It was probably not until the horrific Imperial Food Products fire disaster in Hamlet on Sept. 3, 1991 that many people were made aware of an even more disastrous accident in the state: the explosion at the Carolina Mine at Coal Glen in 1925 in Chatham County.
The Imperial Fire disaster killed 25 of 81 employees working at that time. Fifty-six employees were injured. In contrast, 71 miners perished on the morning of May 27, 1925. Initially, a total of 53 casualties was reported, but by fall of the year the total had risen to 71 because bodies continued to be found and there was no exact counting of men initially in the mine.
My mother’s father was killed in the Coal Glen explosion at the young age of 25. She was 3 years old at the time and often told me the only memory of her father was of a a man who picked her up and said to her, “Say goodbye to your daddy.” Her father’s coffin had been brought back to the family home before the funeral as was the custom at the time.
I recently came across a book entitled “Coal Mine Disasters in North Carolina” by historian John Hairr, detailing the long and tragic history of coal mining in the past two centuries.
Coal mines in North Carolina were mostly concentrated in central North Carolina along the Deep River in Chatham County. Early accidental deaths in these mines were often the result of explosions caused by a substance known as firedamp, a deadly gas emitted from coal.
Twenty-five years before the Coal Glen tragedy (May 22, 1900), an explosion at the Cumnock Mine, only a mile and a half from Coal Glen, killed or injured 25 of the 56 miners working in the mine that day.
In 1921, the Carolina Coal Company opened the Coal Glen coal mine under the leadership of Southern Pines businessmen J.R. McQueen, Bion H. Butler, Howard N. Butler and John Powell, with McQueen serving as president and overseeing the operations.
With the terrible history of mining in that area in mind, the company brought in the latest state-of-the-art equipment to be used in the mine and enlisted experienced employees and mining supervisors from other states and countries to come to Coal Glen.
Despite all the planning and efforts put forth to make this mine a model of “safe mining,” the Coal Glen industrial accident remains the worst in the state’s history. The miners who were killed made up more than half of the population of the Coal Glen village.
John R. McQueen took responsibility for the tragedy and immediately went to work to personally make sure that all of the miners’ families were looked after. He put the company into receivership so that all claims against the company would be on an equal footing. He then raised the money on his own personal account to pay off these claims. He tracked down survivors and performed so thorough a job that there was never a single lawsuit filed against his coal company.
Like the Coal Glen mine, the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet was the largest employer in the community — but unlike the Coal Glen mine, there was a history of a cavalier approach to the safety of the workers from the Imperial management. The plant had not had a safety inspection during the entire years of operations. Shockingly, a locked and critical exit door prevented many employees from escaping the fire and smoke.
The plant was soon permanently closed and stiff fines for safety violations were issued. The owner received a 20-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter of which he served four years.
The N.C. General Assembly passed 14 new workers’ safety laws, including whistleblower protections, and the state inspector corps was increased from 60 to 114 personnel.
The Coal Glen disaster pretty much led to the demise of coal mining in our state. The owners of the Carolina Coal Mine (Coal Glen) thought they had covered as many bases as possible to assure the safety of the mine and personally took responsibility to compensate the survivors of the tragedy; whereas, the owners and management of the Imperial plant proved themselves to be negligent and irresponsible — a sad tale of two tragic workplaces.
Helen Cox is a former journalist and educator in Richmond County.