'Perpetual impact': Community commemorates mine disaster with marker, memorial ceremony

Jul. 10—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — They fled Poland, Slovakia and other Eastern European homelands for the promise of a better life in Johnstown through Cambria Iron collieries such as the Rolling Mill Mine.

One-hundred and 12 of them died there on July 10, 1902, victims of a gas explosion that drew national headlines and sparked early change in safety oversight within Pennsylvania's mines.

A crowd of local residents and historians, community leaders and United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) representatives unveiled a marker commemorating the moment on Saturday, across the river from the hillside where the early 1900s-era mine's portal once welcomed miners.

"This Pennsylvania historical marker recognizes this horrific event and its perpetual impact on the commonwealth and its people," said Frank Grumbine, who serves as a regional community preservation coordinator for the agency that oversees the statewide marker program, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. "It serves as a memorial to those who perished in one of Pennsylvania's deadliest mining disasters, while inspiring hope and change for future generations."

A group led by Pennsylvania Highlands Community College's Barbara Zaborowski spearheaded a two-year effort to have one of the recognizable blue historical markers placed near the base of the Johnstown Inclined Plane.

To do so, Zaborowski said researchers had to provide verified accounts about the event and the change it caused through newspaper articles from the period and documented personal accounts of the tragedy.

Pennsylvania Highlands Community College President Steve Nunez shared one of them.

He described a journalist's account of an immigrant widow refusing to be pulled from her loved one's lifeless body in the aftermath.

Events and stories like this one "bind us to our past," Nunez said, stressing the importance of preserving those moments.

An open flame inside the underground mine walls caused the explosion in 1902. It was a carbon monoxide-rich gas called "after damp," which was produced after the explosion, that asphyxiated the crews.

Cambria Iron laid out the dead so loved ones could identify them. A memorial still pays tribute at St. Casimir Cemetery.

Following Saturday's new historical marker dedication, a remembrance ceremony was held in the Cambria City neighborhood where most of those workers once lived.

The group gathered inside the Casimir Cultural Center, one of a handful of former Catholic churches where immigrants worshiped a century ago, to pay respect to the city's losses 120 years earlier through scripture and song.

With candles flickering behind him, Casimir Cultural Center co-owner Steven Biter read each name aloud.

Afterward, the Rev. George Gulash, of Resurrection Roman Catholic Church, led the room in prayer to remember the deceased and the families who mourned them.

To retired UMWA International secretary-treasurer Dan Kane, it was also crucial to remember the hard-fought change the tragedy ushered in, one that was slow building through unionization and decades of calls for improved mine safety.

"(Those 112 miners) didn't deserve what they got. For a long time (afterward), coal companies didn't have to obey laws," Kane said, noting companies were able to skirt many measures for decades afterward. "People often talk about the good old days. Well, for a long time, the good old days weren't so good for a lot of miners."

Even as city officials continue working to rebrand the city as a mountain town that embraces reborn landscapes and rivers once scarred by industry, stories such as the Rolling Mill disaster must not be forgotten, Mayor Frank Janakovic said.

After all, it was the steel and coal industries, and the immigrant populations that fueled them that built Johnstown, he added.

"Let us never lose sight of how we got here," Janakovic said.