Sunday, October 2, 2011

St Nicholas Day Miracle - Darr Mine Tragedy, December 18, 1907

You hear miraculous stories of people that decide not to get on a plane just minutes before a flight takes off which is destined to crash.  Or people who fall from outrageous heights only to survive without a scratch.

Were theses people just lucky or was there divine intervention?

My great great-grandfather, John Korba, was a religious man. He was raised Byzantine Catholic.

He worked in the Darr coal mine owned by the Pittsburgh Coal Company at Jacobs Creek in Western Pennsylvania. He had arrived in the US in 1894 from a part of the Austrian Empire which is now present day southern Poland.  He came here to make a better life for himself and start a family.

He gave up a lot to come here, but he never gave up his religion.

Working in a coal mine is hard and dangerous work.  Even in the early 1900's many native born Americans sought higher paying and less hazardous work.  The mine companies hired new immigrants who were desperate for work.  The mines exploited them as cheap labor.  The mine companies did provide housing the miners in company towns often called "patches”.  While this did give the miner a roof over his head, it meant the company had a lot of control of their employees’ lives.  Miners who lost their jobs, also lost their homes.

In addition, many miners worked 6 or 7 days a week and were only paid for those days they worked. 

No work, no pay.

St Nicholas is the patron saint of the Rusyn people.  St Nicholas feast day was an important religious observance for John Korba and many of his fellow miners.  Even though he would lose a days pay, which he desperately needed, it was important to him to attend religious services on December 19, 1907.

Daily Courier Newspaper Excerpt 12-20-1907
 Due to his faith in god, he was attending services and listening to Reverand Alexander Dzubay at 11:30am.  The ground shook like there was an earthquake.  Everyone present instantly knew what it explosion at the mine.  Men must have rushed out of the service in the hope of helping to rescue survivors.

Only one man would survive the mine explosion.

There were over 250 men in the mine that morning and there would have been as many as 100 more miners if it hadn't been for those devout Byzantine Catholics observing St. Nicholas Day.  The mine went almost a mile underground and that is where they believe the explosion happened.  There had been complaints of gas and coal dust in the mine and it is likely that one of the miner's open lamps sparked the explosion. 

The Darr mine disaster is the worst mine disaster in Pennsylvania history.  The mine did not reopen for about 2 years.

It is important to note that mine safety at this point in history was not considered a high priority.  The mine companies were more interested in profits than safety and there was very little government safety regulations at that time.  For men who died while working in the mines it was typical that the company would compensate the family by covering burial expenses and pay $150 to the survivors family members.

In fact, the month of December 2007 was the deadliest month in mine history.  Only a few weeks before, on December 6th, there was another mine disaster in Monongah, West Virginia claiming the lives of almost 400 miners.

Miracle of St Nicholas at Darr Mine Religious Icon
The Miracle of St. Nicholas

The amazing thing about both these mine disasters is that they both occurred on the St. Nicholas feast day. 

How can that be? 

In Monongah, West Virginia, there was no Byzantine Catholic Church in the area, so those celebrating the feast day did so at the local Roman Catholic Church which celebrated St. Nicholas according to the Gregorian calendar -- December 6th.  It is estimated that those attending mass in Monongah instead of working the mine that day probably saved 60-100 miners.  There were Byzantine Catholic clergy in the area of the Darr mine at Jacobs Creek, so the Byzantine Catholics celebrate St. Nicholas on December 19th according the Julian calendar. 

The fact that hundreds of lives were saved on these two celebrations of St. Nicholas is known as the Miracle of St. Nicholas. 

The survivors of the Darr mine disaster were so grateful that they established two churches in the towns surrounding the mine:  The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church at Jacobs Creek and the St Nicholas Byzantine Church at Perryopolis. 

Divine intervention or luck??

One thing is for certain that cheating death certainly did a lot to reinforced John Korba's faith. He played a key role in the establishment of the St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Scottdale, PA,  He died 50 years later at the ripe old age of 81,  I am sure he cherished every day as the gift that they were.

If it wasn't for his faith, many of his ancestors would not be here today. 

Interested in learning more about the Darr mine disaster and the Miracle of St. Nicholas check out these links:
Centennial of the Miracle of St. Nicholas, Jacobs Creek
Darr Mine Disaster, December 19, 1907
Darr Mine Disaster - New York Times Article


  1. I am familiar with these mine disasters from our church (Byzantine Catholic) - the story is often told on Saint Nicholas day, and some fellow parishioners even had relatives who were among the surviving minors.

  2. @Greta After learning about this story, it does makes you think twice about missing a Sunday at church.