The Diamond Mine Disaster at Braidwood

The most conspicuous event which has occurred during the year, or which has ever marked or marred the annals of coal mining in this State, was the calamity which befell the Diamond Mine, and the miners in it, at Braidwood, in February last. At this place, by the sudden precipitation of a sea of surface water into the workings of the mine, in the middle of the day, 69 men were engulphed and miserably perished; 89 women were made widows; 98 children were made fatherless, and the mine itself and its owners were involved in common ruin.

The history of coal-mining in all times and countries presents a deplorable record of sudden death and disaster to coal miners. Laws have been framed, and warnings uttered, and one precautionary measure after another has been taken to reduce to a minimum casualties in mines, but the inherent peril of the business continues to produce its average of victims. Individual cases of violent death are still familiar events in all mining communities, and at intervals, happily not frequent, some great calamity is chronicled, involving horrible death to a mine full of people. Heretofore, however, these cases have occurred in distant States or countries, where mines have been deeper, or gases more prevalent, or dangerous conditions more generally recognized than in our Western mines. But the Diamond Mine was in the midst of one of our most populous communities, the workings were near the surface, free from explosive gas, and with several places of egress in case of fire or accident in the main shaft; yet notwithstanding these conditions, it became suddenly, though not without warnings, which should have been heeded, the scene of a catastrophe, which has had no parallel in the West, either in its character or fatal consequences.

Although the principal features of this event have become widely known through the press, we take occasion to present here a simple record of the case, gathered from those most familiar with the circumstances, together with a map of the mine, to better illustrate the situation. In this we have been especially assisted by Mr. Cumming, the present mine inspector for the Third district, who has been for many years a resident of that part of the State.

The topography of the county in which the Diamond Mine was located, is known to be in general very level and low. The seam of coal is thin, and near the surface, and one of the chief sources of expense in mining it is the handling of the great quantities of water which continually accumulate in the workings. Its proximity to Chicago, alone, gives to this coal field its special value, and it is doubtful if the necessary capital would be found to develop it were it not the nearest coal to the largest market in the West. There is said to be ten square miles of this level and marshy tract upon which the Diamond and other mines are located, and it is all so flat that no natural drainage is locally possible, and ordinarily all accumulations of water lie upon the surface until absorbed or evaporated. Even when thrown out of the mines with pumps it has no alternative but to find its way through the soil back again. Another feature of the situation is that all the coal in this field is worked on the long-wall system, and as fast as the mineral is removed the surface comes down with the roof, and consequently makes a loose, irregular break all along the face of the workings, particularly susceptible to the action of water, and leaves in general an uneven and treacherous surface for water to stand upon.

For several days prior to the 16th of February, 1883, there had been a general thaw in the vicinity of Braidwood, accompanied by warm rains, which reduced the winter’s snow to water and swelled it to a flood, which overspread the entire surrounding country. That this was an unusual condition of things, is not claimed. Water in similar quantities had accumulated and stood upon the surface there before. On several occasions in former years, surface water had found its way into the mine, and two years previously it had broken through in such quantities as to create general alarm. In this case it is stated only that the volume of water was not greater than usual. Its depth is given as from one to three feet, but whether it were more or less would seem hardly to affect the gravity of the situation. It was spread like a sea over the entire face of the country, and constituted an open menace to every mine in the vicinity. That it was regarded as an element of danger, is shown by the action of the superintendent of an adjacent mine, who prohibited the men from going into his works, and ordered out those who had gone down before his arrival. Yet the men of the Diamond Mine went below that morning, as usual, and with only 54 feet of sand and surface drift between them and an untold weight of water, began the day’s work which they never finished.

1883 Braidwood Mine Map

1883 Braidwood Mine Map

At about 11 o’clock in the morning the “cager” at the bottom of the main shaft discovered an unusual amount of water flowing to the bottom, and sent word to that effect to the men at the different working places, by the drivers who came to the shaft with their loaded cars. Being still uneasy about it, he came to the top to ascertain if possible the cause of it. Making no discoveries he descended the shaft again, and reaching the bottom found the volume of water already so great that he had difficulty in rescuing a boy, who had charge of a door near the shaft, with whom he at once ascended again to the top. By this time those who had taken the alarm were clamboring out by the escapement shaft, and the mine was now filling so rapidly that those who failed to receive the alarm, or were at too great a distance from the shaft, were speedily and hopelessly shut off from all escape whatever. By reference to the accompanying map of the mine1, it will be seen that the point at which the break-through took place, is on the eastern boundary of the workings, while the principal working place was at the western extremity—the main or hoisting shaft being midway between them. In this, as in other mines, the main shaft was located in the dip, or lowest point of the coal, so that all water which accumulated in the mine could flow to the shaft, and then be raised with pumps to the surface. The depth of the old air-shaft, near the break, was 68 feet, that of the main shaft was 84 feet, and that of the escapement 75 feet. The first rush of water was consequently to the bottom of the main shaft, that being the lowest point, and all escape at that point would be shut off some time before the outer galleries of the mine would be filled. It is probable, therefore, that no water would reach the working places on the west boundary until it was really too late to make any escape except by the escapement shaft. The bottom of this shaft being nine feet higher than that of the main shaft, it would afford an opportunity for egress after it was no longer possible to reach the bottom of the main shaft. To this point those who did escape made their way, and at this point the last desperate struggle of those who barely escaped was made, and, groping for this outlet in despair, having almost reached it, twenty-two men awaited and accepted their doom.

Unhappily there was a fatal defect in the construction of the roadway leading to this escapement shaft, which proved full of fatal consequences. At a short distance from the bottom of this shaft there was a dip or declivity in the roadway, followed by a corresponding rise, and creating a hollow about fifteen yards in length. Of course this hollow would be filled with water to the roof, while the road on either side of it was still out of water, and thus the advantage of the higher ground at either end would be neutralized and lost. It will be seen by statements made hereafter by those who escaped last by this route, that they had to dive or plunge through this fifteen yards of water in order to reach the bottom of the escapement shaft. Had such an emergency as this been foreseen or anticipated, it would have been a simple matter to have taken down the top and filled up this road to a uniform level, thus affording safe egress, possibly, to the entire working force, before being finally overtaken by the water. Another complication arises in all such cases as this, from the doors set across the roadways for the purpose of directing and controlling the currents of air. One of these doors being cloned, with the weight of a body of water against it equal to its own dimensions, would constitute a barrier as impassable as a wall of rock,—and so, doubtless many desperate men found it. Those who did escape, had their most dreadful struggle with the doors leading to the escapement _____, and the location at which the bodies of twenty-two others _______ ___ indicate that they may have had a similar struggle _______.

It will thus be seen that when this ____________ water began its headlong rush into the cavaties of the _______________ first closed the exit by the main shaft, the ________________ and then hermetically sealed the doors, _________________ more remote recesses of the mine at ________________.

As soon as the nature and _________________________ be realized on the surface, active ____________________________ taken for the rescue of those who were yet within the mine. These were, however, as brief as they were futile. It was as difficult to get into the mine as it was to get out. Mr. Skinner, the pit boss, descended the main shaft, but found only water, and the black damp so heavy as to put out his light. Two men, however, Harmon Unger and Blazius Shatzel by name, succeeded in making an entry by the escapement shaft, but they never returned. Their bodies were found afterwards among the twenty-two victims near the bottom of the shaft; and their widows, and children and friends can only lament their fruitless heroism. This closed the chapter, and completed the death roll.

Some hope was at first entertained that there might be higher points in the mine to which the victims might retire and by some means maintain themselves alive until the water could be removed; but it was a forlorn hope, born of despair, and failed to sustain the most sanguine after a moment’s reflection. The probability was greater that those who escaped drowning, if any there were, would perish with deadly gases, forced by the water from every crevice of the mine, within an hour after the mine filled.

Having thus briefly sketched in outline the circumstances attending this tragic event, we introduce here the written statements of some of those who participated in the scenes, both inside and outside the mine, during those few fateful moments in which the destinies of so many men were being sealed.

First is the statement of James Glasgow, the weighman, or top boss of the flooded mine:

“I was on the top attending to my usual duties on the 16th of February last. We had had a change in the weather some days previous, with considerable rain and a higher temperature. The day was very misty, and the prairie was covered with water as far as could be seen. Everything had gone right until half-past eleven a. m., when the cager came up to the top, reporting unusual water at the bottom, and went across to the escapement shaft to ascertain if any water was getting in there. Finding none, he said he thought it must have broken through in some other place. He descended the shaft again, but found the water waist deep and rising rapidly. He called to the trapper boy, who had charge of the door for regulating the current of air. The boy was on the other side of the door, and was unable to pull the door open. The cager then made his way to the door, and after the most strenuous effort succeeded in getting the door open sufficiently to allow the boy to get out, and assisted him to get to the shaft, when they both came safe to the top.

“Meantime, I had sent one of the top men to look around the dirt dump, and see if he could discover the break. He reported that on reaching the end of the dirt dump he discovered water boiling three feet above the surface near the old air shaft. We hastened to see, and discovered the water rushing into the break like a whirlpool, and could hear the noise for a quarter of a mile. I was alarmed, and neither of the bosses being on the ground, telephoned to Mr. Mackay, the superintendent, and told the engineer to sound the alarm whistle. Mr. Mackay arrived within five minutes, and went around to examine the nature and extent of the break. Meantime, Mr. Skinner, the pit-boss, had made an effort to get down the hoisting shaft, but could not reach the bottom with a light, the water having reached the roof, and the black damp being too strong for a lamp to burn. On coming to the top he found Herman Unger and Blazius Shatzel there, both of whom immediately went over to the escapement shaft, and down the ladders, with a view of rendering assistance to their fellow-workmen. They never came back. By this time a crowd was gathered around the shaft, but the water had risen so rapidly there was no possibility of rescuing the men inside.”

The following is the statement of Peter Johnson, one of the survivors, a young Swede:

“I was at work in the old Diamond shaft, in the extreme south west entry. The driver came running in and gave the alarm that the water had broken in. There were ten men at work there in five places. All of us quit work and hurried out towards the shaft, and met the water first at the west switch, and before reaching the door leading to the escapement shaft we had to wade through three feet of water. Four of us come out together to that point, and found twelve or fifteen men there ahead of us. It took the united strength of as many as could get at the door to force it open against the pressure of the water. I was the last to go through, and the weight of the water pressed the door together, and caught my foot and jammed it very badly before I could get it away. After a struggle, I got loose, and followed the others. I found them at the point where the bottom dipped and made a hollow, between us and the escapement shaft. (See map). In this hollow the water was up to the roof, and the distance through it was, I should think, twelve or fifteen yards. Most of the men thought it impossible to get through, but a man named Smith urged on us all to try. He said he would die if he staid there, and he would rather die trying to get through. He went into the water, and called to me to come on. He seized me by the arm, and holding on to each other we struggled on until we finally came through at the other end completely exhausted. After resting long enough to recover our breaths, we climbed the stairs and were safe.”

The next statement is made by a young Scotchman, lately arrived in this country, by the name of William Dennison.

He says: “I was working at the face when the alarm was given by one of the drivers, and as I had been afraid of the water, I ran out at once, with the others, without stopping for our clothes. I was not much acquainted with the roads, so had to follow the others, trusting to their knowledge of the way. We had not gone far before we met the water. It seemed to swell before us. I heard some one shouting to others that they had gone the wrong way, and hurrying after them as if to bring them back, but I never saw any of them afterwards. When we got to the door leading to the escapement it took seven of us to get it open. The water was surging against it in great waves, and rising with every wave. When we had forced our way through the door, we found about fifteen men in there ahead of us, and up to their chins in water, and the dip ahead of them filled to the roof. Some crying, some praying, and all hopeless of getting any farther. Then Smith called out that it was death to stay there, and he would rather die trying to get through. Six of us plunged after him into the watery tunnel. I got down on my hands and knees, and began to grope my way through in the dark, hurrying, and trying to hold my breath. Just as I thought I must be nearly through, I found my way obstructed by a fall of rock, against which I struck my head with such force as to be almost stunned, but I rallied again and made my way over it, and then encountered two men struggling wildly in the passage. Fortunately I escaped their dying clutches, for another moment’s delay would have been fatal to me. A few more struggles brought me suddenly to the end, and I emerged from the water close to the bottom of the shaft. The water ran from my nose and mouth for some time, but I soon recovered strength to go up the ladder, where I found my father and brother, both of whom had been at work in the mine, but had escaped before I did. They had about given me up. I was the last to come through the water and Smith was the last to climb the shaft.”

Succeeding the fruitless impulse to save, came the resolution to at least recover the bodies of the dead. Nothing more remained which could be done, and even that proved almost arduous undertaking.

First the exact spot where the crevasse had taken place had to be located and inspected. With the aid of a boat the vortex was reached, and found to be about 50×90 feet in area. Nothing could, of course, be done towards removing the water from the mine until the construction of a coffer-dam around this place so as to shut off the further flow of water into the workings. To accomplish this required the building of a dam 5,000 feet in length, in water three feet in depth—an undertaking in itself requiring much time, skill and labor. Fortunately there was an abundance of assistance at hand.

All the mines in the vicinity at once suspended operations, and both the miners and superintendents directed all their energies and resources to the work of recovery. In the course of a few days the dam was completed, and the company’s pumps, augmented by as many others as could be advantageously placed, were at once set in motion for the purpose of hoisting a body of water, the volume of which could only be conjectured.

The equipment in the way of pumps and hoisting apparatus was as follows:

1 No. 9 Knowles pump, with capacity of 520 gal. per minute,
1 No. 8 400
2 No. 7 Crane’s 600
3 No. 6 510
2 Water-tanks constructed in the cages 560

Making a total of 7 pumps and two tanks, with an aggregate capacity of 2,590 gallons per minute, or an effective capacity, allowing one-third off for delays, of 1,726 gallons per minute, or 2,500,000 gallons per day.

These powerful pumps were driven to the limit of their capacity night and day until the 26th day of March—thirty-eight days after the flooding of the mine.

On the 25th the first descent was made to the mine below, and on the 26th the first bodies were recovered. The mine itself was found to be a total wreck. The water had carried with it, to all parts of the works, vast quantities of mud from the surface, and had loosened and displaced supporting timbers, and had so softened the roof that it fell in large masses as soon as the water was taken out.

This not only blockaded the roadways, but also so obstructed the air-courses that it was impossible to re-establish the circulation sufficiently to displace the accumulated black damp. The entrance into the workings was consequently attended with great difficulty and danger—not only from the accumulations of gas and debris, but from the loosened and impending rocks which were falling and liable to fall at any moment.

Volunteer exploring parties were, however, speedily organized, and led by men of nerve and experience, descended into the pit while it was still necessary to wade through the receding waters.

The individual experience of some of those who were engaged in this search for the dead is given herewith, as procured in writing by Mr. Gumming.

Mr. E. D. Phillips says: “Shortly after the water was down so that a search could be made, I became one of a party of explorers who undertook to go into the mine. We found the bottom of the shaft and the roadways in a terrible condition. The water had washed gravel, sand and rubbish into and across the shaft bottom to a depth of about four feet. Found the water running also about four feet deep in the roadway on the east side. I made my way to the door which had stopped the men from reaching the bottom of the main shaft, owing to the weight of water which had rested against it. Immediately behind this door lay the bodies of four men; two more lay near the stable, which was situated in the southwest corner of the bottom pillar, and before reaching the return air-way, several others were discovered lying more or less under the fallen rock. We found the bodies of the three Pearson brothers on the top of some framing of timbers. They were arm-in-arm, the youngest, a lad of about 15 years, in the middle. He had a large stone lying on his head. There were twenty-two bodies in all recovered at this time, all in the space between the door and the roadway leading to the escapement shaft. They were all in such a state of decomposition that it was impossible to identify them except by their clothing. We advanced and tried to reach the escapement shaft, but found it at that time impossible, as the water in the low place there was still nearly up to the roof. In the other direction we advanced about 250 yards, until our progress was stopped by the fallen rock. I only estimated the distance, as I had no way at the time of measuring it. We found no more bodies, however, and came out.”

The following is the account of Mr. William Smith, a most discreet and courageous explorer:

He says: “Accompanied by Mr. Ramsey, superintendent of the Braceville Coal Co., Mr. Swansbourg, pit-boss of No. 2 Braceville, and some others, Aaron Green and myself went up to the Diamond when it was ready to be searched for bodies. We all went down the shaft, and there found the bodies which had been discovered by the first exploring party, and while they were being taken to the surface, we went on in search of other victims of the flood. We found the roadways very badly caved in, and in a very dangerous condition. We had great difficulty in making our way over the falls, and this was materially increased by the bad condition of the air, which was so heavy we could hardly keep a light. To guard against danger from the gas, I kept some distance ahead of the party with a safety lamp, they following with the naked lights. It required the efforts of the whole party in some places to make a passage-way at all, but after a great struggle we succeeded in reaching the main switch or parting, a distance of perhaps 2_0 yards from the shaft, and found we could proceed no further, on account of a heavy fall. All that day was spent trying to force our way by digging and crawling under and over the piles of rock, past this obstruction. The night shift came on and relieved us, and in the morning we again relieved them at this work, and continued the effort to get over the fall until 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the second day, when we finally reached the roadway on the other side. Some distance further on we came upon the bodies of two mules, but made no other discoveries. On the next day I made a further search in this entry, and reached the working face, though in some places wading in water waist deep, but no other bodies were found than those of the mules. This was in the entry running north of west. The day following we went into the entry running south, until we were stopped by falls, which completely blocked up the entry; and as the black damp was too strong for a light to burn, we were compelled to abandon the effort in that direction. On Friday morning we got through into the main west entry, and after a very arduous effort we stopped to rest and smoke a bit; but while the others were resting, I went on a short distance, and there discovered six bodies, all on top of the timbers. I went on a little further to make sure there was no danger, and then called up my mates, and we then counted the bodies. Afterwards I pushed on, and by dint of hard creeping and tight squeezing, reached the working face, but discovered nothing more. We then went out and reported to Mr. Mackay, and decided to make some small sleds, on which to remove the bodies. While these were being made, men were vigorously at work on the roadways cutting a passage sufficient to admit of the sleds and coffins. This was not accomplished until Sunday morning about 10 o’clock, and Sunday afternoon the bodies finally reached the surface.”

Mr. Smith and his party were engaged in prosecuting this search seven days, and they were paid by the Braceville Coal Company, which company being identified with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, also tendered free transportation to any point on their lines, to such surviving relatives as might wish to go to their friends, and many improved the opportunity to seek new homes.

The following statement is made by William Galacher, an intelligent man who had long been employed as an under boss in the mine, and is now mining boss at Illiana. He knew every part of the “Diamond” and is reliable.

“I was away from home when the accident occurred but returned shortly after, and was there when the search for the bodies took place. We got down the shaft for the first time on the 25th of March, and found two or three feet of sand and debris all across the bottom. We had first to brattice off the north and west side of the shaft in order to conduct the air into the workings before we could commence the search. On going through the door on the southwest road we found five bodies, and from there on to the road leading to the escapement we discovered seventeen more. They were all in an advanced stage of decomposition, and were very difficult to identify. The first bodies were removed to the top on the 2_th. The search was continued all along the west road, which was very badly obstructed. John Ormond, mine boss of the Eureka Coal Company, and David Skinner, mine boss of the flooded mine, made a very thorough search of the north entry, but no other bodies were found until Friday, the 29th, when six more were discovered by William Smith, of Braceville, in the southwest entry. These were finally recovered on the following Sunday. I believe the company prosecuted the search vigorously as long as there was any hope, and that if the location of other bodies could have been known, it would have been impossible to have reached them or removed them.”

After the recovery of the last six bodies, and a thorough search of all the accessible recesses of the mine, it became evident that the bodies of the remaining victims must have been buried in the ruins, and could not be reached, except at great risk of life, and further effort at recovery was abandoned. The company offered to continue the pumping, and to afford all the necessary facilities, if men could be found to go on with the explorations below, but the improbability of any further satisfactory results deterred the men from taking any more risks.

Consequently by general consent, though not without the protest of those most deeply afflicted, the long sustained effort was at last suspended. The dead were identified and buried. The fires were drawn from the furnaces, the pumps ceased, the shaft gradually filled again with water, and the late populous mine became simply the silent sepulcher of the unrecovered dead. And such it will ever remain. The property is abandoned, and will be only known in the future as the scene of the great tragedy.

Such is a simple outline of this notable and deplorable event. It requires no effort of the imagination to fill in the details of the picture with the horrors within the pit, with the homes made desolate, the wretched women made widows, the helpless children thrown hungry upon the world, and all the wreck of human happiness entailed by this waste of human life, but such details have no place here.

The simplest narrative of the facts is sufficient to emphasize these plain lessons: that men should not be sent into, nor permitted under any circumstances to enter a mine known to be unsafe; that an unobstructed and available roadway to an escapement shaft is as essential as the shaft itself; that every mine, and especially one like this, exposed at frequent intervals to the gravest perils, should have an effective system of signals to convey an instant alarm to all parts of the works. If there are any compensations for such a calamity as this, they can only be found in the greater vigilance and caution exercised by those who still have the lives of others in their keeping.

It is due to the proprietors of this property to note the activity and energy with which, after the event, they entered upon the work of rescue and recovery. No effort and no expense was spared to mitigate the consequences of the disaster, and it is stated upon good authority that not less than $20,000 was expended by the company in the recovery of the victims, and that their whole loss was $40,000. The superintendents and officers of the adjacent mines, and of the Chicago and Alton Railroad, also contributed promptly from their resources such men and material as could be used, while the miners themselves were quick to render any possible service, to the neglect, for many days, of their regular vocation. And not only the miners of Braidwood but those of other towns, and of distant States, began at once with characteristic generosity and alacrity to make up contributions for the survivors.

Indeed, this case seemed to appeal in a peculiar manner to the active sympathy of the people at large, and contributions of money began to flow in from all quarters for the relief of the women and children who had been left destitute. The thirty-third General Assembly of the State, being then in session, also took official cognizance of this sudden distress brought upon so many of its people, and made an appropriation of $10,000, to be expended in their behalf. A committee of responsible persons was appointed at Braidwood to receive and disburse all these funds, and from their last report the following statement is summarized:


From Chicago $7,905 59
” Braidwood 4,546 70
” Braceville 2,551 20
” Wilmington 600 83
” Joliet 2,063 88
” Lockport 92 45
” Lemont 301 45
” Bloomington 545 67
” Streator 2,065 00
” Miscellaneous 6,797 11
The State appropriation 10,000 00
Total for Illinois $37,469 88
Total for Iowa $1,448 25
” ” Missouri 227 59
” ” New York 2,197 70
” ” Indiana 125 00
” ” Kansas 160 02
” ” Wisconsin 203 20
” ” Ohio 28 00
” ” Pennsylvania 98 30
” ” Michigan 81 00
” ” New Mexico 102 00
” ” Maryland 88 00
Total $42,228 85

From this generous fund distribution has been made among the resident survivors of the deceased, on the basis of $1.50 a week to each member of a family numbering six or more; $1.60 a week to each member of a family of five; $1.70 a week to each member of a family of four; $1.85 to each of a family of three; $2.50 to each of a family of two, and $4.00 a week to widows and aged women.

In making final settlements with families desiring to remove from the place, the following scale was adopted: To each widow, $800; to widow and one child, $500; to widow and two children, $600; to widow and three children, $700; to widow and four children, $800; to widow and five children, $900; and to widow and six children, $1,000.

In this manner over $17,000 have been disbursed, and plans are being devised for the purchase of simple homes for the 20 families still remaining in the village, and for their maintenance until they can become self-supporting.

This bountiful provision made for the relief of the physical wants of these unfortunate people, has done much to alleviate their sufferings, and, as an expression of the universality of human sympathy, constitutes the only redeeming feature of the situation.


Source: Statistics of Coal Production in Illinois, 1883, A Supplemental Report of the State Bureau of Labor Statistics, by John S Lord, Secretary; Springfield, ILL: HW Rokker, Printer and Binder.

  1. Map drawn by Mr. James Finley 


  1. Kathleen Chmura

    so interesting and so sad. my husband and are always interested in coal mining, and sadly, their disasters

  2. Tom Greggs

    My great grandfather James Greggs was a foreman at one of the mines at the time of the disaster. I’d appreciate knowing if there is any record still in existence of his time there. He went on to be a foreman at the mine in Newcastle WA.


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