The bodies began coming up from deep within the bowels of the earth days after the first explosion at the Centralia coal mine on March 25, 1947. Members of the Illinois prairie community of Centralia began hearing about how an explosive charge meant to dislodge coal had ignited the unstable coal dust permeating the air more than five hundred feet below ground at the mine south of town in Wamac.
The wives of the miners whose fate was not yet known gathered at the washhouse—the place where during the work week their husbands changed out of their grimy, coal-streaked clothes at the end of their shifts. Avoiding the rescue teams wearing their oxygen tanks and “other awkward paraphernalia of disaster,” the women gravitated toward sitting beneath their loved ones’ clothing, settling in for the long wait to learn about their men’s fate.
Ambulances from Centralia and nearby towns idled their engines in the cold night air, in an attempt by the men inside to keep warm as they waited to be called upon to transport the deceased to the local Greyhound bus station, which officials had converted into a temporary morgue. As a shiny limousine drove away from the mine, taking with it one of the 111 men killed in the disaster, a friend of the deceased, standing with others in the crowd, remarked, “I bet it’s the only time he ever rode in a Cadillac.”
A year after the disaster, Harper’s magazine, in its March 1948, reserved twenty-eight pages for a lengthy examination of the Centralia mine blast. The story, written by freelance writer John Bartlow Martin and titled “The Blast in Centralia No. 5: A Mine Disaster No One Stopped,” praised by the Harper’s editors as a “top-notch reporting job, to be compared . . . with John Hersey’s ‘
shocked the nation. Illustrated with twenty-four drawings by social-realist
artist Ben Shahn, the story, the longest ever printed in Harper’s in
its approximately hundred-year history, told about the helpless miners and
their struggle to save their lives, only to come face to face with an uncaring
government bureaucracy, lackadaisical union officials, and greedy mine owners
more concerned about profits than their workers’ lives. Hiroshima
Later reprinted in condensed form in Reader’s Digest, a magazine with the largest paid circulation in the world, the article, written by Martin in spite of threats of violence against him made by mining officials, played a major role in bringing about the downfall of Illinois’s Republican governor Dwight H. Green and electing Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson. The federal government also stepped in and enacted a stricter safety code for mines. Martin, however, offered his readers scant hope that a similar disaster might not befall another mining community in the future. He remembered the somber words of a young miner he met sipping a beer at a saloon in a neighboring town. Martin reported the scene as follows:
‘I got a wife and one kid. It takes a lot of money to raise kids. Where else could I make thirteen-o-five a day? The railroads pay eight, nine dollars. And that’s all there is around here.’ At a table in a corner a couple of old miners are arguing quietly, and behind the bar the lady bartender is listening sympathetically to a lady customer whose husband is always crabbing about what she cooks. The young miner says, ‘Sometimes I’d like to leave for good. But where’d I go? I don’t know anything else. I don’t know what hell you would call it. Well, it is life, in a way too. I just wish my life away, when I go below I just wish it was tomorrow. Wish my life away. And I guess the others are the same way, too.’
Only dimly aware of the disaster at first, Martin began his work on the Centralia explosion following a suggestion from a Reader’s Digest editor he had previously worked with, Paul Palmer, who promised him a large fee ($2,500) and offered to pay his expenses (the Digest often planted stories in other magazines with small budgets, making their own arrangements with writers and then reprinting the article). Martin then broached the idea to an editor at Harper’s, who agreed to read the article when it was finished. “I set forth . . . thinking, ‘I’ve got a hell of a nerve, starting out single-handed, with nothing but my typewriter, to overthrow the political machine of the governor of Illinois,’” Martin recalled.
To uncover what had happened at the mine Martin, a former newspaper reporter, began his research in Saint Louis, Missouri. The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch had done yeoman work in exposing Green’s failure to prevent the tragedy in spite of numerous warnings that dangerous conditions existed at the mine, including a large accumulation of volatile coal dust. For its efforts, the newspaper won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for public service. “The Post-Dispatch editors gave me access to their files,” Martin said. “They were proud of what they had done and well they should have been; they helped me, for they wanted the story told.”
From Saint Louis, Martin traveled the approximately sixty miles east to Centralia. The town of sixteen thousand looked nothing like Martin had expected it to be. Instead of a “dismal [coal] company town” like ones in West Virginia, Centralia had the look of a typical midwestern farming community—“wide main street lined with low flat-faced stores, sprawling railroad shops and the ungainly black coal-mine tipple on the edge of town.” Martin began his work here by obtaining background information on the town itself, talking to farmers, local businessmen, and housewives. Only then did he begin interviewing those involved in the disaster, beginning with the miners and the miners’ widows, because, as Martin noted, “they were the victims, the aggrieved, and would want the world to know. I did not want the story to turn into a debate among the powerful—Governor Green, and John L. Lewis of the UMWA [United Mine Workers of America], and the coal company. I wanted it to be the miners’ story, the story of helpless ordinary people.”
One of the first miners Martin talked to was William Rowekamp, who as recording secretary of Local 52 of the UMWA had sent a two-page letter to the governor pleading for his help that he typed while sitting at a cluttered oak desk in his living room. While the letter praised Scanlan, calling him the “best inspector that ever came to our mine,” it castigated his superiors at the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals for their inaction. “In fact, Governor Green,” the letter stated, “this is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the department of mines and minerals enforce the laws at the No. 5 mine of the Centralia Coal Co. . . . before we have an explosion like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia.” In addition to Rowekamp, the three other men who signed the letter included Jake Schmidt, Local 52 president, and Thomas Bush and Elmer Moss of the union’s mine committee; only Rowekamp survived the massive Centralia underground explosion, described by one expert as being like “a huge shotgun blast down a long corridor.”
Although taciturn by nature, Rowekamp soon began talking freely to Martin, telling him that some miners were worried enough to even tell their wives their fears about their safety. When he finished the interview, Martin asked the miner, as he always did at the end of an interview, if he knew of anyone else he should talk to, and Rowekamp gave him the name of other miners. “For the next few days,” said Martin, “I went from one to another and I took to hanging around the bare upstairs union hall and they became so used to seeing me that they paid little heed, always what a reporter wants.” He soon learned that the miners considered themselves a breed apart, superior to those who worked on farms or factories. “The danger they were always in was part of the fascination,” noted Martin. “They were fierce fighters for their rights. They had a strong sense of being the underdog.” Martin, who grew up during the Great Depression and saw his father lose his successful business, shared their underdog mentality and that mind-set “remained a powerful force in my life and my writing.”
To bring the disaster even more home to his readers, Martin talked to the widow of one of the miners who died in the explosion, Mrs. Joe Bryant, a big, forty-four-year-old woman who had borne eleven children; two had died in infancy. Martin asked her to tell him everything about the day of the explosion, and while she did, several small children played around her legs, pulling on her dress in an effort to distract her. She shared with him a note her husband had scrawled on a page torn from a time book while he was trapped in a tunnel, waiting to die as the breathable air ran out. Bryant had written: “Dear Wife fro Give [forgive] me Please all love you Be shure and don’t sign any Paper see Vic Ostero [a warning against signing away her compensation rights] My Dear wife good By.”
Funeral expenses had taken most of the compensation the widow had received from the union and other sources, and she could only expect payments of $44 a week for the next five years from the state’s industrial compensation fund and Social Security. When Martin asked her who she blamed for the loss of her husband, she said: “I don’t know nothin’ about the mine, I wouldn’t blame no one, accidents happen, seems like it just has to be.”
Driving away from the Bryant home on a dusty road, Martin turned his car for Springfield, the state capital, where he uncovered the second half of his story—politics and government bureaucracy. Martin got a lucky break. When he visited the offices of the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals, he expected some foot dragging from its staff, but an employee on duty that day said Martin could go through all the files, as they had already been published during the various investigations into the Centralia explosion. “But it turned out they hadn’t,” Martin noted. “I found a mountain of paper accumulated over five years. Piled up, the evidence was devastating.”
Martin traced, almost hour by hour, the reports issued by Scanlan finding that the mine was dangerously dusty and warning that such conditions could lead to an explosion. Medill, the department’s director, had not seen Scanlan’s first thirteen reports; they were handled by his deputy, who read some, but not all, of the scathing reports. Form letters indicating the department agreed with Scanlan’s findings were mailed to the Centralia mine company’s Chicago office. “Not only did the company not comply with Scanlan’s recommendations, it did not even bother to reply,” said Martin.
When federal mine inspections started in 1942, they found the same violations and made the same recommendations as had Scanlan. “The company ignored them too,” said Martin, who spent days in the department’s office making notes on “scores of federal and state inspection reports, correspondence, transcripts of the six hearings and investigations into the Centralia disaster.” After interviewing Medill, whom he described as “a large jovial man with a loud blustery voice,” at his home in Lake Springfield, Martin returned to the Illinois capital, where he talked to legislators, union officials, lobbyists, and coal operators. He tried, and failed, to interview Governor Green and Lewis.
Martin was now ready to start writing his story, but resisted the temptation to start. He had never forgotten the advice of a writer friend, W. Adolphe Roberts, the author of numerous historical novels, who had told him, “‘We always send our stories in too soon,’ before we’ve made them the best we can.” Also, the story had become so “big and complex, jumbled up in my head, all disorganized and out of order,” said Martin, that he had to take a few days off to fish in Upper Michigan, “trying not to think about Centralia, letting it marinate.” It worked; driving back to his home in suburban Chicago he began to see the story unfold before him. “The principal elements were the town of Centralia, the miners, their union, the mine operators, and state and federal authorities,” he said. “The story’s impact would depend upon two things: bringing the characters alive, and piling up the evidence of the history of the disaster.”
Because he had such an abundance of research for his Centralia article, Martin abandoned his old system of organizing his material on three-inch by five-inch notecards. Instead, he went through his notes and documents, gave each a code number, and then numbered the pages. When he came across an item he wanted to use in the article, he typed it out, triple spaced, and keyed it to code and page numbers. “I then cut up the typing line by line into slips of paper,” said Martin. “I moved the slips around, arranging and rearranging them.”
When he had all the slips arranged to his satisfaction, he pasted them together, resulting in a long scroll that he rolled up, placed on his typing table, and consulted as he began writing, letting the scroll fall to the floor as he worked. When he came to the end of the scroll, he had his rough draft finished. Martin eventually abandoned this system when, years later, one of his scrolls measured more than 150 feet long, “running out of my room and out the front door and across the lawn.” He went back to organizing his research on note cards, this time using some measuring five-inches by eight-inches in size.
A friend, reading a rough draft of Martin’s story, told him, “If Harper’s publishes this in anything like its present form, it’ll make your reputation.” At 18,500 words in rough-draft form, the article was the longest Martin had ever written. “What made it so long and what made it so powerful was the relentless documentation—I kept piling it up and piling it up and piling it up—showing that for years everybody had known the mine was going to blow up but nobody had stopped it,” Martin recalled.
When Harper’s chief editor Frederick Lewis Allen read the story, he wrote Martin a long letter praising the writer’s work and ended by saying, “The whole office is rocking with cheers.” (Upon its publication Allen tried to have the story nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but discovered the journalism award had no magazine category.) After he had read Martin’s manuscript, artist Shahn had called Russell Lynes, the editor at Harper’s who had asked him to provide drawings for the article, at home to tell him he thought the article was “wonderful.” Lynes added that when “Shahn says ‘wonderful’ it sounds as though he means it. The first syllable takes three times as long as the other two.”
The artist was so inspired by the tragedy that he produced sixty-four drawings, saying once he started he felt compelled to keep on drawing. John D. Voelker, a best-selling author known best today for his novel Anatomy of a Murder, had met and became friends with Martin during his frequent vacations in the Upper Peninsula, where Voelker lived. Voelker called the Centralia story “a glorious piece of plain writing and of social detection and exposure.” He expressed his amazement at how fair Martin could appear to be, and maybe was, in the article, but at the same time how he was able to “expose the wound in all its rawness. You can hit low so fast that even the victim doesn’t know it.”
In his long career as a freelancer, Martin, through his numerous stories for national magazines and many books, took his readers into the worlds of such forgotten people as the victims of a gruesome highway crash in Michigan, the mother of a teenage boy who wondered why her son and two others killed a nurse for no apparent reason, a convict from Jackson Prison talking about the hell of life behind bars, a crusading journalist gunned down in cold blood for daring to expose corruption in his town, a dedicated psychiatrist trying to save damaged lives at an Ohio mental institution, and an illiterate black steelworker bringing to life the real meaning of segregated housing in a northern city.
As the writer of heavy-fact stories, Martin, who died in 1987, said it was his fate to “thrive on other people’s troubles.” Once a person involved in the Hollywood film industry asked him, “Don’t you ever write any happy stories?” Martin told him: “No, I don’t. I don’t think the human lot is a very happy one. Maybe an analyst could figure that out . . . but I do take my work seriously and feel dedicated to it.” There existed in Martin’s mind a gulf between the matter-of-fact newspaperman who saw little difference between covering a football game and hanging, and the serious journalist he aspired to be, one who writes significant articles “about serious subjects and takes them seriously and so becomes himself engaged—engaged in his society, in his times, in the human condition.”