The mine disaster, which occurred at Cherry, Ill., on November 13th, 1909, when 527 men were in the mine, resulting in the entombment of 330 men, of whom 310 were killed, has again focused public attention on the frequent recurrence of such disasters and their appalling consequences. Interest in the possible prevention of such disasters, and the possible means of combating subsequent mine fires and rescuing the imprisoned miners, has been heightened as it was not even by the series of three equally extensive disasters which occurred in 1907, for the reason that, after the Cherry disaster, 20 men were rescued alive after an entombment of one week, when practically all hope of rescuing any of the miners had been abandoned.
This accident, occurring, as it does, a little more than 1½ years after the enactment of legislation by Congress instructing the Director of the United States Geological Survey to investigate the causes and possible means of preventing the loss of life in coal-mining 191operations, makes this an opportune time to review what has been done by the Geological Survey during this time, toward carrying out the intent of this Act.
It may be stated with confidence, that had such a disaster occurred a year or more ago, all the entombed men must have perished, as it would have been impossible to enter the mine without the protection afforded by artificial respiratory apparatus. Moreover, but for the presence of the skilled corps of Government engineers, experienced by more than a year’s training in similar operations in more than twenty disasters, the mine would have been sealed until the fire had burned out, and neither the dead, nor those who were found alive, would have been recovered for many weeks. In the interval great suffering and loss would have been inflicted on the miners, because of enforced idleness, and on the mine owners because of continued inability to re-open and resume operations.
Character of the Work.—The United States Geological Survey has been engaged continuously since 1904 in conducting investigations relating to structural materials, such as stone, clay, cement, etc., and in making tests and analyses of the coals, lignites, and other mineral fuel substances, belonging to, and for the use of, the Government.
Incidentally, the Survey has been considering means to increase efficiency in the use of these resources as fuels and structural materials, in the hope that the investigations will lead to their best utilization.
These inquiries attracted attention to the waste of human life incident to the mining of fuel and its preparation for the market, with the result that, in May, 1908, provision was made by Congress for investigations into the causes of mine explosions with a view to their prevention.
Statistics collected by the Geological Survey show that the average death rate in the coal mines of the United States from accidents of all kinds, including gas and dust explosions, falls of roof, powder explosions, etc., is three times that of France, Belgium, or Germany. On the other hand, in no country in the world are natural conditions so favorable for the safe extraction of coal as in the United States. In Belgium, foremost in the study of mining conditions, a constant reduction in the death rate has been secured, and from a rate once nearly as great as that of the United States, namely, 3.28 per thousand, in the period 1851-60, it had been reduced to about 2 per thousand in 192the period 1881-90; and in the last decade this has been further reduced to nearly 1 per thousand. It seems certain, from the investigations already made by the Geological Survey, that better means of safeguarding the lives of miners will be found, and that the death rate from mine accidents will soon show a marked reduction.
Other statistics collected by the Geological Survey show that, to the close of 1907, nearly 7,000,000,000 tons of coal had been mined in the United States, and it is estimated that for every ton mined nearly a ton has been wasted, 3,500,000,000 tons being left in the ground or thrown on the dump as of a grade too low for commercial use. To the close of 1907 the production represents an exhaustion of somewhat more than 10,000,000,000 tons of coal. It has been estimated that if the production continues to increase, from the present annual output of approximately 415,000,000 tons, at the rate which has prevailed during the last fifty years, the greater part of the more accessible coal supply will be exhausted before the middle of the next century.
The Forest Service estimates that, at the present rate of consumption, renewals of growth not being taken into account, the timber supply will be exhausted within the next quarter of a century. It is desirable, therefore, that all information possible be gained regarding the most suitable substitutes for wood for building and engineering construction, such as iron, stone, clay products, concrete, etc., and that the minimum proportion in which these materials should be used for a given purpose, be ascertained. Exhaustion, by use in engineering and building construction, applies not only to the iron ore, clay, and cement-making materials, but, in larger ratio, to the fuel essential to rendering these substances available for materials of construction. Incidentally, investigations into the waste of structural materials have developed the fact that the destructive losses, due to fires in combustible buildings, amount to more than $200,000,000 per annum. A sum even greater than this is annually expended on fire protection. Inquiries looking to the reduction of fire losses are being conducted in order to ascertain the most suitable fire-resisting materials for building construction.
Early in 1904, during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Congress made provision for tests, demonstrations, and investigations concerning the fuels and structural materials of the United States. These investigations were organized subsequently as the Technologic Branch 193of the United States Geological Survey, under Mr. Joseph A. Holmes, Expert in Charge, and the President of the United States invited a group of civilian engineers and Chiefs of Engineering Bureaus of the Government to act as a National Advisory Board concerning the method of conducting this work, with a view to making it of more immediate benefit to the Government and to the people of the United States. This Society is formally represented on this Board by C. C. Schneider, Past-President, Am. Soc. C. E., and George S. Webster, M. Am. Soc. C. E. Among representatives of other engineering societies, or of Government Bureaus, the membership of the National Advisory Board includes other members of this Society, as follows: General William Crozier, Frank T. Chambers, Professor W. K. Hatt, Richard L. Humphrey, Robert W. Hunt, H. G. Kelley, Robert W. Lesley, John B. Lober, Hunter McDonald, and Frederick H. Newell.
In view, therefore, of the important part taken both officially and unofficially by members of this Society in the planning and organization of this work, it seems proper to present a statement of the scope, methods, and progress of these investigations. Whereas the Act governing this work limits the testing and investigation of fuels and of structural materials to those belonging to the United States, the activities of the Federal Government in the use of these materials so far exceeds that of any other single concern in the United States, that the results cannot but be of great value to all engineers and to all those engaged in engineering works.
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