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Monday, September 29, 2008

The brothers Donnelly: Tragedy in the Pennsylvania coal mines, 1893

Back in 1893 in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, March 19, a powerful boiler explosion occurred at the West Bear Ridge colliery in Mahanoy Plane, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. This mine, which was operated by the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company, was staffed at that fatal hour by two men who were cleaning the fires. The men were brothers: John and Michael Donnelly.

The newspaper reports read as follows (I've included each scanned article and its transcription):

The Evening Herald (Shenandoah, Pennsylvania), March 20, 1893:


One Man Killed at Mahanoy Plane - One Injured

At 4 o'clock yesterday morning the inhabitants of Mahanoy Plane were suddenly awakened by a loud report which proved to be the explosion of two of the West Bear Ridge colliery boilers. At the time John and Michael Donnelly, brothers, were in the act of cleaning out the fires. John was instantly killed, being buried under the falling walls and terribly scalded. Michael was thrown some distance and so badly scalded and injured that he cannot recover.

The force of the explosion was so great that one of the large boilers was thrown a distance of three hundred yards.

The Pottsville Republican, March 20, 1893:

The Pottsville Republican's account of the accident can be found within its "Frackville Gossip" section followed some very trivial town announcements such as "The electric light at the P. & R. depot failed to throw out its luminous rays last evening."

Here is The Pottsville Republican's version of the accident:

At about three o'clock Sunday morning the inhabitants of Mahanoy Plane were awakened from their peaceful slumbers by a tremendous explosion. Upon investigation it was discovered that one of the boilers of the Bear Ridge colliery, situated on the outskirts of Gilberton borough and a short distance below Mahanoy Plane, had exploded killing and injuring two brothers named Michael and John Donnelly. The former was badly scalded and will probably die while the latter was killed instantly. Michael Donnelly is a resident of Mahanoy PLane and the other brother, John, is a resident of town. Two sets of boilers and stacks were thrown out of place by the force of the explosion and the part of the building in which the boiler was situated is a total wreck. One half of the exploded boiler went under the scraper line and into the cribbing at the colliery knocking the timbers into splinters while the other half landed in the creek about three hundred yards away and about twenty yards from a frame dwelling house. A large force of men were at once put to work, under the supervision of Mr. Jones, the outside foreman and Mr. Frank Dawson, the assistant foreman, to clear away the debris. The injured and killed men were at once taken to their homes where sorrowing families awaited them. Large crowds of spectators viewed the scene of the disaster all day Sunday.

The Evening Herald (Shenandoah, Pennsylvania), March 21, 1893:

Buried To-day

The remains of John and Michael Donnelly, who met their death by the explosion of boilers at West Bear Ridge colliery Monday, the particulars of which have been published in the Herald, were interred at Frackville this morning. High Mass was celebrated in the Catholic church at Mahanoy Plane. The deceased each leave a wife and two children.

The Pottsville Republican, March 21, 1893:

Michael Donnelly who was scalded by the boiler explosion at West Bear Ridge has since died, and his deceased brother John was taken to the same house at Mahanoy Plane where the funeral of both will take place on Wednesday morning, at 9 o'clock, and High Mass will be celebrated in St. Mary's church. Interment at Frackville.

The Donnelly brothers' sad deaths must have been devastating for their families. John, age 32, (shown on the coroner's list above) and Michael, age 28, both left a wife and two small children. Life had certainly not been easy for these young coal miners' wives. Now it would be almost unthinkable.

The Annual Reports of the Inspectors of the Coal Mines of the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1870-1900 lists the rules enforced by the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company upon their employees.

Rule III states as follows:

"All persons employed by the day, either inside or outside, are expected to work ten hours for a day's pay, or fifty-eight hours per week for a week's pay. Any persons working less than this will receive wages proportionate for the time worked. The same rule to apply in all cases where overtime is worked, unless by special agreement with the mining superintendent."

What were John and Michael Donnelly doing on the job in the wee hours of the morning that Sunday in March 1893? Fitting in time on the job before Sunday Mass? Catching up from a week of lost work because of illness? Or was this their regular shift? I will probably never know what caused them to be on the job at the fateful hour on the day of the explosion that took their lives.

Surely they could relate to the ballad published in the Pottsville newspaper in 1878 by an anonymous writer after the disappointing end of "The Long Strike" of 1875:

"Well, we've been beaten, beaten all to smash,

and now, sire, we've begun to feel the lash,

as wielded by a gigantic corporation,

which runs the commonwealth and ruins the nation."

From George Korson's Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs & Stories of the Anthracite Industry, published 1938.


I am fairly confident that the men who died in the mine explosion on March 19, 1893 were my great-great-grandfather and his brother.

Donnelly is a common surname, but many facts fit together with what I know about my John Donnelly and his family.

  • I know from family lore that my ancestor John worked in the coal mines in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
  • This John is close to the right age, although the marriage license application that I have for my ancestor indicates that he should be about seven years older at the time of the accident.
  • My great-great-grandfather and his wife had two children, one of whom I know was born in 1891. This John is survived by his wife and two children.
  • My Donnelly ancestors resided in Frackville. The newspaper articles list this John as a resident of Frackville and also mentions both men's interment at Frackville.

This branch of my family is one that has often intrigued me because of the lack of information that has been passed down from previous generations. It could be that this accident and its devastating implications for the family caused such pain and hardship that those who remembered it vowed never to talk about it with their children.

In honor of their memories, and the hardships that they faced as Irish laborers in 19th-century Pennsylvania, I will continue to seek answers to the questions that remain about the Donnelly family of Schuylkill County.


“Boilers Explode. One Man Killed at Mahanoy Plane – One Injured.,” Shenandoah Evening Herald, March 20, 1893.

“Frackville Gossip: At about three o’clock Sunday morning…,” Pottsville Republican, March 20, 1893.

“Buried To-day,” Shenandoah Evening Herald, March 21, 1893.

“Frackville Notes: Michael Donnelly…,” Pottsville Republican, March 21, 1893.

John Donnelly (Miners, Bear Ridge Colliery, Mahanoy Plane), Report of the Inspector of Mines for the Sixth Anthracite District of Pennsylvania, Schuylkill County, 1893; Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Mining & Reclamation, Harrisburg.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Annual Reports of the Inspectors of the Coal Mines of the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1870-1900.

Korson, George G., Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs & Stories of the Anthracite Industry. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1938.


This article has been contributed to the "I read it in the news!" edition of the Carnival of Genealogy hosted by Jasia of Creative Gene.

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