Historical Marker #2579 in Clay, Kentucky recognizes the catastrophic explosion in the Western Kentucky Coal Company’s mine No.7 at about 7:40 AM on August 4th, 1917. This event led to the death of 62 of the 153 men underground at the time. 91 men escaped the mine without serious injury, including 43 men who, under the direction of Claude Bordis, remained in an unaffected entry and were rescued three and a half hours after the explosion.
Prior to the incident, mining communities in Western Kentucky were experiencing conflict between the coal companies and miners’ unions. The community of Clay was affected by these strikes when the United Mine Workers union declared a strike at mine No. 7 a few weeks prior to the explosion. African Americans were reported to be brought in as strike breakers in multiple coal mining communities within the region, including Clay. With tensions already high, the introduction of strike breakers led to frustration from union workers, and incidents of violence became more and more common. The Louisville Courier Journal reported that on August 3, 1917, three union miners were arrested in Clay by soldiers of Company C, Kentucky National Guard after firing “several hundred shots” at soldiers guarding Diamond mine near Providence, Kentucky. The violence led to martial law being enforced in Clay during the weeks leading up to the No. 7 mine disaster. The concern of violence was so robust, that in the earliest reports of the explosion, journalists of the Hopkinsville Kentuckian suspected the explosion was due to someone tampering with wires in the mine.
The clear threat of violence led some African American families to leave the mining communities of Western Kentucky for areas such as Louisville. Those who stayed, however, continued to work in mines such as mine No.7. With so many strike breakers present during the explosion it is important to note that of the 62 deceased, 51 were Black. After the explosion in mine No. 7, the strike was called off by the National headquarters of the United Mine Workers. The union claimed their reason for cancelling the strike was due to only 20% of workers actually participating.
According to the official U.S. Bureau of Mines report on the incident produced in November of 1917, due to labor strikes and older miners relocating, “their places were filled by negroes brought from the South, who had no prior experience in mines.” However, of the identified dead listed in local newspapers, 9 of the 24 Black individuals working in the mines were documented as being born in various areas of Kentucky. Only two individuals were listed as being from Alabama, and the rest either have no death certificate or their place of birth is unknown. The racist tone and word choice used by the authors of the official document exemplified not only attitude towards strike breakers, but of the prevalent racism of the era. While newspapers chose to focus on the deaths of white brothers Edward, William, and Dewey Brown, Black families also mourning the deaths of multiple sons went unnoticed. Mothers such as Emna Baker, who identified her two sons Sam and Josua “Tobe” Calvert assisted in identifying the disfigured bodies coming out of the mine in the aftermath of the explosion.
In the days following the explosion of mine No.7, Clay was enveloped in mourning, with fifteen individuals remaining unidentifiable in death. 47 of the 62 deceased miners were identified. Of those 47 individuals, 29 were buried in unmarked graves due to the accelerated decomposition of their bodies. The rush to bury the dead led to multiple misspellings, incomplete death certificates, and the identities of those killed never fully known. Many of those killed were young men between the ages of 16 and 30.
The community of Clay continues to take time to remember this event. On the the centennial anniversary of the explosion in 2017, black ribbons could be seen throughout the town as a sign of solidarity and remembrance of both the men who died and the individuals who took part in the rescue of those trapped underground. Steve Henry, the County Judge-Executive during the 2017 memorial ceremony held a piece of coal and stated, “It’s more than just black rock, it’s a way that we’ve fed our families. We’ve put our sons and daughters through college because of this black rock, and a lot of people have lost their lives working to dig this black rock.” The presence of Historical Marker #2579 ensures that the sacrifices of those killed in the Clay coal mine explosion are not forgotten.
The marker was dedicated on Oct. 4, 2019.
The marker reads:
1917 Coal Mine Explosion
On Aug. 4, 1917 about 7:40 AM
an explosion in the West Kentucky
Coal Company’s #7 mine shattered
the community of Clay. The worst
mine disaster in state history was
caused by methane gas and an
opened-flame headlamp. At the
time of the explosion miners were
on strike, protesting low wages
and dangerous working conditions.
1917 Coal Mine Explosion
Many miners killed were African
Americans from the South, employed
as strike breakers. Poor record
keeping & body condition impaired
identification of many of the miners.
153 men were underground.
62 men died. 29 of 47 men
identified were buried in unmarked
graves in nearby Rock Springs.
The #7 mine was located 1.5 miles
northwest of Clay.