Red Jacket Mine Disaster

Pulled From the Buchanan County Public Library local history files

Transcribed by Sherry J. Bright

On Friday April 22, 1938 one of the worst disasters in Virginia mining occurred.  The following article consists of three copied and transcribed newspaper accounts. 

The first account is the 1938 Virginia Mountaineer article from VOL. XVI  NO. 51 transcribed from a photocopy of a damaged copy.  Every effort has been made to accurately give this account; however the damage to the original may lead to, hopefully minor, errors and deletions.  The second is an account from the Clinch Valley News and the third an account from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.


45 Killed In Red Jacket Mine Friday
Dust Explosion Caught Night shift
Two Seriously Injured At The Entry

A terrific dust explosion wrecked the Red Jacket Coal Company’s mine at Keen Mountain, Virginia, Friday at 4:45 P.M. This was the first mine disaster for Buchanan County’s new coalfield development and was also the nation’s major disaster for 1938.

Eyewitnesses of the catastrophe say that there was a deafening detonation and a great column of black smoke followed by blazes of fire several hundred feet in length issued from the mouth of the mine high on the mountain.

Everyone in the vicinity of keen Mountain and Hanger knew that a most dreadful calamity had befallen the mine and miners.  They knew too, that it was time for change of shifts from the day to night crews.  With the average persons everything soon became confusion.  But for the fast thinking men of the community phone calls were hurriedly sent out for rescue squads from all mines in the county.  As well as from many of the adjoining counties.  These...were quickly repon...and had the traffic...well in hand.  Within hours after the accident there were two thousand people...near the state highway.  No one except directors of the work, rescue workers and police officers were allowed to go near the entrance to the mine.

Motorman J. L. Blevins and brakeman Coy Reed were killed instantly at the entrance to the mine.  They were oiling and preparing the motor to carry more miners inside.  Clarence Combs and K. W. Elams who were seriously hurt.  Both men are still patients in the Mattie Williams Hospital at Richlands, Virginia.  No one knew at the time of the explosion just how  many men had entered the mine for the night shift.  It was first reported that there were approximately seventy-five, but a further check revealed that only forty-three men had actually entered the mine.

The heat of the mine was so intense...In the meantime temporary fan facilities were installed, as the regular fan equipment had been blown away.  Much time was consumed in preparing to make an entry as it was necessary to use thousands of yards of brattice cloth along the entries as all brattice was gone.  much of this work was most difficult to perform but there were plenty workers to carry on.  With a current of fresh air flowing along the main entry the rescue party entered and at 3:00 A. M. had recovered ten bodies.  These were placed on cars and the shay engine, which hauls supplies up the mountain carried them to a building near the tipple for identification.  At 5:30 A. M. eight more bodies were brought out of the mine and carried down by the supply engine

Further search revealed that all who were in the mine at the time of the explosion had been instantly killed and all bodies had been located.  There was no special reason for hurry with the rescue work since the worst had been discovered.  It was necessary to halt the rescue work and free the mine of foul air as two of the rescue workers had been overcome.

At 8 P. M. Saturday the remaining twenty five bodies were carried down the mountain to the identification building.

Doctors, nurses and ambulances were rushed to the scene within a very few minutes after the report of the accident.  They remained on duty throughout the night ready to offer any aid or assistance that might be needed.  The ambulances conveyed the bodies to the Richlands Funeral Home, at Richlands, as soon as they had been identified.  Several morticians were called in to assist this firm in preparing so many bodies.  This firm was responsible for the embalming and distribution of the victims in all forty-five cases.

Organizations of every kind came or sent representatives to the scene of the disaster.  Red Cross workers, Salvation Army, American Legion, Boy Scouts, Police and State Traffic Officers were on the grounds ready and willing to do anything that could be of any assistance whatsoever.

The Red Jacket Coal Company ordered their store opened for supplies to make sandwiches, coffee and other refreshments for the workers.  The American Legion Post, of Grundy, set up a sandwich and coffee center near the mine and fed the rescue workers throughout the night.  Early Saturday morning the Boy Scouts came on the scene and took up the work of the Legion.....


2nd Article on the Red Jacket Explosion

Transcribed from a copy of the
Clinch Valley News
April 29, 1938

 Mine Explosions Kill Many Men in Recent Years
Southwest Coal Mining Has Been Attended by Tragedy
Buchanan Death List Forty-five

The tragedy at the Keen Mountain Mine of the Red Jacket Coal Corporation in Buchanan last Friday afternoon, in which 45 men were killed in an explosion of mine dust, calls to mind the toll in human lives the coal mining in Virginia occurred at the Laurel Mine in this county March 13, 1884 when 112 men were killed.

The records show the next three largest explosions took place in Tazewell County.  The Laurel mine blast was followed by one at the Pocahontas mine on October 3, 1906, when 36 were killed and by one at the Boissvain mine February 27, 1932, which killed 54 [number not plain] persons.

Other Virginia coal disasters of the current decade were:  Splashdam mine in Dickinson County, June 13, 1932, 10 killed.  Derby mine, Wise County, August 6, 1934, 17 killed.  Records of the State Department of labor at Richmond show 376 men killed in all kinds of mine accidents between 1929 and 1937.  The explosion at the Red Jacket mine last Friday is the first major disaster to occur in the newly operated field in Buchanan.  So badly burned and mangled were the bodies taken from the mine that they had to be identified by the check numbers on the electric lamps they wore.  As the bodies were brought up to the outside, they were identified and then placed on be pulled down the winding dinky railway to the highway 1600 feet below.  There ambulances, turned into hearses, carried the bodies to Richlands two regular undertaking establishments.  Without facilities to take care of the victims, the Richlands undertakers called on Bristol, Abingdon, Coeburn embalmers to help.

Persons near the mines at the time said there were two explosions.  A light one was soon followed by a blast which belched from the mouth of the mine to cause buildings to quake for miles around.

Several motorists driving along the highway, several miles away, reported they felt the blast jar their automobile.  Persons at home two miles away in the Keen Mountain town said it shook their homes.

Two eight ton locomotives on the outside near the entrance were reported blasted from the tracks, and the nearby sand-house was shattered to splinters.  The concussion sent rock a distance of one-half mile.

The mine lies near the top of Keen Mountain, nearly 1600 feet above Levisa River valley, about 11 miles east of Grundy on the Richlands-Grundy highway.

Already, in little more than six months of operation 21 drift mouths had been developed from the main tunnel of the mine.  The Keen Mountain plant had grown to be one of the largest coal producers in the newly developed coal regions, producing a daily average of 2,000 tons.

The Red Jacket mining operation had already acquired the title of “Model Mining Town” in the region predicted to replace the Pocahontas coalfields ad “America’s Coal Bin”.  It’s attractively built and conveniently laid out homes for miners and their families are about tow miles away from the dust and noise of the tipple.

A narrow gauge railway winds its way from the foot of the mountain to the mine nearly a quarter a mile above.

Bluefield Daily Telegraph:

April 22, 1938 is the date of the mine explosion at the Keen Mountain Mine of Red Jacket Coal Corp., which claimed the lives of 45 miners. 

J. W. (Slim) Elam, the only man inside the mine who escaped death from the blast, has saved a copy of the Bluefield Telegraph, dated April 24, 1938.

The major part of the article describing the blast has been salvaged by Mr. Elam and that is what follows: 
With all of the forty-five victims of Friday's mine blast removed from the Keen Mountain operation of the Red Jacket Coal corporation, sorrowing relatives in the town of Hanger, Va., awaited today the return of the bodies of their loved ones. 
The last of the bodies was recovered from the mine at 4:30 yesterday afternoon. Upon identification the bodies were taken to Richlands and placed in improvised morgues in that town along with others recovered from the ill-fated mine early in the day.

A crew of embalmers, who had been summoned by the regular morticians of Richlands, worked diligently all day Saturday and throughout last night preparing the bodies for burial. 

The bodies will be moved into Hanger early today. No definite plans had been arranged for the burial of the victims, most of whom are natives of Hanger and immediate section of Buchanan county.

Reports circulated late yesterday to the effect that one man in the mine had escaped the horrible fate of fellow workers were branded as false by officials of the Red Jacket Company last night, who said: 
"No one who was in the mine at the time of the blast escaped."

Sweating sooty-faced members of the mine rescue squads worked in thirty-minute relays in the furnace-like atmosphere until they had explored every avenue of the big mine. Two members were overcome by bad air which had to be blown out before the final group of bodies could be removed.

For many hours the crews worked grimly, without hope of finding life among the victims trapped by the blast, but unwilling to cease their efforts until every miner had been accounted for.

State mining officials had set no definite date for the official inquest last night.

Physicians at Mattie Williams hospital, Richlands, were more hopeful yesterday for the recovery of Clarence Combs and K.W. Elams, the two men who were injured by the blast. They with Ed Harris are the only living survivors of the night crew. Harris, who was not so seriously injured, was removed to his home in Hanger.

From his hospital cot Combs offered a feeble smile and vacuous idea as to what hapened. 
"I was standing near the main entry and the next thing I knew I woke up under a motor. It was terribly hot," he said. 
Among the dead are several relatives. Tom May and Lonnie May were twin brothers. There were two Ratliff brothers and a father and a son, by the name of Ratliff, listed among the victims.

This was the first major disaster to strike the newly-developed field in Buchanan county and was a nation's major disaster of 1938.

The tremendous crowd that had gathered in Hanger on the evening of the explosion dwindled fast and when the last of the victims was removed yesterday afternoon, there were only a few hundred persons in the community. 
Don Shilds, tipple employee, who was down in the tipple dropping cars when the detonation rocked the community, gave this version of the blast: 
"I just happened to be looking up in that direction just in time to see John Blevins and Coy Reed come hurtling down the hillside a half mile away."  Officials estimated that Blevins and Reed, both decapitated, were employed respectively as a motorman and brakeman and were priming their electric locomotives to take a final "man trip" into the mine.  A four-car train of similar cargo had vanished into the yawning entrance ten minutes before. It bore some forty men into the cavernous workings to begin the night shift. 

A slightly less number would have met the same fate of their predecessors except for the policy of changing shifts at slight intervals to allow the miners leaving shifts in more distant areas to reach the surface. 

While Blevins and Reed, who were to be hurled into eternity the next minute, manipulated their oil cans, the men to be carried in on the second trip made final preparations at the lamp house. 

Far below in the valley through which courses the babbling Levisa river, loiterers at store fronts witnessed the tragic spectacle from beginning to end. 

They saw a sudden gust of black, enveloping clouds spurt out of "B" entry, as if a 16 - inch gun had been discharged beyond the yawning entry.

There was a jarring roar, "unlike anything I ever heard," said one witness. It was followed almost instantly by a flash of flame from the main entry, several hundred yards around a bend in the tramroad.

There was a second awesome tremor that seemed as though the entire earth was aquiver.

Simultaneously, Don Shields, down on the tipple, and perhaps others unnamed, watched horrified as the bodies of Blevins and Reed came hurtling toward them.

The first blast, caused by an accumulation of combustible coal dust that was set off by some unknown fateful spark, occurred in what is known as the "barrier" section. It gathered explosive force as it spread with lightning swiftness to the main entry area, which accounted for the second blast.


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