When the River Rushed In: The Knox Mine Disaster, 22 January, 1959
By Martha Capwell-Fox
At 11:40 AM on January 22, 1959, miners in the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope Mine broke through the bottom of the Susquehanna River bed, and triggered the anthracite region’s worst mine flood disaster. Billions of gallons of water inundated the tunnels below, as most of the 81 miners fled for their lives. Thirty-six men escaped almost immediately, and another seven emerged later in the afternoon from a long-abandoned air shaft that two veteran miners remembered. Seven hours after the breach, a rescue team found 26 more men wandering half-flooded mines, but 12 miners drowned and remain entombed in the mine.
Then began the huge task of plugging the horrifying whirlpool of icy water being sucked down into the mines. For two months, railroad cars, mine cars, and cement were poured into the hole before it was sealed. Attempts were made to pump out the water that still flooded the mines, but with the anthracite industry already in a steep decline and the bankruptcy of the Knox company, they were abandoned. Later inquiries and academic studies, such as the paper presented by Robert Wolensky, Ph.D. at the 1996 Canal History and Technology Symposium, revealed that extensive corruption and collusion by the Knox Company, and the United Mine Workers Union, and the involvement of organized crime in the anthracite industry all contributed to the disaster. But no meaningful penalties or remedies were ever exacted.
The Knox Mine disaster marked the beginning of the end of deep anthracite mining in Pennsylvania. Declining demand for coal, coupled with the costs of constant pumping, doomed the industry and the once-flourishing economies of Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties.
It has been 63 year since the tragedy. In 2022, two memorial markers near the site of the River Slope mine, and the annual memorial ceremonies in honor of the dead remain. And local residents say that when the Susquehanna is low, parts of train cars that were dumped into the breach can still be seen as a reminder of the industry that once dominated the region.
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