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Centrailia Mine

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Public disasters often cause many questions to be raised and fingers to be pointed. This most certainly holds true for the catastrophic explosion of Centralia Mine No. 5 on the afternoon of March 25, 1947, and the violent and untimely deaths of the 111 Centralia Coal Company miners. While many played a role in the unfolding of this tragic disaster, focus is repeatedly brought back to Driscoll Scanlan, an Illinois mine state inspector. Were there other courses of action he could have pursued in the management and security of the mine, and what were the driving factors behind Scanlan’s decision concerning the law he was sworn to uphold and the interest of public good? Those are questions that if answered could help to uncover how this tragedy could have been prevented.
For a city of such humble beginnings, established by the railroad via a land grant in 1853, no one could have guessed that Centralia, Illinois, would face such devastation and tragedy less than a century later (Hartley and Kenney, 2006). The city of Centralia—throughout most of its history, experienced slow economic growth, progressed steadily and changed gradually, which provided a stable environment for the community and its growth. As any typical Midwestern town did, Centralia saw many highs and lows within the city’s primary business and industry. Those highs and lows of the coal mining, farming and railroad business helped Centralia become a balanced yet prosperous town and with the exception of the short lived oil boom during the late 1930’s, coal mining proved a primary source of employment for many city residence and immigrants (Hartley and Kenney, 2006).
The Centralia Coal Company, which was formed by Ferdinand Kohl and A.M. Warner in 1869, answered the growing need for coal. This demand was especially apparent in the railroad city of Centralia, and in 1907 the Centralia Mine No.5 was opened by Kohl and Warner (Hartley and Kenney, 2006). It proved to be one of the most resilient and prosperous mines of the area during that time. This fact, along with the personal devastation felt by the community, is what makes the explosion that much worse and causes us to examine the roles of those responsible for protecting the miners and securing the mine more closely.
As the primary individual responsible for policing the Centralia Mine No. 5, Scanlan failed to exercise and exhaust all of his resources and power in the prevention of this disastrous explosion (Stillman 2009). There is no doubt that Scanlan faced many obstacle or hurdles in his efforts to maintain a secure and safe working environment for the miners of the Centralia Coal Company, but it is also clear that his efforts—in some instances his lack of effort—were far from enough. Even with all of Scanlan’s challenges, there were still several alternate avenues in which he could have sought recourse, but did not. Among his options was the ability to close the mine himself. While this may have yielded a temporary solution, that quite possibly would have been shortly overturned, it was still an option that he had at his disposal, and at the very least may have drawn special attention to the terrible condition of the mine. Scanlan also could have supported the miners in their attempt to bring charges against the mine manager. This course of action would probably have garnered him an unfavorable response from the managers and the Department, but it would have demonstrated his conviction to the severity of his findings and to improving the mine conditions. Yet another option Scanlan had was to take his charges and concerns directly to the Governor Dwight Green, who had at least promised to uphold the mining laws during his campaign (Stillman 2009). Again this type of action would have infuriated, Robert Medill, the Director of Mines and Minerals, but could have gained the attention that was needed. Finally, Scanlan could have ignored the requests or mandates of Medill and continued to provide his full and detailed accounts of the dire situation at Centralia No. 5. Clearly his reports were striking a cord and raising some red flags, and it was not wise of him to discontinue his efforts in this regard. Scanlan’s beliefs and commitment to mining laws and bureaucracy were made null by his inability to enforce the laws and his strict adherence to the hierarchy of authority. This is made evident in his failure to close the mine when he noted on several occasions that direct laws were being broken, and his adherence to Medill’s orders to cease his detailed reporting and remove some of his recommendations following a disciplinary meeting (Stillman 2009). As a result of Scanlan’s departure from the true duties, responsibilities and purpose of his job lives were lost and a community was destroyed. Scanlan had the option to step up to the plate and take full action, or he should have stepped down from his position. If he was unable to handle the demands of the position it was only right for him to step aside and allow for someone else who could to step up.
We would like to believe that the devastation caused by disasters, such as the monstrous explosion at Centralia No. 5 were not in vain. That they may have aided or contributed in the passage of future legislation, like the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969—a far reaching document, signed by President Richard Nixon, that promised a new day for individuals in an industry that had claimed more than 100,000 lives since 1900 (Mining Disasters - An Exhibition, n.d.). This act—which would have greatly aided Scanlan and the miners of Centralia No. 5—required four annual inspections for each underground coal mine, eliminated exemptions for mines that were said to be absent of gas, broaden the power of the inspectors, gave miners the right to request Federal inspections, strengthened safety and health standards, and for the first time established mandatory fines for all violations and criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations (Mining Disasters - An Exhibition, n.d.).
It is possible that with the backing of legislation like the Act of 1969, Scanlan would have fully utilized his power and performed his required duties as a state inspector. With the backing of such a law and all of the liberties it afforded inspectors he may have been less incline to follow the orders of the Medill and the Department, or perhaps Scanlan would have exercised his ability to close the mine or even levied fines for any one of the many infractions he encountered and documented during his inspections. Unfortunately, these things did not occur, the mine did explode, and the lives of 111 men were lost. We may never know or understand all of the complexities that unfolded in this tragedy, and as we pick apart the layers only more questions arise, but the one thing that is clear is that through the actions of Driscoll Scanlan a dangerous fire was only fueled.

Mining Disasters - An Exhibition . (n.d.). United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from

Stillman, R. J. (2009). The Search for the Scope and Purpose of Public Administration'. In:
Maureen Staudt and Michael Stranz (ed), Public Administration Concepts and Cases. 9th ed. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning. pp.31-47.

Hartley, R. E and Kenney, David (2006). Death underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort mine disasters. Carbondale, IL: South Illinois University Press. pp. 23-50.

Martin, J. B. (1948). The blast in Centralia No. 5: A mine disaster no one stopped. Harper’s Magazine, March 1948.

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