As lunchtime neared, Maria Campbell stepped into the kitchen of her home in the tiny Pennsylvania coal town of Van Meter and began preparing lunch for her husband, William Campbell, a foreman at the nearby Darr mine. William’s habit was to exit the mine before noon and eat at his house, 50 yards from the mine’s mouth. Maria often looked out a back window and watched for her husband to approach. She expected him shortly.

That’s when she felt the earth move. Windows in her house shattered.

At the nearby Federal Supply Store, manager Frank Ballentine and employee Elmer Cunningham sat on chairs while a few customers wandered about. A shock wave struck the building, blowing in windows and flinging Ballentine and Cunningham to the floor; others in the store were thrown against walls and counters.

Across the Youghiogheny River, in Jacobs Creek, the Rev. F.B. Williams heard what he called a “heavy detonation.” Alarmed, he rushed outside to the lawn of the town’s Baptist church and looked over at the Darr mine. A plume of dark blue smoke billowed from the mine opening.

Moments earlier, at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 19, 1907, an explosion deep inside the mine hurled chunks of stone, coal and broken wooden supports from the mine entrance. The concussive force demolished nearby coal wagons and knocked horses and men from their feet. Plates fell from cupboards in nearby homes. People miles away heard the blast.

In the seconds after the explosion, Maria Campbell stepped from her house and entered a moment of silence. Then she heard the screams. Miners’ wives, some panicked, rushed from their homes and up the hillside to the mine entrance.

Maria joined them. Nearing the mine, the women saw a “ ghastly figure with a white disfigured face” stumbling blindly through the smoke and wreckage. 

“Where is my man?” Maria screamed at him.

A newspaper in West Newton reproduced a map showing the layout of Darr mine. Note: Van Meter is mislabeled as village of Jacobs Creek. (Rostraver Township Historical Society)

Standing in the church yard, Pastor Williams watched the smoke as it crossed the river and enveloped Jacobs Creek. “The odor of gas was sickening,” Williams later recalled. 

Wives and mothers in the town had by now rushed from their homes. Stunned and dismayed by what they were seeing, they quickly made their way to the river, which they intended to cross.

Men who lived in Van Meter converged on the Darr mine and instinctively began digging through debris now clogging the entrance. Within 15 minutes, they had cleared an opening and a small party stepped into the darkness. A crowd of women, many holding babies, stood nearby in the cold and waited to learn the fate of their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers.

Telegraph reports of the explosion quickly reached Pittsburgh. Officials at the Pittsburgh Coal Co., which owned the mine, ordered lower-level managers to the scene. Editors at the city’s newspapers dispatched reporters and photographers to the city’s train stations — either the B&O at the foot of the Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh’s Downtown section, or the P&LE, across the Monongahela River.

News of another mine disaster shocked a city familiar with the dangers of mining, an industry in the throes of a horrific month. It began Dec. 1 with an explosion that killed at least 35 miners at the Naomi mine near Fayette City in Fayette County. Later that week, on Friday, Dec. 6,  blasts in two mines killed 362 workers at Monongah, West Virginia, 90 miles from Pittsburgh. And just three days before, on Monday, Dec. 16, a mine explosion near Birmingham, Alabama, killed 57 miners.

How many were now entombed in the Darr mine? How many were injured? Several Pittsburgh physicians gathered bags of equipment and joined journalists and mine officials for the 40-mile train trip south to find out. 

In Van Meter, an increasing number of family members and friends of those employed at the Darr mine climbed an uneven road, slick with mud, that led to the mine entrance. Once there, they gathered while a chill wind sliced through the river valley. “Some stood shuddering in the cold, with stolid faces, hardly seeming to realize that they were about to become widows, orphans or friendless,” reported The Pittsburgh Press. “Others gave way to uncontrolled grief and uttered heart-piercing shrieks of grief and cries of anguish.”

One reporter spoke with a woman standing at a telephone booth waiting for operators to make a connection. Two wailing children gathered near her. The woman, identified as Mrs. John Niedermeir, yearned to talk to relatives in Pittsburgh. She and her husband, a Darr miner, had lived in Jacobs Creek for four years. After the explosion, friends told not to give up hope, John Niedermeir may yet be alive. She knew it wasn’t so. 

“Tonight I am so lonely, and I want to talk to my sisters, who will come to me,” she said.

As trains arrived at the B&O station in Jacobs Creek, on the east side of the Yough, passengers found themselves in the midst of a distressing scene. The only method of crossing the river was by means of a “sky ferry,” a basket-like car suspended from a cable over the rushing river. The car accommodated only six people. Desperate wives and mothers jostled feverishly for position as the basket approached. “They fought like demented people,” Pastor Williams reported.

Maria Campbell did not wait at the mine entrance for news of her husband’s fate. She returned to her home and waited with her daughter Fannie Sheppard, whose husband, Howard, worked with William Campbell in the Darr mine. Sheppard had exited the mine with a load of coal but returned to the pit 10 minutes before the explosion. Now mother and daughter both suspected the worst.

Maria knew something of grief. Her first husband, William Lester (some records spell the name Lidster), worked as a miner in Washington County and was a friend of Campbell. Years earlier, William Lester was struck by a train and killed while greeting his wife, who’d just returned from an trip to her native England. Two years later, Maria married Campbell, himself a widower.

The couple moved from Cecil in Washington County to Van Meter four months before. William Campbell, a veteran mine manager, came to the Darr mine reluctantly. The  oldest mine in the area, Darr was known to be gassy. Campbell ordered the creation of four new openings to improve ventilation.

Inside the mine, rescue teams led by mine inspectors made slow progress. In several places, roof falls blocked the path forward. Workers sometimes waded through knee-deep cone-shaped piles of dust and worried about a second explosion. Still, they pressed on.

Nearly a mile into the darkness, their lamps illuminated a ghastly scene. Five mutilated bodies lay near the ruins of a wood structure that served as headquarters for mine foreman Campbell. The force of the blast had beheaded at least one victim — several reports said this was Campbell, while others state the foreman’s body remained in one piece, though it was cut and burned almost beyond recognition.

Rescue organizers instructed that no bodies be brought out of the mine until the crowd had been cleared from the entrance.

After sundown, disturbing reports emerged from Jacobs Creek. The Gazette Times reported “much drunkenness” in the town. A number of Orthodox Christian miners had taken the day off to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas; now they cheered their fortune at being absent from work on a day when so many others died.

“The situation is not well controlled,” warned the Pittsburgh Post. “Mingled with the cries of half-distracted women are the shouts of rioters …. There is disorder on every hand and the fact that so many of the townspeople are dead in the wrecked Darr mine seems not to weigh heavily upon any but members of stricken families.”

A newspaper in Connellsville, 15 miles from the mine and perhaps more familiar with local residents and customs, insisted that such reports were overblown. Still, officials ordered the town’s one tavern to close.

Officials raised another concern: Con men posing as insurance agents and banking representatives were descending on the area to prey on grieving widows and slink away with what little money families had saved.

Crews worked in the mine throughout Thursday night and into Friday morning. A brilliant moon illuminated the hills. Their faces black with mine dust, exhausted workers ending their shifts staggered out of the mine and descended the slope to the mine office. The safety lamps they carried were visible from across the river as twinkling lights.

The Westmoreland County town of Van Meter on Dec. 21, 1907, two days after the Darr mine disaster. The white death tent can be seen at left. Darr mine is just south of Van Meter and out of the picture. (Rostraver Township Historical Society)

Shortly before dawn on Friday, wagons emerged from the mine with the first bodies, which were then carried to a makeshift morgue set up in the nearby blacksmith shop. 

Curious people continued to arrive. In nearby towns such as Smithton and West Newton, men and boys boarded passenger coaches that were “packed to suffocation,” reported the Connellsville Daily Courier. Others climbed on running boards or atop cars, forcing engineers to run the trains at slow speeds to avoid injury. Once in Van Meter, passengers in overcrowded cars climbed out through open windows.

Nearly 6,000 people gathered near the mine, according to one report. State police set up a rope line and struggled to hold back the crowd.

Toxic gasses that miners called “afterdamp” slowed the progress in the mine. Workers built bracing to hold up walls and ceilings. Horses could only go so far into the mine before blockages made it impossible for them to go further. From there, men carried wood bracing in and the dead out.

The explosion had hurled some victims hundreds of feet through the mine. Heads and faces were so battered as to be unrecognizable. The blast tore away arms, legs and ears and ripped out eyeballs. Flying fragments of stone and splintered wood mutilated limbs and torsos. Inspectors found bent iron rails and switch levers and demolished cars.

Recovery workers discovered the body of 18-year-old Arthur Hough under a 10-ton motor. Hough’s mother, Anna, arrived at the morgue to identify the body. There, she also found the remains of her husband, Solomon.

“That’s Sol’s shirt,” she said, standing with three of her children. “I washed it on Monday.”

In Jacobs Creek, a reporter canvassed 20 homes and counted 139 miners among the missing. At one house, six boarders were feared dead. Reporter C.H. Gillespie of The Pittsburgh Press walked the same streets and heard wailings of sorrow from inside homes.

Officials speculated on the number of dead. Some said as many as 500 miners had perished. Coal exectives disputed that number. Thanks to the Feast of St. Nicholas, they said, fewer than 200 miners were checked at the time of the explosion. The Pittsburgh Gazette Times gathered a list of 126 men known to be at work in Darr pit. Officials ordered 160 cloth-covered black coffins from Pittsburgh.

As the days passed and temperatures rose, the stench of decaying bodies hung over the area and filled the mine. Remains were wrapped in cotton sheets saturated with formaldehyde, then displayed in open caskets in a large white tent — referred to as the “death tent.” Sheets covered the stiffened bodies. Bundles at the foot of each casket held the dead’s clothing.

Bodies of dead miners lie in open caskets while awaiting identification after the Darr mine explosion on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2023. Each miner’s clothes are tied in bundles a the foot of that person’s casket. (Rostraver Township Historical Society)

Victims’ families and colleagues grew impatient at the pace of recovery and complained the coal company wasted time in order to save expenses. They pressed against the ropes meant to keep them back, challenging and sometimes threatening state troopers guarding the scene. “Shoot, shoot if you want to,” one man yelled.

For some, grief proved overwhelming. A father drowned himself in the Youghiogheny after learning of the death of his son and other relatives, one newspaper reported, and a grieving mother tried to leap from the sky ferry as it dangled over the river. Fellow passengers stopped her. Anna Sharpenberg, whose 16-year-old son, Joseph, died in the mine, was tied to a chair to keep her from harming herself, according to The Pittsburgh Press.

Gloom hovered over Van Meter and Jacobs Creek as Christmas neared. In an effort to bring a bit of holiday cheer, Pittsburgh confectioner John Dimling sent buckets of candy to children now without fathers.  

Christmas Eve brought silence, except for the throbbing of a fan providing ventilation in the mine. Electric lights illuminated the interior of the death tent. Standing outside, one reporter watched as the silhouetted forms of grief-stricken relatives projected against the tent walls that showed “ghastly white against the bleak hillside.”

By then, 124 bodies had been recovered. A hastily organized funeral service for 12 miners was conducted on the Van Meter train platform. Friends and relatives bowed their heads as trains roared by, their whistles shrieking. 

On Christmas Day, police keeping order at the tent ejected several drunken men and called waiting physicians when women fainted. A few days later, workers removed the carcasses of 20 horses and mules from the mine. The smell of decomposition grew ever more offensive. Several bodies would be buried without identification.

Faded flowers mark the entrance of the Darr mine today. Erosion has filled the opening. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

In January, a coroner’s jury exonerated the Pittsburgh Coal Co. of any responsibility in the miners’ deaths. The explosion, the jury determined, was triggered by miners using open-flame lamps in a gaseous section of the mine. Mine inspectors strongly disagreed. They pointed the finger at those in charge of the mine for failing to comply with the law and ensuring worker safety.

A total of 239 miners perished in the Darr explosion. Many families lost multiple members — fathers and sons and brothers. About 60 of the dead were Hungarian. Others were Italian, German, Scotch, Polish, Russian, Slovenian, American and English.

More than two months after the explosion, Darr offered up its final victims. Workers removing debris from the mine discovered two additional bodies — those of Carl Mherling, 31, and Josiah Veatch, 30. Bodies of the two men were remarkably preserved in a pool of water, workers said.

Veatch’s wife, Olive, was three months pregnant at the time of the explosion. She remarried to a coal miner.

Sources: John Hepple of the Rostraver Township Historical Society graciously shared his expertise, his research and a number of pictures of the Darr mine disaster; much of the story’s narrative was pieced together by dispatches from The Pittsburgh Press, The Connellsville Daily Courier, The Gazette Times and the Pittsburgh Post, all accessed through; death certificates and census reporters, accessed through; 1907 annual report of the Department of Mines.

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at