Perry Maxwell was headed for daylight.

Up above the coal mine, a gray, damp dreariness filled the February sky. Perry saw sunnier times on his horizon, though. This was his last day working underground at the Sullivan City Mine — Friday, Feb. 20, 1925. On Monday, he would start a new job at the mine, on the surface. It was his big break. The promotion, earned by learning as he labored, would be safer for a 34-year-old husband with a pregnant wife and five children at home. Stout and strong, Perry had been a “pick man,” handling a jackhammer-type machine that pulled coal off the mine walls.

It was 10:45 in the morning. Perry’s work shift was half over.

Unlike other days, Perry spent this one in a different section of the City Mine. Because he was moving to a new role on Monday, he worked that Friday as a “floater,” filling in wherever needed. That put him in the northeast section of the mine, with a shaft plunging 284 feet into the coal-rich Indiana earth at its heart.

The pit boss, or foreman, Harry Anderson worried that “a squeeze” was forming. That dangerous circumstance occurs when a collapsing coal structure presses volatile methane gas into active mine chambers. Anderson grabbed a lantern and ventured into the northeast section to investigate. Perhaps having heard a warning from Anderson, Perry and five fellow miners prepared to head out. They reached the last room at the end of the tunnel.

Lunch pail in hand, Perry Maxwell probably figured his final day as an underground miner was ending early.

“He thought, ‘I’m done. I’m leaving,’” Perry’s grandson, Bob Maxwell, speculated last month.

Perry never got out. A mine rescue team found Perry clutching his lunch pail, on his knees, leaning against a wall, shielding his face from the powerful explosion that killed him and 50 other miners that morning.

Mine rescue teams consisted of the only people familiar with such a labyrinth of tunnels — coal miners, themselves. The miner who located Perry was his best friend and next-door neighbor, Clarence Hood. Thin and young, the 23-year-old Clarence fit through the 18-inch-wide tunnel cleared through the rubble to reach the entombed miners. Crawling, Clarence pushed the stretcher bearing his buddy Perry’s burned and blackened body a half-mile to daylight, where an ambulance and thousands of stunned townspeople waited in the rain.

‘Almost everybody’ affected

The loss of life in Hoosier mine country wasn’t uncommon in the early 20th century. But this disaster — still the deadliest in Indiana history — left a particularly deep wound in a town of 4,500 residents. “Fifty-one people dying all at one time, that would affect almost everybody in Sullivan,” said Ronnie Burris, a descendant of one of the lost miners, James Burris.

The victims left behind 40 widows and 87 suddenly fatherless children. Three fathers died alongside their coal-miner sons in the blast. The miners’ ages ranged from 19 to 62, but most were young fathers with young wives and small children. As Denver Harper — a retired geologist and mine expert with the Indiana Geological Survey, and a former miner himself — put it, “Fifty-one men, that’s a tremendous social impact.” 

Change came in an instant, as a rush of coal dust and gas met the open flame of a miner’s head-lamp. The blow shifted the trajectory of generations. Some widows stayed in Sullivan, struggling to raise kids alone. Others left town, remarried, or moved in with relatives elsewhere, and brought up kids who had little or no remembrance of the place in which their fathers died. Many, fearful of the job, steered their children toward other vocations.

The impact of the Sullivan City Mine disaster continues as the 90th anniversary of that dark day arrives this week.

“It’s like a rock in a pond,” Bob Maxwell, Perry’s grandson, said, pondering the tragedy during an interview at a diner near his workplace, the TRW automotive electronics plant in Marshall, Ill. “The explosion caused a lot of ripples in other people’s lives.”

The Sullivan County Courthouse bell tolled for each lost miner as the community gathered on the town square. Church bells tolled for dozens of funerals for more than a week. Some services occurred in the miners’ homes. Perry Maxwell’s body rested in a casket in his home, after being delivered by a horse-drawn wagon through the muddy road, until a church service days later. With doors at the front and back of that church, Perry’s casket was taken out as another miner’s casket was brought in.

As with all of Sullivan, “that was a sad week for the Maxwells,” wrote Perry’s then-14-year-old niece, Reba Alice Towell-Stebens. “All were tired and emotionally exhausted.”

Some families left

The Maxwells had been “a pretty close family before the mine incident,” Bob explained this month, “and then after, they moved out. It just changed the dynamics of the family significantly. I think the way my dad would’ve seen life would’ve been different.”

Bob’s father, Jack, was just a year old when Perry was killed. His widowed mother, Lacie, raised the children in their small house near the mine. A 1925 Terre Haute Tribune story said the Red Cross would try to pay off the Maxwells’ mortgage. A heartbroken Lacie told a Tribune reporter, with tears in her eyes, “Perry was such a good man. I loved him so. Oh, it just seems as if he must come home.”

Without him, Lacie relied on help from family and neighbors to survive.

“The idea is, our family could’ve developed quicker,” Bob Maxwell said. “Instead, they fell back into poverty, because this was a single woman raising five kids. I think it just set us back a generation.”

Lacie, Bob’s grandmother, died 14 years after Perry. Jack, just 15, lived with his grandparents. The older Maxwell siblings moved to Arizona. “After that incident occurred, even cousins that weren’t necessarily that closely related moved away, got bus tickets as far east as they could go and ended up in other towns just so they could find a better life, where they wouldn’t have to necessarily work in the coal mines,” Bob said. “At that time, in this part of the country, coal mining was probably the best paying job you could get.”

Perry’s descendants became teachers, farmers and business people. Bob, 53, serves as a supervisor at TRW.

The trauma of Perry’s death immediately changed his friend, Clarence Hood. Just days after pushing Perry’s lifeless body out of the mine, Clarence quit his coal mining job, bought a Fordson tractor and hired himself out to plow fields. A Wyoming native with no farming background, Clarence fumbled to work the brake and clutch pedals while tilling a muddy field. The tractor’s front rose and flipped over backward, crushing Clarence.

It was March 28, 1925. Clarence died barely a month after Perry.

“This one is just kind of a chain-reaction of things,” said Carol Belfi, Clarence’s granddaughter, who lives in The Villages, Fla.

Story ‘all too sad’

In the wake of the City Mine disaster, Lilly Thomas packed up her young son and daughter and moved from Sullivan to Anderson, where her sister and brother-in-law lived. Lilly took a job at the Delco Remy plant in Anderson, and remarried. “That’s really where my dad’s life really started,” said Larry Thomas, Lilly’s grandson.

John Carl Thomas — Lilly’s first husband, and Larry’s grandfather — died in the mine explosion. Those Sullivan years stood as a mystery for decades for Larry, now 72 years old and living in Cookeville, Tenn. Larry’s late father, Lawrence Thomas, was just 3 years old when John Carl was killed, so “we knew very little about John Carl,” Larry said this month by telephone from Tennessee.

A few years ago, Larry began researching his family tree and discovered that lost chapter in his background. He learned that his coal miner grandfather “took chances,” loved fancy cars, and willingly accepted the job of drilling “shot holes” for explosives to shake loose the coal “because it would mean he’d get a higher pay rate,” Larry said. “So he would take a chance in life, and he would do whatever he could to make a little more money.”

Indeed, in the early 1900s, miners were paid by the ton, rather than by the hour, so the blasts loosened more coal and increased their pay, explained Jon Free, a mining historian and doctoral candidate at Duke University.

In an obituary penned by Lilly, she described a turning point, with John Carl settling down and “renewing his covenant with God” at a 1920 church revival in Terre Haute. “He lived a firm, successful Christian life,” Lilly wrote. “He proved a blessing to all he came in contact with.” In that same year, 1920, John Carl lost his own father, to a coal mining accident. Five years later, the Sullivan explosion took John Carl’s life.

“His story is all too sad, but unfortunately not uncommon to the era,” said another descendant of John Carl Thomas, Sunny Randolph, who lives in Muncie and studies nursing at Ball State University.

Larry Thomas wonders how his life would’ve turned out had his grandfather not perished in the Sullivan mine. “Obviously, it made a drastic change in the branching of the [family] tree, because who knows where we would’ve been if John Carl lived and continued his career as a hard-rock miner,” Larry said.

Most likely, John Carl moved his young family to Sullivan to find work in the mines, Larry said. The work atmosphere took a toll on the miners.

“It was really rough,” said Ronnie Burris, a Jasonville resident whose cousin, James Burris — the nephew of Ronnie’s grandfather — died in the 1925 explosion. “It was cramped quarters, damp, muddy, water dripping down on them, and the constant fear of something happening.” Ronnie’s family experienced it all. Ronnie’s father died in a mine accident in 1944 at Sullivan County’s New Hope mine, three days before Ronnie was born. The following year, Ronnie’s uncle was killed in a mine near Linton.

With that legacy, Ronnie chose a different way to earn a living, working at J.I. Case and then in real estate. “I didn’t want any part of that,” said Ronnie, now 70 and retired.

Wanted grandfather remembered

The Sullivan City Mine explosion was one of 305 disasters (those that killed five or more people) in the U.S. between 1901 and 1925, according to Duke’s Jon Free. Those catastrophes, along with pressure from the United Mine Workers of America union and the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, gradually improved safety.

“Because of public outcry and efforts by the miners, themselves, and their unions, you had a long stretch of strengthening laws and strengthening regulations,” said Denver Harper, the Indiana Geological Survey mining historian. The vocation is much safer today, he said. In 1925, though, oversight of mines and their conditions fell to states, Harper added. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration didn’t form until 1969. The risks were greater for miners 90 years ago.

The Sullivan disaster report by the Indiana chief of coal mining investigations, J.W. Paul, concluded that the flame of a miner’s head lamp set off the mix of coal dust and methane gas, likely unleashed by a squeeze into the rooms and tunnels. “The critical flaw which led to the explosion was the use of open-flame carbide lamps by the miners,” said Mike Kaas of the Mining History Association in Arlington, Va., after reading the Sullivan report last week.

The blast instantly devastated 45 of the Sullivan miners. The six near the end of the tunnel probably heard the explosion and then felt the rush of air before the heat hit them. Their names are memorialized on a monument at the disaster site, where the Sullivan County Park and Lake are now located. As for Perry Maxwell, he was just steps away from a new chapter in life.

Bob Maxwell never knew his grandfather, Perry, but often ponders that idea. After all, Perry’s siblings — including Bob’s beloved great-uncle, Charlie — lived long lives, some into their 90s. So Bob gathers and keeps family genealogy, in hopes that future generations will appreciate the hardships Perry endured. He was looking forward on Feb. 20, 1925.

“I didn’t want him to be forgotten,” Bob Maxwell said. “He was young. He was just getting a chance to leave his mark on the world. And then he died. I wanted him to be remembered.”

© 2020 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.