By Kimberly Barker
January 2, 2018 - The Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, Kansas will give visitors a snapshot of Frontenac’s coal mining history during its first quarterly exhibit of 2019.
The “Little Balkans Coal Camps – Celebrate Frontenac” is slated to open today.
The exhibit will illustrate Frontenac’s mining history with photographs, artifacts and special monthly presentations. Hosted by Frontenac Homecoming Inc., the program will continue through March 30.
“We’ve done these exhibits for the last few years, and they’ve been very successful because we highlight a local community,” said Linda Roberts, museum board of trustees member. “Sometimes they’re not very large any longer, but at one time, they may have been a robust community or town that was built around a coal mine.”
The Frontenac community began as a coal camp and wasn’t born until the Cherokee and Pittsburg Coal and Mining Company, the coal branch of the Santa Fe Railroad, opened Santa Fe mine No.1 in 1886. The mining community brought immigrants together from all over the world, including Germany, Italy, England, Norway and Belgium.
Jerry Lomshek, museum board of trustees member and local historian, said the Frontenac mine was the first mine to be opened by the Cherokee-Pittsburg Coal Co. in the region.
The coal company’s second mine in Frontenac, however, is known for the largest mining disaster to have ever occurred in Kansas — an explosion on Nov. 9, 1888. Lomshek said a 19-year-old miner named James Wilson overpacked his shot in the mines, causing the explosion.
“At that time, they were using black powder, not dynamite,” Lomshek said. “If you overpacked the shot, what would happen instead of blowing the coal loose, it would fire out of the hole. All of the miners fired their own shots, so at the end of the day, you had all of these explosions going on with all of the men down there. It was a particularly dry mine, so there was a lot of coal dust in the air.”
The shot set off the coal dust in the air, and the explosion killed 44 men and boys, ranging in age from 13 to 52, Lomshek said.
“It brought about changes in the mining laws,” Lomshek said. “There was an increase in safety laws that passed afterwards, one of those being that the miners could no longer fire their own shots. The company had to hire their own shot firemen. It was a big change and shot firemen got killed, but at least you didn’t have the big disasters involving a lot of people.”
It also brought about other changes, including the unionization of workers in the late 1800s, Lomshek said.
“I believe that was a direct outcome of that disaster and safety issues in the mines,” Lomshek said. “They were able to get the mines unionized by the first part of 1893, and they called a strike across the coal fields in May and that strike went into September. It was a major strike. At that time, there was no support for those miners, so the coal companies pretty well won that strike.”
Another large strike occurred in Southeast Kansas in 1889, but this time the miners won, leading to the creation of the United Mine Workers of America the following year.
In 1910, the deep mines were coming to a close and strip mining began to increase, which led to the creation of electric shovels like Big Brutus.
The Miners Hall Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 pm. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free but donations are accepted. For more information, call the museum at 620-347-4220.