by Bucky Schriver
for The Frostburg Express
Urban Shea's Dark Dungeon
It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where the danger is double and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mines
These words were penned by Merle Travis. Travis, born in Rosewood, Kentucky in 1917, was the voice of the coal miners. Besides "Dark As A Dungeon," another of his most popular songs was "Sixteen Tons," which is much more commonly associated with Tennessee Ernie Ford. The song was about a coal miner's life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. It was written by Merle Travis, and first recorded by him on August 8th, 1946.
Less than a decade before the debut of "Dark As A Dungeon," a tragic Maryland coal mining story unfolded that was also worthy of a songwriter's attention. On October 13th, 1937, one of the most bizarre and brutal accidents in the history of underground mining in Allegany County took place at the Union No. 1 Mine in Zihlman, also aptly known as the Broken Heart Mine. Urban Shea, a 37 year-old miner employed by the Georges Creek Big Vein Coal Company, had hauled an empty car to the coal face for miners George Tipping, Harry Michaels, and Joe Lewis. Shea left the area of the coal face about noon, telling the miners that he would be back with another car. The three miners did not see Shea again until they were notified of his death.
Motorman Nevin Sampson testified that he saw Shea's pony, standing unhitched, beside an empty mine car. Sampson took the pony down the haulage-way and fastened it, wondering at the time where Shea had gone. Thinking that Shea was in a different section of the mine attending to other duties, Sampson went back to his own assigned task. At 2 pm, William Porter, a miner who was working nearby, sat down beside the empty mine car to eat his lunch, and noticed Shea's body under the car. There was no witness to the accident, and it could not be said with certainty how Urban Shea ended up under the car. A reasonable assumption would be that the car ran away back down the heading, catching Shea and the pony with great force. Hoof prints and strands of hair inside of the mine car indicated that the pony was inside of the car at some point. Shea's cap and lantern were found 45 feet from the "switch frog" (the crossing point of two sets of rails leading to different headings). Shea's body was found 120 feet from the switch frog. The official cause of death was a crushed chest.
Born on July 23rd, 1900, Urban Shea was the son of James and Ellen (Hamilton) Shea. In the months preceding his death, Shea mourned the loss of his mother, Ellen, on January 4th of 1937, from heart disease. His father James died five months later on June 7th. Shea left behind a wife, the former Mary Ellen Brennan of Barton, and a brother, Clarence Shea, of Frostburg. Mary Ellen and Clarence buried three members of their family in 1937.
The words of that old Merle Travis song ring true as we recall our local mining history. The Union No. 1 Mine, located on the west bank of Jennings Run in Zihlman, was truly a “dark and damp dungeon.” The danger was double when 18 year-old Pietro "Peter" Bommicino was fatally injured in the same mine in 1913, when he was run over by a coal car. On February 17th, 1936, 62 year-old Alonzo Howsare was killed by a roof fall in Union No. 1.
The rain did not fall, and the sun did not shine,
in the dark, damp tunnels of the Broken Heart Mine.
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 either Polla Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com
to share your thoughts and stories. Be on the lookout for future Miner Recollections.