Cartersville, Georgia Mining Disaster

100 Years Later

In October 1904, workers of the Morgan Mining Company blasted a hillside near Cartersville, Georgia, to loosen iron ore contained within it. The blast created a cut approximately 100 feet into the hillside and at least 50 feet deep. Shortly thereafter the president of the Morgan Mining Company, R.P. Morgan, arrived and was speaking with the four workers, who were preparing to remove the ore. Just then, another miner, William Wheeler, saw the side wall shaking and yelled at the men to run. Before they could move, however, the side of the wall caved in burying all five men.

Rescue efforts began immediately and employed 30 men from the nearby Kelly Mine and another 60 from the Barton Mine in addition to farmers from the surrounding area. Several hours later, two men closest to the edge of the collapse were rescued, albeit badly injured. Morgan’s body was recovered around noon that day. Unlike the sanitized descriptions of mass disasters one reads about today, the local newspaper described Morgan’s body in gruesome detail as “. . . terribly crushed and mangled. His head was right against the side of the cut. His neck was broken. His arm was broken and crushed, his leg broken, and his body about the region of the stomach badly bruised and lacerated.” Two other workers’ bodies were later recovered at 7:00 p.m. The body of one, Bob Boynton, was described as “likewise mashed into almost unrecognizable shape.” The body of a sixth, described in one newspaper as “an unknown negro” was never recovered.

One account of the disaster ends with this two-sentence paragraph on the “unknown negro”:

“A strange thing about the accident is the fate or present where abouts of a strange negro that went into the cut to hire. His remains could not be found and yet no one remembers seeing him run out.”

Accounts of the disaster state that the collapse was caused by a “slick head”, a heavy layer of iron ore underlain by a layer of clay. Once the blast intruded on the strata of iron ore and clay, the clay was no longer able to support the overlying iron ore and gave way immediately opposite where the victims were standing. Estimates of the weight of the combined iron ore and clay covering the men was 1,000 tons.

In 2007, a little over a century later, a heavy machinery company occupied the site of the now abandoned and long-forgotten mine. During a heavy equipment training course, a ventilation shaft was encountered, and within the shaft were discovered human remains. Uncertain of whether these were historical remains or if they were forensically significant, law enforcement called and asked for the assistance of Dr. Snow.

It was immediately clear that the remains were many decades old and were only of historical significance. The remains consisted of a partial fragmentary skull, fragmentary mandible, fragmentary femur, unidentified long bone fragments, and several lumbar, thoracic, and cervical vertebrae. The bones were fragile, demineralized, and deeply stained from the iron-rich red clay in which they were found. Dr. Snow’s analysis in the lab suggested that they were likely those of an adult male, however no determination of ancestry or age range could be made.

human remains

Serendipitously, the grandfather of one of the men at the site during the recovery happened to be the undertaker for R.P. Morgan a century earlier. The man remembered that his grandfather had saved a newspaper clipping of the disaster. The newspaper clipping left no doubt that the remains found at the site belong to the “unknown negro,” but this individual will never be identified.