Today’s Findmypast hero, William Hamilton Clelland, was submitted by Findmypast’s very own Myko Clelland.
On Saturday, November 13, 1909 almost 500 men were working at the Cherry Mine in Illinois. Electric lights would normally guide the men as they did their duties, but an electrical failure earlier in the week had forced workers to use kerosene lanterns and torches to light their way.
Sometime in the early afternoon one of these lanterns set fire to a coal car carrying of hay for the mine’s mules. Efforts to move the car caused the fire to spread and ignite the timbers supporting the mine itself. The large fan that moved air underground was reversed in attempts to blow the fire out, but this ignited the fan house, escape ladders and stairs in the secondary shaft, trapping many miners underground.
Both of the mine’s shafts were then closed off to cut off air to the fire. This, however, had the undesired effect of cutting off the trapped miners’ oxygen supply and allowing “black damp” (a suffocating mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen) to build up in the mine itself. Roughly 200 miners were able to reach the surface through escape shafts and using the hoisting cage. Some brave men returned to aid their colleagues; twelve men made cage trips back underground and rescued many others. Their seventh trip proved fatal when the cage operator misunderstood signals from below and raised the cage too late; the rescuers and those they attempted to rescue were all cruelly burned to death.
Every other mine occupant died in the ensuing blaze or through suffocation. However, one resourceful group of 21 built a makeshift wall to protect themselves from the fire and deadly gases. They were left without food, but were able to drink from a pool of water leaking from a coal seam, and moved deeper into the mine to escape the black damp. One of the men in this group was William Hamilton Clelland.
In William’s own words, “As soon as we discovered last Saturday that there was no hope of escape, we retreated to a safe place where water was found. Fortunately some timbers behind us burned out. This let earth and rock fall, cutting us off from the heat and the gas. How the time went we don’t know. We must have been unconscious part of the time.” One of the survivors noted, “We all said good-bye to each other. At first English sang songs and the Italians were praying. After a while we are all too weak to do more than crawl about.”
Letters were written to loved ones “I am writing in the dark because we have eaten the wax from our lamps. I have eaten a plug of tobacco, some bark, and some of my shoe. I am not afraid to die. Holy Virgin, have mercy. You know what my property is. We worked for it together. It is all yours. This is my will, you have been a good wife. Good-bye, until heaven will bring us together.”
William preached sermons to all of the miners twice daily to keep spirits up, encouraging them to join him in his favourite hymn “Abide with Me”. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette noted, “How solemn must have rung the hymn amid the gloom of that noisome cave as Big Bill Clelland sang”. The men ate bark and sucked water from loose coal to survive. It’s acknowledged that without William and his efforts to lighten the gloom, all hope would have been lost long before they were finally liberated.
Eight days later they tore down the wall and made their way through the mine in search of more water and stumbled across a rescue party. William said, “Nobody reached us today. We reached them. There was no cheering, we just let them take care of us. Nobody had voice enough to cheer.”
The Fort Wayne Journal said of William; “there are men whose sublime courage is founded upon something higher than the animal nature. Bill Clelland is one of them.”