The Skytown Mining Disaster

Skytown, Pennsylvania was founded entirely on the principle of harvesting minerals. Like any other coalburg in the state, it made its fortune on the backs of immigrant laborers. The name Skytown referred to the fact that the settlement was so dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, the townsfolk felt as if there was nothing but them and the sky. The town’s founder was Ulysses Byrne, a third generation Scotch-Irish immigrant who began as a journeyman in John C. Osgood’s firm and worked his way up. The mine was originally called “Byrne’s folly,” both for its remote location and for its predicted low yield. The coal seam began as a narrow ridge which broadened unexpectedly after sixty meters. The shanty-town swelled as the seam bore richer and richer yields, feeding into what became a vicious cycle. More miners would be needed to mine the coal, the more coal was mined, the more miners they needed. Byrne was typical of the robber barons of the day, using violent tactics to bust unions and refusing to equip his miners with any kind of safety gear.

The term “Byrne’s folly” took on a new meaning when the baron got wind of the Owl’s Keep tunnel in West Virginia. Boasting a rumored length of 2 miles and a yield of 470,000 short tons of coal per annum, the rumor threw Byrne into a frothing envy. He ordered the sudden expansion of the tunnels, slashing the already lax safety rules to suicidal levels. Workers were expected to haul coal even when in the throes of of late-stage silicosis. Skytown became known as the valley of “little blue men” because of the heavy presence of cyanosis in the miners. Rumors abounded that Byrne would take workers too sick to even stand and bury them in the slag heaps so as to make room for the ever-incoming new miners. Despite Byrne’s tyrannical reputation, news of the expanding mine kept a steady income of fresh blood.

The tunnel ceased expansion after ten years, stabbing nearly three miles into the earth’s surface. The mine produced an estimated 800,000 short tons of coal per annum, but this was second only to the bragging rights Byrne enjoyed. He mocked up a parade in the town’s one and only road, driving the only automobile in town: a Winton that had to be hauled piecemeal up the mountain trail and then assembled in town.

Because expansion of the tunnel gave so little credence to safety, an incident was all but inevitable. One an April morning, three months after the parade, the middle section of the tunnel collapsed. Because the workers were largely undocumented, the final death toll is impossible to gauge properly. Byrne undertook no recovery efforts. For weeks the townspeople complained about hearing the voices of trapped workers, hoping the heavy spring rains would fill the tunnel and silence their ghostly cries. Sinkholes began appearing in the town’s soil, which they attributed to the ghost’s desperate escape attempts. To this day, there is a county-wide folk belief in “little blue men” that collapse tunnels out of spite. 

Be it ghost or engineering oversight, after weeks of deluge the pockmarked soil beneath Skytown liquefied and sucked the settlement and all its people into the earth. All that remains to mark the spot today is the former mine entrance, which now extends only a few meters into the earth, and a plaque dedicated to the fallen miners. 

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