by Bucky Schriver
for The Frostburg Express
Heroes By The Dozen
Wednesday, April 5, 1950, was a typical early spring day in the George’s Creek Valley, with periods of warm sunshine, interspersed with cloudy skies, brisk winds, and occasional snow flurries. Forty-two year-old Harry Spiker and his two brothers Raymond and Charles started at daybreak, working their small, family-owned mine in Knapp's Meadow. Formerly known as the L&H Mine and the Llewellyn No. 1 Mine, the Spiker Mine worked the Tyson seam, and appeared in the Annual Report of The Maryland Bureau of Mines for just two years, with a total production of only 940 tons. The mine was located on the hillside behind the present site of Georges Creek Elementary School.
At 8:50 am, Charles Spiker had just taken out a loaded car when he heard the unmistakable rumbling from inside the mine. Rushing in to help his brothers, Charles found Raymond partially buried under the debris, and dug for thirty minutes to free him. The two immediately began digging with their hands to find their brother Harry, who had been farthest back in the mine. When they reached him, he was completely covered in dirt and debris. Harry had put his arm around his head, which created an air pocket, that kept him from smothering. After removing the dirt from around Harry's head to allow him to breathe, the two brothers went to summon help from their fellow miners working nearby.
John Meyers, David Rayner, and George Wilson were the first of many miners who quickly came to the rescue. Meyers crawled back into the three-foot high mine, and dug dirt with his hands until he found hair and a face, and asked "are you OK Harry?" Spiker opened his eyes and said "I'm OK John, just get me some air." In spite of the fact that the timbers inside the mine were cracking and the debris was still falling, the three miners disregarded fear for their own safety, and summoned their fellow miners outside to cut more timbers to support the sliding mine roof. The difficulty of the task was immediately apparent, as the rescuers saw a huge rock and between 15 and 20 tons of dirt that had to be moved in order to rescue Harry Spiker.
The miners took turns at the laborious and time-consuming task of breaking up the boulder with a sledge hammer. As Harry lay trapped against the cold, damp floor of the mine, blankets were wrapped around him, and occasional sips of whiskey were administered in an attempt to keep him warm. Among the first miners who crawled back in the mine to help was veteran miner Charles "Chill" Robertson. In between his turns with the sledge hammer, Robertson laid beside Spiker, offering words of comfort and encouragement. Spiker and Robertson had once been close friends, but had not spoken to one another for over a year. A dispute, which had even escalated to a fist fight between the two next door neighbors, precipitated hard feelings that were harbored until Spiker became trapped.
A crowd of approximately 200 hushed spectators, most of them coal miners and their wives and children, gathered around the mine entrance. At 2 p.m., a reporter standing near the entrance to the mine heard a cold, frustrated, and frightened Harry Spiker plead "get me out of here fellows, please!" Frank Powers, director of The Maryland Bureau of Mines, told the crowd that "the men working in that mine are the kind that they pin medals on." At 2:30 p.m. Deputy Sheriff William "Scotty" Orr announced to the crowd that Spiker was almost freed, and would be brought out of the mine shortly, but the rescuers realized that Spiker's leg was still trapped between a mine timber and the iron rail. Fellow miners John Smith, James Arnold, and Chill Robertson were finally able to liberate Spiker by sawing the mine timber and cutting off Spiker's shoe.
When Chill Robertson came out of the mine, his blackened face streaked with sweat, many people came up to shake his hand and offer words of praise. Harry Spiker's father William came up to pat Robertson on the back, and said "you did a swell job, God bless you." Robertson was called "the best man on the crick."
Dr. Paul Frye of Lonaconing, who administered first aid to Spiker as he was brought out of the mine, expressed amazement at Spiker's good condition.
Spiker was carried several hundred yards to the road, where the Eichhorn Ambulance waited. Harry Spiker's daughter, Wilma Cooper-Winner, was a fifth grade student at the Midland Elementary School. She shared her memory of standing in front of her father's combination tavern/store/restaurant in Knapp's Meadow with her sister and mother, watching the ambulance go by on its way to Miner's Hospital in Frostburg. Harry Spiker's grandson later operated a tavern called "Spike's Place" at the same location.
Harry Spiker never went back to coal mining, focusing instead on making his living by operating his place of business in Knapp's Meadow. The Spiker Mine was immediately closed by the mine inspector, but was later reopened under different ownership. Harry and Chill Robertson renewed their friendship, which lasted the rest of their lives. Harry Spiker lived to be 72 years old, and died in 1979.
The strong bond between the coal miners, most evident in times of crisis, was more eloquently expressed in deeds than words. Most of those who gathered at the Spiker Mine were aware of the enmity between Harry Spiker and Chill Robertson, but they also knew that the coal miner's code dictated that personal feelings are cast aside in times of crisis. The newspaper headlines on the following day read "Fearless Coal Diggers Heroes of Mine Rescue", and "Enmity Forgotten During Rescue Operations."
Others who participated in the rescue of Harry Spiker were Floyd Rayner, Alex "Ike" McAlpine, James Urice, John P. Smith, James Arnold, Maryland Bureau of Mines Inspector Edward Stowell, and Federal Bureau of Mines Inspector Harry Jones.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of state Route 36 and the National Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor all of our Georges Creek miners and name those who perished while mining.
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to the
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF
P.O. Box 765
Frostburg, MD 21532.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation.
Contact Polla Horn at email@example.com
Bucky Schriver at firstname.lastname@example.org
to share your thoughts and stories. Be on the lookout for future “Miner Recollections.”