As I write these words, an attempt is being made to rescue thirty-three trapped miners, deep inside the San Jose gold and copper mine at Copiapo in the country of Chile. Plus, August 27 is the 47th anniversary of one of the most famous mining disasters and rescue operations to have occurred in Pennsylvania, which captured both the country and the world’s attention, of which I’ll shortly return and give a brief account.
Mines, and the subterranean world in general, have for centuries entered the realm of legend, myth, folklore, as well as history, as repositories of the unknown. Well-known accounts range from the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine of the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, Arizona, to totally fictional novels like those of Jules Verne’s famed 19th-century work, Journey to the Center of the Earth, to Stanton A. Coblentz’ Hidden World, first published in 1935. Such stories have continued to capture the public’s imagination.
But mines can truly be strange places indeed, as revealed by numerous large ‘dinosaur tracks,’ discovered for years and removed from the roofs of coal mines in central Utah, to that of the ‘perpetual fire’ that has continued to burn since 1962, in a strip mine underneath Centralia, Columbia County, Pennsylvania, within the state’s anthracite coal region.
Mining excavations carried out in northern Italy, from 1871-1958, have uncovered some fifty individual skeletons of a primitive ape-like creature, referred to as Oreopithecus bambolii or the ‘swamp or hill ape.’ However, perhaps the most bizarre discovery was recorded in Latin as long ago as the 15th century, by the Italian writer Baptista Fulgosus. He relates the discovery by miners, in the year 1460, while digging within a ‘metal ore mine’ at Berne, Switzerland, high in the Alps, at some 50 fathoms or 300 feet beneath the earth, of an entire ship, ‘with anchors of rusted iron, broken masts, shredded linen sails and the carcasses of some 48 men!’ As Fulgosus himself states, this excavation was carried out within ‘his own time,’ and that the arti-factual and human remains were seen by “many grave and sober men,” from whom he “received a personal account of it.”
Which brings us to the events on August 13,1963, at Sheppton, located in the anthracite coal belt of Schuylkill County in eastern Pennsylvania where the famed Sheppton Mine Disaster and Rescue transpired. Three men were trapped some 330 feet beneath the earth after the collapse of a mining shaft. Some two weeks later, on Tuesday, August 27th, two of the miners, Henry Throne and David Fellin, were brought safely to the surface, after rescuers successfully drilled a 17 1/2-inch and later 28-inch borehole into their chamber, while the third miner, Lou Bova, being trapped in another part of the mine, regrettably perished.
The story of Throne and Fellin’s survival and rescue were enough to captivate the world’s attention, but it was what they claimed they saw and heard, while entombed, that fascinated the public, statements which both men swore as to their authenticity, both separately and publicly, emphatic declarations which they took to their graves, though others believed they had simultaneously witnessed the same hallucinations.
David Fellin’s ‘affidavit’ was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 29, 1963, wherein he remarked how, “Now they’re trying to tell me those things were hallucinations, that we imagined it all. We didn’t. Our minds weren’t playing tricks on us. I’ve been a practical, hard-headed coal miner all my life. My mind was clear down there in the mine. It’s still clear.”
Fellin went on to remark, how some of the things he and Throne saw, they couldn’t explain in words, while on the other hand, he stated that, “On the fourth or fifth day, we saw this door although we had no light from above or from our helmets. The door was covered in bright blue light. It was very clear, better than sunlight. Two ordinary looking men, not miners, opened the door. We could see beautiful marble steps on the other side. We saw this for some time and then we didn’t see it..We saw many other things like that that you couldn’t explain. But I’m not going to tell you about them because I feel too deeply about all this.”
Both men would also claim that they were visited by Pope John XXIII, who had died some ten weeks previously, prior to the mining disaster, and that the deceased pontiff had in reality stayed with them a full eight days!
Whether one wishes to believe the above statements in regard to artifacts discovered within mines over time, or the above statements by the late David Fellin as miracles or hallucinations is not my concern. I simply share with you some of the strange things that are connected with mines and mining disasters, some of which have transpired here in Pennsylvania, partly available here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania as part of its varied collection.
*For further information relative to the Sheppton Mine Rescue, one can consult the following:
James A. Goodman, Two Weeks Under: The Sheppton Mine Disaster/Miracle (Coal Hole Productions, March 2004)
J. Ronnie Sando, The Famous Sheppton Mine Rescue: The Untold Story: The Blood and Sweat of the Rescue Team (Publish America, July 16th, 2007).
“Rescued Miners Tell Own Stories of 14-Day Ordeal.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 29th, 1963, p.3.