At 9:40 in the morning on May 27, 1925, a massive explosion
shook the town of Coal Glen, N.C. "All at once, we heard
this big noise, like booooom, and black smoke just boiled and
rolled up in the sky," recalled Margaret Wicker, who was
a young girl at the time. The blast came from the Deep River
Coal Field, where local miners were working nearly a thousand
feet underground. The explosion, probably touched off by either
coal dust or natural gas, was devastating: fifty-three miners
Ben Dixon McNeill covered the catastrophe for Raleigh's News
& Observer as a correspondent and photographer. His
first-person accounts appeared on the newspaper's front page
for five straight days and included a retelling of his descent
into the mine on May 31st. Seven photographs accompanied his
articles on May 28th and 29th; the two images displayed here
appeared in the latter issue with a caption
that stated the photographs "need no explanation."
The tragedy helped to speed passage of the the state's Workers'
Compensation Act, passed in 1929. North Carolina was the forty-fourth
state to pass such legislation.
The presence of Deep River coal was first noted in print in
1820 in a letter to the American Journal of Science by Professor
Denison Olmsted, chair of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology
at the University of North Carolina. Olmsted, and later H. M.
Chance in an 1885 report, noted that earlier uses of coal to
meet local needs most likely dated to before 1775. The Deep
River Coal Field is the only noteworthy source of coal in the
state. There are some "sporadic deposits," as Chance
described them, in the Dan River region from the Virginia border
southwest to Germanton on the border between Stokes and Forsyth
Attempts to develop commercial mining efforts in the Deep
River Coal Field began during the early 1850s, and had a rocky
history. The Western Railroad, chartered in 1852, was the first
railroad to reach into the region. Completed in 1863, its purpose
was to connect the coalmines centered at the village of Egypt
(renamed Cumnock in 1895) to the riverside port of Fayetteville
on the Cape Fear to the southeast. Coal was mined at three
towns within a four-and-a-half mile band, all within close
proximity of the Deep River: Egypt, Gulf (upstream to the west
of Egypt) and Farmville (downstream and directly to the east
The mine at Egypt closed down in 1870 and remained flooded
until 1888. Three years earlier, in 1885, H. M. Chance submitted
his "Report on an Exploration of the Coalfields of North
Carolina," which identified two coal beds between Egypt
and Farmville that might be worthy of thorough exploration,
but doubted the likelihood of large scale production. Furthermore
he did not believe further expenditures would be justified outside
of the limited area. When Chance described Deep River Coal Field,
he listed eight "Obstacles to Successful Mining,"
In the Richmond coalfield great trouble has been caused
by what is called spontaneous combustion. Judging from the
similarity of the coals it seems possible that this same
difficulty may obtain here. While this is a mere supposition,
it is one that cannot safely be ignored.
The Egypt mine reopened in 1888 and ran continuously through
1902 after sizeable gas explosions in 1895 and 1900, and financial
difficulties once again forced closure. In 1915, Norfolk Southern
Railroad obtained the property and ran the mine under the name
of Cumnock Coal Company, the word Egypt having become synonymous
with explosions and failures. The company supplied coal primarily
for railroad purposes and was a small operation. In September
1922 the Erskine Ramsey Coal Company purchased the company with
plans to significantly enlarge the enterprise and its output.
Around 1921, the Carolina Coal Company developed a mine on
the site of the old Farmville village on the Chatham County
side of the Deep River, less than two miles east of the Cumnock
There is some confusion over the name of the event. The News
and Observer called the event the "Cumnock Mine Disaster"
in its initial coverage and a negative envelope in the Ben Dixon
McNeill Collection carries the same title. The Cumnock Mine,
however, was not the mine where the accident occurred. Farmville
was later renamed Coalglen, or alternately Coal Glen at a date
not readily available. The disaster has since been referred
to in association of one of these three nearby locations. The
dateline in the New York Times is from Coal Glen.
“Red Sand Stone Formation of North Carolina: Extract
of a letter from Professor D. Olmstead, of the College at Chapel-Hill,
North-Carolina, dated Feb 26, 1820.” American Journal
of Science, 2:1 (April 1820), 175-176.
Wilkes, Charles. Report on the Examination of the Deep
River District, North Carolina. Caption title: Report
of the Secretary of the Navy, communicating the report of
officers appointed by him to make the examination of the
iron, coal and timber of the Deep River country, in the state
of North Carolina, required by a resolution of the Senate. [Washington,
Report on an Exploration of the Coal Fields of North Carolina:
made for the State Board of Agriculture. Raleigh, N.
C.: P. M. Hale, state printer and binder, 1885.
Campbell, Marius R. and Kent W. Kimball. The Deep River
Coal Field of North Carolina. Prepared by United States
Geological Survey, in cooperation with the North Carolina
Geological and Economic Survey, 1923.
Coal Deposits in the Deep River Field, Chatham, Lee, and
Moore Counties, N.C.: Washington, D.C.: United States
Government Printing Office, 1952.
Reinemund, John A. Geology of the Deep River Coal Field,
North Carolina. Washington, D. C.: United States Government
Printing Office, 1955.
World Wide Web Sources:
Wicker: The Coal Glen Mine Disaster
Coal Glen Mining Disaster