Man pushes to preserve part of Southern Illinois mine where 119 died

Sunday, February 12, 2006

BENTON, Ill. -- Just outside this Southern Illinois town, Bob Rea stands on a muddy, scrubby swath of land and calls it hallowed -- the place where 119 coal miners, in the flash of a blast hundreds of feet below him, lost their lives in a 1951 disaster.

The insurance man, bent on turning the 10-acre patch into a tourist-drawing memorial and museum, knows he has his work cut out for him. The land already is a graveyard -- one of rusty hulks of junk cars, discarded furniture and shattered glass.

"It looks pretty rough," he lamented recently while showing off several cinderblock buildings dating to when this place was the Orient No. 2 mine's Portal No. 4, where miners used an elevator, of sorts, to make their way into and out of the mine.

It's the place where 119 bodies, some in pieces, were brought to the surface after the methane explosion Dec. 21, 1951, the time many around here still regard as the "Black Christmas."

Dismissing the graffiti and the debris, Rea sees a site worth preserving.

"If it's not saved, it's certain to be vandalized, it's going to be torn down and lost forever," says the Franklin County Historic Preservation Society's president. Rea learned of Portal No. 4's existence after the deaths last month of a dozen miners in a West Virginia disaster spawned local media reports revisiting the Orient tragedy.

Rea's dream is to see what remains of Portal No. 4 turned into a period piece, restored to "recreate that day -- as much as it was the day they reported to work."

Rea has had preliminary contact with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, hoping eventually to get the site listed -- and protected -- on the National Register of Historic Places. But for now, he's just trying to get the word out that the site is here, hoping benevolent "outside forces" step in with the money and muscle to clear the land for a museum.

His well-wishers include Jack McReynolds, among the many who flocked to the site moments after the disaster so close to Christmas. Any plans to memorialize the place, he says, is "an honor to the miners who gave their life" working the Orient, often described as the world's first mechanized mine.

McReynolds, 69, said that just after the explosion he noticed pigeons roosting on the structure that raised and lowered the elevator were dropping dead, plummeting into the mine as smoke -- and apparently toxic vapors that came with it -- billowed from the earth and overtook them.

The next day, McReynolds said, the first of the bodies was brought out at Portal No. 4.

"On Christmas Eve, we had 22 funerals. On Christmas Day, there were 19," McReynolds said. "Everybody I know took down their tree and forgot Christmas."

Amid all the misery, Rea says, locals got a Christmas miracle: One miner, Cecil Sanders, survived 56 hours in the mine before being brought out alive.

Investigators blamed the explosion on a methane buildup in the 20-square-mile mine. Some said electrical equipment ignited the gas, but others blamed a charred package of cigarettes and matches. The mine had passed a safety inspection just weeks before, though union officials charged it had long been "gassy" and unsafe. By summer, Orient No. 2 was back in operation and would be until it was sealed in the 1960s.

The tragedy hastened federal and state safety regulations that saved lives in the decades that followed. That summer, President Truman signed the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act, giving inspectors the power to close unsafe mines. The Illinois Mining Act of 1953 mandated better mine ventilation and testing for methane.

Memorials in the area name those who died in the 1951 disaster. But Rea calls Portal No. 4 itself "a treasure" and asks aloud why the property hasn't gotten more attention.

"Why wasn't that pointed out? Maybe it was the absolute tragedy of it," Rea says.

Rea believes the site's potential is immeasurable.

"It's something we all could learn from," he says.

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