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April 28, 2013

Safety step: Century-old mine hazard filled

— In 1931, the Cambria Iron Co. gave the city of Johnstown a scenic stretch of woodland that spanned from Westmont to the West End.

Carrying the company’s Stackhouse family name, its 270 acres have become a local destination for hiking, picnicking and outdoor events in the years since. But reminders of its storied mining past also have remained, including a hard-to-miss iron frame covering an abandoned mine shaft alongside a park trail.

But it will not be there much longer.

A decades-in-the-making project is underway to fill and cover the 350-foot-deep shaft, adding a small memorial in its place honoring those who died in the 1902 Rolling Mill Mine disaster that claimed 112 miners, state Department of Environmental Protection officials said.

The project has brought construction crews into the quiet park. Neon tape surrounds the otherwise wooded work zone, cautioning passers-by. But park ranger Jim Pasco called the temporary inconvenience a “welcome sight.”

“I’ve been park ranger here since 1985, and I’ve been fighting all this time to get that shaft taken care of,” said Pasco, 75. “Knowing that safety hazard won’t be there anymore ... I’m ecstatic.”

Until crews recently began work, Pasco worried that a small child could crawl into the shaft by slipping under the gated covering, which had become worn through the years. Hundreds of feet separated the opening and shaft floor, he said.

“We’re lucky no one was ever hurt,” he added.

The project’s contractor, Lancaster-based Gearhart Brothers Services, poured a “pudding-like” grout into the shaft earlier this month. The grout has been topped with crushed concrete, Gearhart operations manager Ron Reese said.

He said contractors worked with Fi-Hoff Construction to run 640 feet of line down a hillside to pour a concrete mix into the shaft.

They will add a concrete foundation on top, where, in a separate project, historical markers will be added, Pasco added.

“It’s going to be a big improvement,” he said.

DEP spokesman John Poister said the work is expected to be completed in June.

The price tag: $400,000 – all of it state-funded, he said.

Design plans are being drafted to build the wayside exhibit, which will likely pay tribute to the mine disaster and the mine itself, Johnstown Area Heritage Association Director Richard Burkert said.

“This was a technologically and historically interesting mine,” said Burkert, noting it was also a very important one.

More than 30 million tons of coal were removed from its underground seams from the 1850s to 1930s, he said.

One of the most innovative moves inside the mine involved hauling coal underground, and under the Conemaugh River, from one seam to the other, shaving off miles of above ground hauling to the cleaning tipple, he added.

“Back then, you didn’t work with two seams at once,” Burkert added. “It changed haulage completely.”

The mine is most famous for its 1902 explosion.

In July of that year, methane gas ignited inside what was known as the mine’s Klondike section.

Between the explosion and gas the blast created, 112 miners died. Most were European immigrants.

The disaster eventually led to increased safety measures in the mine.

It remains one of the nation’s worst mine disasters, Burkert said.

He said two anodized aluminum signs identical to ones used in national parks will retell some of the Rolling Mill Mine’s stories, displaying a mix of images and text.

A fundraising effort, lead by JAHA, will likely be underway soon to raise remaining funds for the memorial signs, Burkert added.

“There isn’t really anything else around telling that Rolling Mill story,” he said. “This is a great project.”

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