The Macabre, Unknown Origins of Father’s Day

Photo by Dale Sparks.

The Monongah Mine Disaster is recognized as the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history– and you’ve likely never heard about it. The disaster occurred in my hometown of Monongah, West Virginia. On the morning of December 6, 1907, at least 365 men and boys, ranging between the ages of 10-65 years old, died when two sudden and catastrophic explosions tore through conjoined mines #6 and #8. The report and quake of the blasts was said to be heard and felt for an estimated 10 mile radius. 

Though 365 fatalities is the “official” death toll given by the company, it has always been understood among locals that the real death toll was much higher. There are many reasons for this false number, from the explosion being so volatile that many bodies were disintegrated on impact, to a quick and hasty cover-up so the mining industry could save face. Even the coal company acknowledged that it would be impossible to ever know the true number of men lost (though they did have a very accurate count of the horses and mules killed).

The disaster widowed over 250 women and left over 1,000 children without fathers or orphaned altogether. Grief permeated the entire region. Monongah’s mines were so large that many people in the surrounding areas worked or had family who worked within the two mines. Margaret Byington, a Red Cross worker involved with the relief aid in Monongah, described the place as a “…tragic little grey town, where sorrow meets one at every step…”

Enter Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton. In the summer of 1908, Grace Clayton suggested to pastor Dr. Robert Thomas Webb of Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South in Fairmont that a special service be held to honor and pay tribute to the legacies of fathers and paternal figures. Her suggestion was prompted not only by her grief for her own father’s death, but because of the disaster that happened barely six months earlier in Monongah. 
Grace Clayton was able to deeply sympathize with the sorrow that seemed to engulf the Monongah community. She was compelled to recognize their collective grief and to honor the hundreds of miners – fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, friends – whose lives were lost. So, on Sunday, July 5, 1908 (just a few months after the first observance of Mother’s Day, which took place just up the road in Grafton, West Virginia), the first Father’s Day service was observed in Fairmont.

There is some controversy as to where the idea for Father’s Day in the United States truly originated. After all, paying annual homage to parents has been a long standing tradition across the globe. Father’s Day has been celebrated in many different countries on different days long before the U.S. jumped on the bandwagon and made it our own retail and commercial extravaganza.

As for the U.S., credit for the establishment of the holiday is given to the state of Washington and Sonora Smart Dodd for a 1910 service held at a Y.M.C.A. This service was inspired by the successful 1908 Mother’s Day service in West Virginia. But that was a full two years after the first Father’s Day held by Grace Clayton after the mining disaster.

A major reason for this first-time event getting lost to history is its date: July 5th. The first Father’s Day was overshadowed by the Fourth of July. 

Sorry, Dad. A sweet hot air balloon display and this dude who would balance on top of a giant ball while walking up and down a seven story spiral tower in the middle of the city totally stole your thunder. But, we didn’t forget you.

At the turn of the 20th century, Fairmont was a booming metropolis which boasted more resident millionaires and more religious and ethnic diversity than any other part of the country (not exactly what one thinks when considering West Virginia these days). The Fourth of July celebrations were all the rage, featuring week-long attractions with numerous revivals, traveling carnivals, sales, concerts, celebrities, parades, contests, and popular performers all building up to the major spectacle on the 4th. The residents and business owners of Fairmont went to great lengths to make the occasion free to the public in an attempt to lift the spirits of the community and provide a happy distraction from their grief (though I am not sure how much of a happy distraction the Monongah mourners actually got from the “two terrific explosions” at the end of the hot air balloon display).

Ultimately, Fairmont never insisted on getting the credit as being “the first”; instead, the focus is on recognizing both the dead and the mourners. This first service for fathers was not one of national promotion nor was it intended to be. Grace Clayton never promoted the service outside of the area, possibly not even to the local papers. More than likely, word about this service spread orally, given the majority of the target audience for this service would have been illiterate immigrants and children. Though she had every intention of honoring fathers everywhere, that first Father’s Day was a deeply personal and sorrowful experience. The sermon delivered on this occasion to mourners by Dr. Webb, has been forever lost. 

Though the two mines in Monongah were back up and running by early February of 1908, the recovery and discovery of bodies and body parts continued for several more months, reportedly even as late as June of 1908. Remains found by this point were immediately “buried” within the mine. In result, for up to six months following the disaster, there were those who still harbored hope that the remains of their loved one might still be discovered, brought to the surface and identified so they could lay them to rest on their own terms. By the beginning of July it would have thoroughly sunk in to the majority of mourners that if something had not yet been found yet, it would never be. This first Father’s Day was, for many, the first and only funeral service they ever got for their lost dead.

 

 

 

Katie Orwig is a native of Monongah, West Virginia. She is a Jack of All Trades and a lover of history. She has a strong background in many Art Forms, is trained as a Death Doula, and is a strong advocate for Medical Aid in Dying in the U.S.A.

 

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  • Jordan Carter

    Katie, this story may be of interest to you or The Order. I’m doing some research on a grave eruption that occurred in my hometown of Morgantown, WV in 1975. The morgue supervisor at the time responded to the eruption and ruled out the body gas elimination theory, and the corpse, though buried for 62 years, was perfectly preserved. What gives? I’d appreciate any and all help in answering some of the questions this eruption raises!

    • Katie Orwig

      Hi Jordan! It’s so nice to meet another Mountaineer Deathling!
      That is very interesting and I think my mother talked about that exact event with my brother the last time I was home. I will ask her and my grandmother to see if they recall anything. WV has so many cemetery issues due to mining that there have been instances where graves have “erupted” from underground gas pockets but it isn’t gas from the body, rather from old natural gas fissures below the ground. I believe one happened out Prickett’s Fort when I was a kid in the 90s and the sudden release of gas from old nearby mines caused some of the old graves to either sink or rise.

  • Wilhelm_Saure

    On Father’s Day 2016 I convinced my family to go to the National Museum of Funeral History with me (https://nmfh.org/). They were skeptical at first, but we all had a great time there. It’s a fascinating place that balances respect for the gravity of the subject with a touch of humor. I highly recommend it to any death positive people out there.

  • Megan Pacer

    I’m curious as to what qualifies as the “worst” industrial disaster in the U.S. If you’re going by death toll, the worst industrial disaster is actually the Texas City disaster, which killed over 500. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_disaster

    • Katie Orwig

      Hi Megan!
      This is one of my favorite issues to discuss when it comes to disasters, I’m so happy someone brought it up! I discuss it a lot with fellow maritime disaster geeks as we have come to find that “worst” is both a relative and subjective term when it comes to disasters. So, technically speaking, The Texas City Disaster is actually a Military Maritime disaster as, though she was ported, the USS Grandcamp was still on water and not on land. She isn’t known or recognized enough in American Military Maritime disaster history because she is typically mislabeled as an industrial accident because of what caused her to catch fire and the fact that a lot of what caused that fire was illegal and negligent activity by the government. Also, the Grandcamp was government owned and operated. The Monongah mines, run by Consol Inc., were an entirely private industry and government did us no good because, well, guess who ran the government? Yep, the mine owners. This is also why, out of all 5 mine accidents in Bloody December of 1907, the one in WV was the only one to never get anything more than a Coroner’s Inquiry, in which over half the jury was composed of lawyers and private investors of the mine company, the judge was the coroner in charge on the ground after the accident, the miners had no representation, and the state inspector responsible for making sure those mines were safe got to act as attorney on behalf of the coal industry.
      I will be writing more on Monongah and going into detail about the many ways it has earned the title of “worst industrial disaster” very soon. There is A LOT to talk about so it will take several articles, but I can possibly put it in perspective with tidbits of info.
      So, back to that relative vs subjective thing…of course, relative is about comparisons, not absolutes where subjective is about interpretations and tastes which can totally be absolutes, right? Like, to say that broccoli is “better” than carrots is relative and up for debate, but to say you “prefer” broccoli to carrots, that’s subjective and your personal preference is totally not up for debate and should be respected.
      In death, one must take both the relative and subjective into account and the same goes for disasters, mostly because something is not a disaster without some form or amount of death.
      In discussing maritime disaster, specifically, one will find that what makes something the “worst” is all about making comparisons based on absolutes, so one must be prepared to hold contradicting ideas on those types of labels and just roll with it. This is why some say “worst” is based on number of dead while others will base it on how they died and others, still, will base it on merits that do not involve death at all. In a way, there is no absolute right or wrong when someone wants to take a subjective stance on what makes something the “worst”, however in the relative manner, “worst” can not be defined by one singular fact, like number of dead, but by a whole number of contributing factors. For instance, I hate the cold, but I would totally take hypothermia after the Titanic sank as opposed to the raging inferno that was the Dona Paz disaster. However, if you want to learn about the Dona Paz, you’re better off looking up “Asia’s Titanic”. This is another factor to face when dealing with death in society and the sad fact that we still base certain lives as more valuable than others, such as the lives of sailors over those of miners. One must balance the relative with the subjective.
      So, the Grandcamp and Monongah actually share several similarities but here are just a few examples of why Monongah has earned “worst industrial” over the USS Grandcamp:
      1) The Grandcamp exploded and suffered a series of subsequent explosions. So did Monongah. The cause of the Grandcamp explosion is known. Monongah’s is actually not known, there are only theories and no real attempts were made to know the actual cause other than “it wasn’t the company’s fault and they are not accountable”. In the Grandcamp they tried to do that same thing, but they didn’t succeed in the long run.
      2) The Grandcamp lost an estimated 580 people including those who helped in rescue efforts. Monongah’s dead is actually unknown, outside of the 3 known to have died in the rescue attempts and that poor insurance salesman who was in the mines at his own risk that day (ironically to collect and sell life insurance to the miners). The “Official” number of dead is a century-old cover up and only accounts for those people who were on the payroll as of 3 weeks prior to the the time of the disaster and not those subcontracted by miners, including their children. This is also why it was only recently discovered that 3 men on Monongah’s list of dead actually survived because they quite at the beginning of the month or simply didn’t go into work that day. They moved back to Italy and lived full lives, despite the fact that someone or something that died on Dec. 6, 1907 is buried in a grave with their name on it in Monongah.
      3) The Grandcamp actually got a legitimate trial and parties were ultimately held accountable by the Supreme Court and reparations and legislation made as a direct result (which is why it should be remembered more but also why it isn’t). Monongah was no where near that and it took almost 30 years just for laws to pass to get the children out of the mines and into schools.
      4) Children. As far as is known on the Grandcamp, no children were employed or died as, well, the labor laws had already been passed and it was illegal for children the age of those killed in Monongah to be working, especially for a fire department or for the military. The number of children killed in those mines is actually unknown as it did not want to be acknowledged that the company allowed subcontracting work (meaning they wouldn’t have an accurate count of the dead) and that they did not keep up with following state rules about the minimum work age of 12. This is also why Monongah was highly politicized during the early 20th in attempts to establish Child Labor Laws and require that even the poorest children should have the privilege of education.
      5) Unidentified bodies occur in both events but Monongah’s is super shady. At some point I will write about the way “body” was used as a euphemism at Monongah because, in many cases, “body” meant a coffin with several different limbs sent for immediate burial. Like, one of the guys actually lived but what is in his grave? Probably the remnants of like 2 right hands, a foot, and 4 arms. Unlike Grandcamp, Monongah’s disaster was not handled as well, despite what you may read from certain sources. Monongah was the first time America had seen a disaster on this scale and its aftermath was a total mess which dealt mostly with sexism, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiments.
      6) As I mentioned, The USS Grandcamp is technically a Military Maritime disaster and Monongah is entirely industrial and this critical label has almost everything to do with their time periods and the around 40 year difference in events. Many like to get even more specific about war-time, peace-time, and transitional time periods when it comes to maritime events or even disasters in general. Personally, I think that label really only matters when it comes to making sure I am respecting each event for what they were and the different factors involved more than trying to make it a black and white absolute. Again, it comes to relative vs subjective and knowing how to hold both so one doesn’t over simplify a very complex event.

      I’m sorry that kind of turned into a book. Like I said, there is A LOT more to talk about with Monongah and the topic of “worst” it is one of my favorite philosophical topics to discuss and it is one I have to always keep in mind while I research this event.