Wamac, Illinois

by Mark Dvorak

Wamac is only a couple miles south of Centralia, Illiniois and is the town where the Number 5 Mine disaster took place in 1947. I have come to Wamac to walk around and look around and get a permanent picture in my mind of the place where bureaucratic negligence received its due, and where the luck of one hundred and eleven miners ran out.

Wamac is a modest town, with modest homes and a modest central business district. Just south of the main intersection is the town park. A gravel road leads into the park past some new playground equipment, a squeaking oil derrick and some small buildings, which must get a lot of use in the summer months. Before long I found myself wandering the outfield of the Wamac ball park, which looked like it hadn't had a game played on it in several seasons.

In the distance a woman walks past the playground, wearing blue jeans and a white blouse. She strides through the grass with purpose, toward the main road, clutching an immense handbag under her right elbow. Beyond her to the south is the headquarters of an industrial service company. Trucks are parked around the main building, as are traliers bearing different kinds of heavy equipment, all ready and waiting to solve one kind of a problem or another. The park is bordered on the north by a mobile home settlement, and a road which dead ends at a barricade.

It is late morning on a Tuesday. The air is clear and the temperature mild, and southern Illinois is in mid-bloom. A plaque in the park commemorates the Number 5 Mine Disaster of March 25, 1947. It lists the names of the men who lost their lives and gives a brief account of the tragedy. Images of nameless men in their mining helmets are inscribed onto each side of the marble stone, and the nearby picnic shelter is named the "Mine No. 5 Shelter."

Not everyone knows that Illinois is coal country. Eighty-five of Illinois' one hundred and two counties have claimed coal mining as an industry. In coal's heyday one hundred and eighty-five mines operated throughout the state, employing over fifty thousand men. Not everyone also knows that Illinois is actually a collection of smaller states whose borders are mostly fuzzy.

In the north of course, is Chicago with its economic brawn, political muscle and international cosmos. Reaching west from Chicago are the river towns of Peoria, Rockford and the Quad cities, all early centers of industry, trade and commerce. In the middle of our state is the city-constellation that includes Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Bloomington-Normal and Danville, each cultivated from a fertile mixture of farming, academics, hard work, government and the railroads.

Farther to the south, Illinois actually spills into the Ozark region where the steep hills, bluffs and forests belie her reputation for flat black earth and cornfields. But in the part of Illinois that begins somewhere north of Carbondale and somewhere east of Belleville, coal mining is one of the things that still goes on. The work is still dangerous, and the divide between those who own the mines and those who do the mining is still distinct. 

In March 1946, a little more than a year before the explosion took place in Mine Number 5, a committee of union officials appealed to then Governor Dwight Green, with a letter that has come to be known as the "Please Save Our Lives Letter."

"Governor Green this is a plea to you," the letter begins, "to please save our lives. Please make the Department of Mines and Minerals enforce the laws at No. 5 mine...before we have a dust explosion like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia."

Three of the four miners who signed their names to the letter were among those killed. 

A man by the name of Driscoll O. Scanlan was a state mine inspector in those days. Scanlan campaigned tirelessly to get the Number 5 mine "rock dusted," a procedure that would settle and neutralize the volatility of the coal dust. Rock dusting is time consuming and expensive, and Scanlan's reports and letters went largely ignored. And in the end, his efforts to save the miner's lives proved futile. 

In a town like Wamac, the day seems to unfold a little differently than it does in other places. There is a different pace and a different etiquette. The neighborhood streets are tree lined and quiet, and there are homes in need of repair. The churches show that these are people of faith, and the bars and road houses show that they know how to have a good time. In a town like Wamac it seems that the work gets done, the appointments are made, and the errands are run within the greater margins of struggle and poverty. 

The sun will set tonight on the business district of Wamac, Illinois, and it will set on the neighborhoods, the trailer parks, the churches and the bars. Tonight the sun will set on the junkyard where a concrete slab covers the hole that was once the entrance to Mine Number 5.

4.20.12

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