never received – a memorial and prayers for eternal rest and peace in a building that exists because of their hard work and sacrifice,” said Pysher said.
Burkert described the memorial as a reminder of the sacrifices of immigrant ancestors in the area.
“Lured into unskilled jobs in the mines and factories of Johnstown, these people worked in difficult and dangerous jobs to earn a better life,” he said.
Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5054. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.