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THE CHERRY HILLS MINING DISASTER OF 1909
Cherry
Bureau County, Illinois
List of Victims - Source - Illinois State Historical Material; Additional Information Susan Cook
Images - LOC
Story from The World Magazine 1911


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Eight Days In A Burning Mine
Told by Thomas White, and set down by Louis Murphy.

A List of Victims is located at the bottom of this page

The Cherry Mine disaster of November 13th, 1909, was one of the most awful calamities in the history of American mining, nearly three hundred men losing their lives. This remarkable narrative gives the experiences of a man who, with nineteen others, was imprisoned in the bowels of the burning mine for eight days and lived to tell the tale. Driven away from the shaft by flame and smoke, the little band found the deadly "black-damp" closing in about them and retreated to the farther recesses of the workings.

Here, by the advice of their heroic leader, they literally buried themselves alive, hoping against hope that rescue would come before the fresh air gave out. Finally, even their solitary lamp refused to burn in the foul atmosphere, the men's brains began to give way from the awful strain, and death drew very near. No such story as this has ever been, told before in the annals of coal-mining.
 
There are few people in America who are not familiar with the chief details of the Cherry Mine disaster of Saturday, November 13th, 1909; but for the benefit of those readers of The Wide World Magazine, who may not have read of this, the most terrible mining calamity in the history of the United States, the following brief summary of the leading points of the death dealing holocaust may be useful as a preface to the narrative of my experiences on that fateful day and during the following never-to-be forgotten week.

The Cherry Mine, located at Cherry, in Bureau County, Illinois, was owned and operated by the St. Paul Coal Company, Illinois, been in operation for about four years, and was considered one of the best mines in the Central Illinois Coalfield. There were two veins, or levels, being worked, and two shafts descended to the upper one of these, which was known as the "Second Vein." Only one shaft communicated with the lower or third vein, and this fact was in large part responsible for the loss of life in the fire. The latter shaft was called the escapement shaft, and the one which terminated in the second vein was called the main shaft. The men, coal, and waste matter were raised out of the mine on a cage operated by a hoisting-engine in the main shaft, and from the third vein to the second vein on another cage in the escapement shaft, similarly manipulated.

On the day of the calamity there were about four hundred men working in the mine -- two hundred and fifty in the second vein, and the remainder in the lower level. About half-past one o'clock in the afternoon a car of hay that was being pushed along a track between the shafts in the second vein took fire from a blazing oil torch stuck in the wall there. The men at work near by, with the carelessness born of Iong experience with small fires, at first regarded the conflagration without alarm. The car was run to the escapement shaft, and dumped down it to the third vein, where it was thought it would burn itself out on the bottom without igniting the timbers of the shaft. Left thus unheeded, the fire gained a foothold in the shaft before any effort was made to extinguish it. Then the officials and employees lost their heads, and wasted much valuable time in a futile effort to put out the fire, instead of warning the men and getting them out of the mine. Thus it happened that many of the men did not learn of the outbreak until they finished work after three o'clock and came to the shaft to be hoisted to the surface.

The fight with the fire was finally abandoned, and an effort was made to rescue as many of the men as was possible. The cage, with a rescue party of twelve men, made several trips to the second vein, bringing back numbers of miners. At about half-past three, however, it made its last trip. After it had been down for some time, confused signals came to the hoisting-engineer, leaving him in doubt whether or not to hoist the cage. He temporized, and when he finally raised the cage the rescue-party lay burned to death on its floor.

The mine was then sealed up, so that the fire would die out from lack of oxygen, and all efforts to enter it failed until the following Saturday--one week after the fire had broken out, when a rescue party went below and found twenty men in the second vein who had managed to remain alive, and these were saved. The rest of the miners in both veins, about three hundred in number, were found dead.

I was one of the unfortunate men who were imprisoned in the mine on the day of the fire, and also one of the fortunate twenty who managed to survive the dangers and terrors of the fire and subsequent closing of the mine, and who were rescued one week later. In the following narrative I have endeavoured to give a truthful account of my experiences during that terrible week as well as I can remember them. The horror and hopelessness of our situation temporarily affected my mind, and the adventure takes a place in my memory like some awful nightmare, of which only the salient details are clear.

On the day of the fire I was at work in the second vein, about a mile from the main shaft in a southerly direction, with my partner, or " buddy," John Lorimer. We were, I think, about the farthest away from the shaft of any of the men working in the mine, and to this may be attributed the fact that no hint that anything was wrong reached us until we stopped working as usual shortly before half-past three o'clock, and set out for the shaft, to be hoisted out. With us went an old man named Alexander Kroll and his fifteen-year-old son, who worked near us.

After we had proceeded about half a mile towards the shaft we detected a faint odour of smoke, which became more marked as we advanced, until it was almost unendurable. Then we knew that the mine was on fire and that there was danger ahead. We saw no men on our way -although many miners were afterwards found dead in the places through which we passed -- and thought that we might be the only ones remaining in the mine. We may have passed near other men in the darkness and smoke without seeing them or revealing our presence to them. Mr. Kroll, who was not as strong as the rest of us, was almost overcome by the smoke, and would have fallen had we not helped him along. It was pitiful to hear the boy exhorting us to save his father.

After what seemed an interminable time we finally reached the bottom of the main shaft. Everything combustible in the large open space about the shaft was enveloped in flames. Cars of coal, the mule-barn, the pump-house and other buildings, and the timbers of the shaft were all in a blaze. The heat was intolerable, and the smoke so dense that one could see only a few feet before him. It made out eyes smart so that tears ran from them. Staggering and choking, we groped our way to the shaft and looked for the cage, but it was not there.

This, we thought, confirmed our theory that we had been overlooked when the men were taken out, and were now left alone to die in the fire. Lorimer found the crank which rang the bell in the engine-room above to signal the hoisting-engineer, and frantically turned it several times. The iron handle was almost red-hot from the heat, and burned his hand so that he had to desist. The signal brought no result, and we looked in vain for the cage to appear amid the flames in the shaft. Some who have heard our stories since we were rescued think that the cage containing the rescue-party was even then in the shaft, being hoisted after its last trip, and that our signals, confused with those of the men in the cage, may have been responsible for its being lowered back into the flames, and the consequent death of the twelve rescuers. This may well have been the case, as our arrival there and the last trip of the cage almost coincided in point of time.

At first we saw nobody, except the four of our own party, but in walking about the shaft, I stumbled over the body of a man lying on the ground. He had been overcome by the heat and was unconscious. All efforts to rouse him failed, and when we departed we were compelled to leave him there, as we had all we could do to take care of ourselves, weakened as we were by smoke and poisonous gases.

  After we had waited some time for the cage to appear we decided to try to reach the escapement shaft, not knowing that the fire had first become dangerous there and was at its worst phase in that part of the mine. The distance between the two shafts was only about two hundred and fifty feet, but before we had gone half that distance we were driven back by the intensity of the heat and the dense smoke. We reached the bottom of the main shaft again choking and gasping for breath, and almost exhausted by the dangers and terrors of our journey.

In this attempt to reach safety we lost Kroll and his son, and although we called repeatedly to them, so that they would know where we were and could find us, we never saw or heard anything from them. They were found dead in this passage to the escapement shaft after the mine was reopened, clasped in each other's arms. The old man had probably been overcome by the smoke, and the brave boy had preferred to die rather than leave his father to perish alone.

It was now impossible for us to stand the heat and smoke about the shaft any longer, and we accordingly plunged into another passage that would lead us by a roundabout way almost to the escapement shaft. The smoke was not so thick here and almost seemed like pure air to us, coming as we did from the raging inferno about the main shaft. As we progressed the air cleared still more, and we recovered in a measure from our weakness and exhaustion.

It was now that we discovered the first evidence of living people that we had seen in the mine since leaving our working-places. As we hastened along we heard voices calling to us from an entry branching off from the road that we were pursuing, and entering it we found a large party of men, some quietly seated or lying down as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on in the mine, others standing in groups excitedly discussing the situation. It was Mine Manager George Eddy, an old and experienced official, who spoke to us and asked where we were going. We told him that we were trying to reach the escapement shaft, and he then informed us of the conditions existing there, and advised us to stop with their party and wait for the fire to die out about the shaft, when the cage would start running again and we should be rescued. We gratefully accepted the invitation and thenceforward remained with the party, and it was the comfort and cheering effect of this human companionship that greatly helped to enable us to bear up under the sufferings and vicissitudes of the dreadful days that followed.

George Eddy, the leader of our party, was a man well versed in mining in all its phases and conditions and without his intimate knowledge of what to do in a case such as ours we should have perished, like our unfortunate fellow-workers, before we had been in the mine a day. The heroic official had not been at work when the fire broke out, but had come from his home to the mine directly he heard of the disaster and joined in the work of rescue. Going down with the rescue-party he had travelled through the second vein, warning the men and starting them on their way to safety. When he returned to the main shaft himself he saw that no more miners could be rescued at that time, and, knowing that the safest place was deep in the mine, he had started for the interior and stopped all whom he met in their mad rush towards the seething inferno about the shaft and persuaded them to go with him. In this way he had collected a party of eighteen before we joined them. So well did he direct us that nearly the whole of the lives thus entrusted to his intelligence and strength were saved, and Eddy well deserved the medal awarded him by the Carnegie Commission last year.

The rest of my companions, besides Lorimer and Eddy, were, with four exceptions, men of foreign extraction, many of whom could speak only their native tongue. Some of them I knew personally or by name, while others were strangers to me. They were of all ages from eighteen to sixty, although most of them were young men between twenty-five and forty. I was at that time thirty-one years old, and my partner Lorimer was one year my senior.

The names of the men whom I have not mentioned before were Walter Waite, Frank Waite, John Brown, William Cleland, John Barnoski, John Semich, George Semich, George Stimez, Frank Samerania, Quartaroli Antenore, Fred Lauzi, Salvatore Piggatti, John Piggatti, Fred Prohaska, Frank Prohaska, Daniel Holafczak, and Bonfiglio Ruggeri. There was one other man whose name I never learned; he who died on Sunday, the second day of our imprisonment, from injuries received in trying, to get out of the mine, and was left by us in the passage when we retreated deeper into the mine. All the foreigners, with one or two exceptions, bore up as well under the sufferings and terrors of the situation as any of us.

The place where we were now was known as the main west roadway. The smoke had not yet permeated that vicinity to any marked degree, and we experienced no difficulty in breathing. The smoke near the shaft, however had dried and parched our throats, and we were already beginning to feel the pangs of thirst. With the exception of Eddy, who must have known the full extent of the disaster, I think that most of the men believed with me that there had not been much loss of life, and that few men besides ourselves remained below in the mine. We thought that all the men in the third vein had made their escape, and did not learn the real horror of the fire until we were rescued from the mine. Eddy would not enlighten us, as it would have served to cast down our spirits and discourage us from keeping up our fight for life, and every man had need of all the fortitude he could muster for the occasion.

We remained there during all Saturday night. Some of the men slept, but for the most part anxiety and fear banished all thought of slumber from our minds. We talked much, speculating on our chances of rescue and as to what scenes were now taking place above ground. The long hours wore away slowly, and but for the evidence of our watches we would have thought that days passed before we knew that it was morning. Twice Eddy and Walter Waite ventured forth towards the shaft to see if the flames had died down, but each time they were driven back by dense volumes of smoke.

On Sunday morning they started off on another of these trips, which was still more fruitless than before, as this time they were driven back by contact with black-damp, that terrible, deadly gas which forms in mines where air is not continually entering, from the mixture of air with the fumes given off by the constantly metamorphizing coal-beds. Eddy told us that the fact that this gas had formed meant that the surface openings of the shafts had been sealed up so as to put out the fire, which could not burn without air, and that we had probably been given up for dead by those above.

We now had a far more deadly enemy to fight than smoke and fire. All of us had heard of the workings of  the destroying black-damp, and we could see no way by which we could escape death from it, locked as we were underground, with no means of exit. For a time a grim despair settled down upon us and we awaited the time when death would overtake us, with a determination to meet it bravely and not to show weakness before our fellow men. This was the first of the periods of despair which alternated with those of hope at irregular intervals during the following days. When Eddy directed us to follow him farther down the passage to obtain a respite from the approaching black-damp we went as men walking in a dream, our senses numbed by the realization of the power of the terrible thing pursuing like a living destroyer.

  When our leader finally halted he made a short, cheering speech, stating that, although our chances of ever getting out of the mine alive were very small, we would fight to the end; and who could tell but that some miracle might yet spare us and allow us to return to our homes and families? Walter Waite suggested that each of us should write a letter to our wives, children, or friends and keep it on our persons, so that it would be found with our bodies if we failed to escape. This plan was welcomed as a diversion and afforded us a brief respite from the haunting fear of the deadly gas following us down the passage. Some of the men had note-books or other scraps of paper, but there was not enough to go around, and sometimes two of the letters were written on the same sheet of paper. Even as we wrote, the "black-damp" overtook us and we were compelled to plunge deeper into the cave that we expected to be our grave. The gas was odourless, but caused a suffocating feeling, as though a weight was crushing the chest, and a weakening sensation throughout the body. Our one thought at that time was to get as far into the mine as possible, and thus avoid contact with the gas until we could retreat no farther. We talked and laughed in wild hilarity to pass the time before death should overtake us. A conversation about the terrible responsibitity which must be felt by the cagers and men who had been working about the bottoms of the shafts when the fire broke out led Walter Waite to write on the back of George Eddy's farewell letter to his wife the following words, at the bottom of which he signed the names of all of us: " We, the undersigned, do not blame anyone for the accident that has happened to pen us in here, and we believe that everybody has done all in their power to relieve us. With best wishes to all concerned, we are" -- then followed our names.

  Prayers, led by Walter Waite, were held, in which all the men joined, and after that, the same service took place every day at two different times until our rescue. These services never failed to cheer us and strengthen our nerve to meet the death which we felt sure was in store for us.

  Time after time the black-damp overtook us and drove us farther down the passage. As Sunday night approached we came to the end of the gallery through which we were fleeing to a place known as the second north entry, off the main west roadway. The gas had now permeated the entire mine, and was exerting its sickening and weakening power on all the men of our party. Then it was that Eddy said "Well, boys, we will tell our lives as nearly as possible. Fall to here and build a wall to keep out the black-damp. There will be enough air in this entry to keep us alive for several days." Gladly we welcomed the suggestion, for, although it seemed a forlorn hope, it would keep us employed for a time and save us from absolute despair.

Securing picks and shovels, we started to build the structure which was to be the means of our preservation. Rocks broken from the wall and floor, and clay to fill the cracks, formed the materials for the work, and it rose gradually until only a small space remained to be filled at the top. We worked feverishly, inspired by the thought that we were fighting for our lives, although few of us expected the wall to avail against the deadly gas. Like drowning men clinging to a straw we worked at it for an hour. Some of the men, exhausted and overcome by the gas forming around us, fell fainting to the ground. It seemed for a while that we would be too weak to finish the work, but we kept at it doggedly and finally the last niche was closed and a solid mass stood between us and the black-damp. Already the air about us seemed purer and we became imbued with a feeling that the wall would save us.

The space which we had thus walled in, literally burying ourselves alive as it seemed to us, was about three hundred feet long and twelve feet wide. The air in here had not yet been greatly contaminated and was comparatively pure. We had nothing to eat or drink, and were already suffering extremely from thirst, but we had several lamps and oil enough to last for days, so that we thought there was no danger of being left in darkness. Eddy instructed us to put out all the lamps except one, not because we needed to be sparing of oil, but to keep the lights from consuming the small amount of air. Thus we passed Sunday night, sitting or lying about in different parts of the passage, waiting for we knew not what. I may have slept, and must have done so during that and the succeeding nights and days, but I do not remember ever closing my eyes. My remembrance of those days from Sunday to Saturday is of one long period of suffering from thirst and bad air, without sleep or other relief, now sitting down, now moving about, in never-ending monotony. The atmosphere was cold and damp, and one could not rest Iong on the ground without being chilled through and through. By walking about I kept my blood in circulation, and so managed to be quite warm.

Some time after we had walled ourselves in (it must have been on Monday morning) Eddy directed the men to search about the passage and see if they could find a wet place where, by tearing up the ground, we might make a reservoir in which the trickling moisture would collect, and so give us a small amount of water, which, if used sparingly, might relieve all of us a little. There are many such places in the floors of mines, and we were fortunate enough to find one in our passage. The water was stinted in quantity and of a bad taste, but it had to serve. It took an hour for a small swallow of water to collect in the hole which we hollowed out, and we took turns at drinking it, so that each man got only one small taste of water per day. Another method resorted to to relieve thirst was to chew the "Sunshine," a preparation for our lamps, which, after being chewed awhile, would become like gum and clear away the slimy, caked substance which collected on the roofs and sides of our mouths and on our tongues for lack of water. Some of the men chewed tobacco for the same purpose, but this only rendered the thirst more acute after the weed was gone.

Monday passed and Tuesday came, with the air becoming more impure and our thirst more acute every hour. At times one of the men would make a small opening in the wall leading to the outer passage and put his nose to the aperture to find out if the black-damp still lurked beyond the barrier. Sometimes he would stagger back from contact with the gas and the hole would be hastily closed up, but at other times fresh air would greet him, which showed us that the mine had been opened and the fan was in operation. This put new hope into our hearts, which, however, gave place to deeper gloom when the awful gas again began to pour through the opening.

As Tuesday night approached we noticed that the light of the lamp which we had burning was becoming dim. It was a "carbine" lamp, and a new charge was placed in it but failed to remedy the fault. Smaller and smaller burned the tiny flame, until it finally began to sputter as though coal-dust were being thrown upon it. An oil-lamp was lighted, but behaved in the same manner. Then we knew that light would soon refuse to live in the impure air about us, that our large supply of oil would avail us nothing, and that we should be left in darkness despite our precautions.

If lights would not burn, could men live there?  This was the question which each man asked himself, and answered in the negative. With awful fascination we watched the tiny sputtering flame as it burned lower and lower, looking forward with varied emotions to the time when it would die out altogether. At last it flared up suddenly and then disappeared. A match was lighted, only to go out before it could be applied to the wick. Although the loss of the light, showing us as it did the state of the air in our passage, led us to believe that death by suffocation was not far away, the darkness added to the terrors of our situation a hundredfold. One of the men suggested that all the matches should be given to one man, who should be delegated to keep time, and this was done, although the passage of time was of little interest to us now.

Such inky darkness as now enveloped us I have never before seen or hope to know again. A sense of solitude and loneliness took the place of the comfort of companionship which we had had when we could see each other by means of the light, and gloom and despair reigned supreme in that underground chamber of misery.

Thus it seemed that days passed. Save for the occasional drink of water vouchsafed us from the meagre well which we had made, the flash of a match as the timekeeper stole a hasty glance at his watch before the flame was killed by the bad air, the prayers and hymns in which we all joined at intervals, and the numerous experiments at tapping the wall to see if the blackdamp had disappeared, nothing happened to break the monotony of our dreary imprisonment. One of the foreigners, his mind affected by the horrors of our ordeal, began to chatter unintelligibly in his own language, keeping up the practice for hours at a time. I asked one of his countrymen what he was saying, but he said that he could not understand the talk himself.

Somehow we lost a day's reckoning in our time, and so, when we thought it was Friday, although it must have been Thursday, men began to report that water no longer collected in the hole that helped to preserve our lives. The news failed to cause even a depressing effect, so far had we given up hope of surviving more than a few hours longer, but nevertheless Eddy placed a guard at the place to see that no man was taking more than his share while another was waiting for the precious fluid to collect in the hole. After that the pool formed as usual at regular intervals, and each man took his turn at tasting the life-giving moisture. Whether some poor wretch, racked by the pains of a deadly thirst, had been stealing the shares of the water that belonged to his comrades, or whether the water had indeed ceased to flow for a brief period, or its disappearance was in our imaginations alone, I cannot say. All of us were reduced to such a state of distraction that we did not know which was the real explanation of the incident, and cared less.

On Friday Bonfiglio Ruggeri, an eighteen-year-old Italian youth, broke down under the strain of his sufferings and raved and groaned for hours. His insane utterances, added to those of the man whom I have mentioned before, produced a depressing effect on all of us. Finally he sank into a stupor, from which he roused himself occasionally for another incoherent outbreak, and continued so until our rescue.

Time passed, and our sufferings, from continuity, became less. Hopeless and too weak to get about except by crawling most of us lay waiting and longing for death as a deliverer. We thought it was Sunday morning, but it was really Saturday. A hole was broken in the wall which we had built, and we learned from the condition of the atmosphere beyond it that the mine was open again and the fan in operation. This failed to inspire more than a glimmer of hope, because it had happened so many times before, only to have the black-damp gather again and rush in upon us and the fresh air to melt away, leaving a keener sense of abandonment in its stead.
We knew that we could not live in that place another day. Already some of the men lay in a stupor, too weak to move, and in what seemed to us the last stages of dissolution. Resolving that it would be better to die in the outer passage, where our bodies would soon be found, than in the secluded gallery which we had walled in, we decided to let four men who felt strong enough to get about venture forth into the mine in search of water. Other parties were to follow them at intervals until we had all left. The four men were selected, an opening large enough for them to get out through was made in the wall, and, led by Frank Waite, they set forth. It was arranged that when they reached a certain point designated by Eddy they were to whistle to let us know if the air was good and they were still able to go on. After their departure an interminable length of time seemed to elapse as we waited there in expectant silence before we heard the sound of the whistle, cheering us and putting new hope into our hearts.

The second party, led by William Cleland, set out after the first four, with instructions that if they found water they were to bring some back to us, so that we might be relieved if the first party failed to return After that it seems to me that hours and even days passed as I lay on the floor of our prison, too weak to lift a hand, with my lips and tongue swollen and caked from thirst, waiting either for the return of the men we had sent for water, or for death to end my misery - I scarcely cared which. My remaining companions I could hear about me in the darkness, some groaning in their sufferings, some moving about to keep warm, and others watching for the return of those who had gone to look for water, and speculating on their chances of success in finding it.

  I emerged from a kind of half-stupor, into which I had fallen from exhaustion and suffering to find lights and many people in the place, and my fellow-sufferers getting to their feet with looks of joy and relief on their faces, imbued with new strength by the realization that rescue was at last at hand. A small swallow of water was given me by a man in a fireman's uniform, who refused to let me have more, saying that too much of it after so long a fast would do me more harm than good. All my strength seemed to return when I received that invigorating draught and I was able to get to my feet and walk to the bottom of the shaft without aid.

early all my companions seemed to be similarly affected, but a few had to be carried out unconscious and hardly alive after their terrible experience. One of these latter was old Daniel Holafczak, the oldest man of the twenty, who died before being hoisted to the surface, too weak to stand longer the sufferings which he had endured for a whole week, only to succumb at the moment of rescue.

When we reached the bottom of the shaft the reaction set in among those of us who had been strong enough to get there without help. Even as the black-damp had affected us when first we came in touch with it, so now the fresh air acted upon us, and we fell down weak and fainting, and remained so for hours after being hoisted out. I think the poisonous gas had slowly seeped through the wall into our enclosed space so that we had gradually become used to it.

When I thus collapsed at the bottom of the shaft I was wrapped in a blanket by kindly hands and given small drinks of water at brief intervals. At first chilled and weak from my contact with the fresh air I soon became used to it again, and a delicious feeling of warmth and repose came over me. After a short while, one by one, completely swathed in blankets, we were hoisted to the surface and conveyed to a hospital car that had been prepared for the emergency of finding live people in the mine. As I was taken from the cage I could hear the mad cheering of a tremendous crowd that had gathered at the top of the shaft on learning that men had been found alive. I was completely covered up, so that I could not see them, but the noise they made showed me that their number was large.

At the car we were attended by doctors and nurses and every kindness was shown us. I recovered my strength very slowly, but before night, at my own request, I was allowed to be taken to my own home. It was now I learned of the awful toll of life that the fire had exacted, and realized what a miracle had happened, in that we had survived and been brought back safe to our homes and families. Our rescue had been effected after all hope of finding live men in the mine had been abandoned by those working to save us or get our bodies out from below. Time after time during the week the mine had been unsealed and men had gone down to the bottom of the shaft, but each time the fire, enlivened by the air, burst forth anew, even as it did for weeks after our rescue. Finally tons upon tons of water had been thrown down the shaft and the fire had thus been extinguished for a considerable distance. Then the party which rescued us had set forth on an inspection of the mine, had met with our two searching parties in succession, and so had been guided to us.

In a few months I was quite recovered from the immediate effects of my week underground, but a pasty, whitish colour of the skin, sore eyes, a prematurely-aged appearance, and a sharp pain in my lungs at times while I am at work underground, with a lack of my previous energy and vitality, remain to remind me of those eight days of suffering and terror, over three hundred feet below the surface of the earth, imprisoned in the burning Cherry Mine.