by Polla Horn
for The Frostburg Express
The Old Astor Mine
Flanigan and Conlon
The Old Astor Mine (also known as the Pompey Mine) originated in 1849 as a slope, working the Pittsburgh (Big Vein) coal seam. Located in Pompey Smash, it had two parallel headings with passages burrowed into the mountain for nearly two miles. The two headings were separated by a pillar of coal 50 to 100 feet thick which supported the roof. The separation allowed coal to be mined from one heading, while using ventilation and air circulation from the other. Miners were supposed to use the ventilation shaft as a walk way; many accidents occurred because this rule was ignored. The Old Astor Mine was designed according to the room and pillar system. Pillars of coal 50 feet thick were left standing between rooms that were 12 to 16 feet wide. The layout resembled a house with a central hallway and rooms on each side, separated by beams, 2x4’s and drywall; rooms in a mine went on for miles and had many hallways. The coal in Astor Mine was dug by pick, loaded into wagons, and pulled out by mules; a slow and labor-intensive job.
Production in the mine began to flourish around 1860, but with the advent of the Civil War, mining activity in Western Maryland became severely depressed. There were plenty of skilled laborers, but no means to transport the coal. Due to raids by Confederate soldiers, both the C&O Canal and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad were inadequate (and dangerous) means of transport. So the coal sat, and men were unemployed. With the War’s end, and the growing demand for coal, the Astor Mine became a viable operation again. According to the Frostburg Mining Journal (FMJ) of June 5, 1875, “Pompey Smash and other mines in the vicinity are equally full right now.”
The demand for more coal caused another problem: the supply of workers was sufficient, but getting the coal out of the mine was slow and expensive using mule power. By this time, the Astor Mine had been purchased by the Consolidation Coal Company. Consol decided to put a steam engine in the Hoffman Mine which would also carry coal from Pompey Smash. This caused an up-roar among the miners, who were concerned that a steam engine would compromise ventilation in the mine. One worker stated, “The miner’s health is the last thing they think of. The main thing with them is, how cheap can I get a ton of coal in the hopper.” Ventilation in the mine did not change, but production did. On August 9, 1879 the FMJ wrote, “The Hoffman and Pompey mines are working day and night to supply their contracts for coal.” This situation posed yet another problem: the rooms within the mines became crowded; men were trying to produce more coal in less time, and became less cautious in the process.
On June 7, 1879, James Flanigan, a roadsman in Pompey Mine, completed his switch and went to a room about 200 feet away; he sat down on a lump of coal. Patrick Higgins and Thomas Powell were in the same room, sledging down a fall of breast coal. A back slip, previously unnoticed by the men, came down, releasing a fall of breast coal on top of James. His back was severely injured, and he died fourteen hours later. Higgins and Powell were not hurt. James was 44 years old, and unmarried. There was no mention of a family in James Flanigan’s obituary. One would wonder where the injured man was taken, and who cared for him in those last fourteen hours.
A few weeks later, on August 4, 1879, Thomas Conlon was killed in Pompey Mine. Born in 1857 to Andrew and Bridget (Nevins) Conlon, Tom had lived in Pompey Smash all his life. He was a coal miner before his thirteenth birthday. On the day of his death, Tom was working at the breast of coal when a portion of the roof suddenly fell on him, killing him instantly. The room where he was working seemed well-supported, but there was a slip which was not considered to be dangerous---although preparations were being made to support it. Tom was 22 years, 9 months and 3 days old, unmarried, and the sole supporter of his widowed mother. Pompey Mine had harvested two more deaths; both miners are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
A letter written to the FMJ on August 9, 1879 tells all: “I am sorry to inform you of the death of one of our fellow miners at Pompey Smash today. It is the goodness of God that saves our lives, and not the management of the bosses, as any practical miner can vouch for. There are places in Hoffman Mine and Pompey Mines that are not safe for a dog. There are from four to twenty men working in one place. It is impossible to hear the breaking of the roof or breast coal. The drivers will bring into one of these rooms six to eight cars which must be loaded as quick as the coal can be loaded into them. The main road or heading is not in a safe condition, and we must travel in such places. If we talk to the bosses about the dangers, they answer, “If you don’t like it, take out your tools.” This letter was signed simply J.S.
This was just the nature of the beast---without condemning miners, bosses, or companies---these conditions existed in all underground mines. Our ancestors endured, making a lasting impact on the community we enjoy today. Although Astor Mine was deemed unsafe by the workers in 1879, it produced coal for nearly a century and was dropped from the Annual Reports of the Bureau of Mines in 1924.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of a bronze statue to honor all of our Georges Creek miners and name those who perished while mining.
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF
Frostburg, MD 21532.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation.
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