Unrecorded blueprint plan of the 1940 Sonman Mine disaster

Blueprint, 21”h x 33 ¼”w at neat line plus margins. A bit of cockling and some faint residual toning along old folds after washing, but about excellent.

Remarkably detailed cyanotype (blueprint) plan of the Sonman Mine disaster in Portage Township, Pennsylvania some 80 miles east of Pittsburgh.

1940 saw a series of horrific disasters in Appalachian Coal Country: On January 10, 91 miners died in an explosion in Bartley, West Virginia, and on March 16 another 72 at a mine in Neffs, Ohio. On July 15, 1940 disaster struck again, when 63 miners died as the result of a methane explosion in the Sonman “E” mine in Portage, owned by the Sonman Shaft Coal Company. Many of the victims suffocated slowly after the explosion, including dozens who had sought shelter behind a makeshift barricade of bricks. Subsequent investigations found the Sonman Shaft Coal Company at fault; the Pennsylvania Department of Mines inquiry found, for example, found that

“The explosion which occurred was initiated by the ignition of explosive gas in the mine atmosphere, by an arc or spark from a trolley locomotive operating at or near the junction of the No. 3 haulage road and the 16 right heading, and was propagated by gas in the mine atmosphere. The ignition was indirectly brought about by the failure of the system of mining, which failure might have been anticipated, yet was not expected.”

Offered here is a blueprint plan of the disaster, drawn by a Company employee identified only as “J. M. B.”, possibly the J. M. Baker named as a participant in the State investigation. The blueprint was made from a “trace” dated July 31, 1940, just two weeks after the explosion (The blueprint may have been made rather later, however, as it shows evidence that the trace already had cracks, tears and creases when it was reproduced.)

The plan is exceedingly detailed, apparently showing each room, pillar and haul road, each significant piece of equipment, and the locations of dozens of miners at the time of explosion. Areas of damage are described; lines indicate the “flame zone” and, outside this, the “disturbed areas”; and symbols indicate where each of the deceased miners was found during the recovery effort. Needless to say, the dry, methodical presentation does nothing to convey the horror of the events depicted; that is left entirely to our imagination. I am utterly unqualified to do so, but it would be interesting to compare the plan with the findings of the various investigations: Is it an accurate depiction of the events of July 15, 1940, or does it perhaps shade or “massage” them to the Company’s advantage?

Background from various reports reprinted at “Mine Disasters in the United States[:] Sonman Shaft Coal Company Sonman “E” Mine Explosion” (accessed on line, April 2020). Not in OCLC.