Cherry remembers mine disaster

November 11, 2009 (CHERRY, Ill.) The population of Cherry, Ill., is 500 but back in 1909, 2,000 people lived here, and most of them were miners working dangerous hours for little pay. Then on Nov. 13, 1909, in this little town 100 miles from Chicago, 100 years ago 480 men and boys as young as 12 went to work and 259 of them died in a raging fire.

"There were six bales of hay in the one of the mining cars that was parked under a kerosene torch. The hay was saturated by the kerosene, it caught it on fire and that's how the Cherry Mine fire started," said Ray Tutaj, a Cherry Mine historian.

It's too long ago for there still to be tears, but there are plenty of memories of that day and they are housed in the Cherry Public Library. Tutaj built a model of the mine and has spent years studying the disaster that took so many lives and left so many behind.

"There was 465 kids left orphans and many widows," Tutaj said.

There isn't much left now, just the slag heaps from the mine that closed in 1928, and of course, the town cemetery where there are so many tombstones etched with the same date of death.

Two hundred and fifty nine men and boys died in the disaster, but eight days later there was some amazingly good news. Twenty-one miners had been found alive. They had sealed themselves off in a pocket of good air. One of them was a man named Walter Waite.

Waite was considered a hero keeping the men's spirits up in eight days of total darkness. His grandson, Bill Waite, still lives in Cherry.

"All they had was a drop of water that trickled through on the floor of the mine," Waite said. "They were taking cloths and dipping them in and just wiping their lips because there was no water to drink. Nothing to eat."

This weekend, new memorial monuments will be unveiled to mark that day that changed Cherry, Ill., forever.

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