Underground Fire: Hope, Sacrifice, and Courage in the Cherry Mine Disaster

Underground Fire: Hope, Sacrifice, and Courage in the Cherry Mine Disaster
Age Range
Release Date
October 11, 2022
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A historic mine fire traps hundreds of men underground in a gripping work of narrative nonfiction meticulously researched and told by a master of the genre.

It is November 13, 1909, and the coal miners of Cherry, Illinois, head to work with lunch pails in hand, just like any other day. By seven a.m., 484 of these men are underground, starting jobs that range from taking care of the mules that haul coal to operating cages that raise and lower workers and coal to chiseling out rocks and coal from the tunnels of the mine. With the electrical system broken, they’re guided by kerosene torches—and come early afternoon, a slow-moving disaster begins, barely catching the men’s attention until it’s too late. In what starts as an hour-by-hour account, Sally Walker tells the riveting and horrifying story of the Cherry Mine fire, which trapped hundreds of men underground. Alternating between rescue efforts above and the heroic measures of those trying to survive the poor air and entrapment below, the tragic story unfolds over eight excruciating days in a narrative compelled by the miners’ hope and absolute will to survive. Rich with archival photographs and documents, this stirring account includes sources, bibliography, an author’s note, and follow-up information about survivors, rescuers, and families.

Editor review

1 review
Riveting Horrible Historical Event
Overall rating
Writing Style
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable)
Learning Value
Life was different in 1909, although there were some situations that we still see today. While parents might not send their children into the mines at 14, recent immigrant populations still struggle to find work with safe conditions, and rely on family to help. In Cherry, Illinois at this time, there was a promising new vein of coal, and a town rose up in the area to support the workers who would bring the material to the surface. Mining conditions require close monitoring, and there were teams of engineers, overseers, and others who tried to make sure that the mine was up to code. Still, human error can lead to disasters, and that's what happened here. A lamp that was low on kerosene started to drip on top of a cart of hay down in the mines, and although people were somewhat aware of it, nothing was done. Before long, the fire was raging under control. This caused several problems; smoke in the shafts that endangered men, panic in the workers both above and below ground, and structural damage to the mine as wooden supports burned and gave way. Mining fires are particularly hard to put out, and the Cherry mine fire was no exception.

Using the same method of describing the events through the eyes of people who would have been involved that was so successful in her 2011 Blizzard of Glass, Walker describes the background of daily life and the involvement of miners, coal company administrators, doctors, and people in the community as the tragedy unfolded. The inclusion of period photos of ordinary life is helpful in setting the scene and understanding what the miners' day-to-day life was like working in the mines and living in a small town. One of favorite parts of the book was the inclusion of period diagrams and specifications for the mine that had to be filed to prove that the mine was operating safely! I'm sure at the time, the mine was considered to be very modern, and the people running it tried to have all of the latest safety features.
Good Points
Walker doesn't shy from the fact that many of the miners were recent immigrants to the US, and shows how difficult their lives were. One family consisted of a mother, father, two children, and five of the parents brothers! Again, period photos show the company housing, families, and occasionally pictures that weren't from Cherry but are useful in showing young readers what is meant by things like coal powered fire places.

Because the story follows particular people, whom we meet early in the morning as they are getting ready to go to work at the mines, there is an immediacy and urgency to finding out what happens next! While there were some immediate casualties, there were people who managed to get out alive, and well as some workers who were trapped underground for a significant amount of time. Since nearly everyone in town had someone who worked in the mine, and 259 men died, the effect on the town was acute. Chapters at the end of the book address how the widows and children of men killed were helped, and how the town went forward afterwards. Today, Cherry has fewer than 500 residents, so it certainly didn't become the center of mining and industry that flyers in the early 1900s promised!

Readers who enjoy delving into historical disasters with books like Soontornvat's All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team, Murphy's The Great Fire, Hollihan's Ghosts Unveiled! (Creepy and True #2) or Marrin's Flesh and Blood So Cheap will be enthralled by the harrowing attempts to get men out of the mines and the different tactics employed to do so. They will also learn much about daily life over 100 years ago, and even I learned something new: the term "teamsters" for truck drivers comes from the fact that early transportation of goods involved teams of horses! I just had never thought about that!
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