George Cordak's family in Clymer, Pa., circa 1918. My mother is the youngest child.
George Cordak's family in Clymer, Pa., circa 1918. My mother is the youngest child.
My grandfather's headstone carries a variant spelling of the family name.
My grandfather's headstone carries a variant spelling of the family name.
Clymer, Pa., around the time my grandfather settled there in the early 1900s.
Clymer, Pa., around the time my grandfather settled there in the early 1900s.

Watching the miners, thinking about the past

I have been watching TV coverage of the story of the Chilean miners pretty closely -- just as I do whenever I hear of a mine disaster.

It's a family thing for me, as strange as that may sound.

All these stories -- and particularly the unfolding happy ending in Chile -- conjure up thoughts of a man I never knew.

My maternal grandfather, George Cordak, died some 35 years before I was born, back when my mother, Helen, was only 8 years old. Over the years, I've reconstructed the story of what happened to him from my late mother's memories and from the kind of research that reporters like to do.

Many decades later, I could see the effects of the loss when my mother spoke of it. And my own family story somehow makes me feel more connected to the incredible rescue operation in South America.

My grandfather was an immigrant, a Carpatho-Rusyn like my paternal grandparents, and he left his home village of Bajerovce in Austria-Hungary, now Slovakia, in the late 1880s, settling in the bituminous coal country around Indiana County, Pennsylvania.

That's where he found work -- and faced death more than once, including a 1908 accident when he was trapped for six hours beneath a load of slate.

But each time he survived, with plenty of broken and re-broken bones, until Tuesday, June 5, 1923.

According to the regimented schedule of life in a mining town like Clymer, that  was ironing day for Anna Cordak. While Anna and her daughters labored with their Tuesday duties, George and his oldest son, who bore his name, headed down to their worksite in the mine.

A coal miner's workday at the time would often last from morning until night in a dark, choking hole in the ground. In the mines of Indiana County, individual rooms, about 24 feet wide, were made at regular intervals, from which the soft coal was mined. In that area, the rooms averaged 32 inches high.

"The working surface in each room, called the 'face,' was advanced a few feet each day into the solid coal in the direction of the cross entries," writes Eileen Mountjoy Cooper in a description of old-time mining practices that is part of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s collection on the history of the coal industry in the county.

Her research gives us a look at the working conditions that George and his son labored under:

"Mainspring of the old-time mine was the ‘pick miner,’ and Alvie Lydick of Taylorsville, Pa., vividly remembered the countless hours he spent in that activity: ‘Each man, or usually two buddies, had a room of his own. We had to timber up our own place to support the roof, lay the track up the from for the coal cars, and bail the place out if it was full of water.’"

George Cordak and his son, George, were pick miners like Alvie Lydick. They were working side-by-side in their room in Clymer’s McKean Mine on that day.

It was the normal course of events for fathers and sons to work side-by-side in the mines, according to Eileen Mountjoy Cooper’s interview with another veteran miner, Ben Trunzo:

"One of the reasons men took their boys into the mines was to get more cars to load. A man alone could get only four or five cars a day, but if you had a son with you, you might get 10 or even 12."

And the amount of coal you pulled out determined how much money you’d be bringing home.

As part of their regular routine, the two Cordaks had set an explosive charge to free more coal. One of them would have shouted "Fire! Fire! Fire!" the established triple warning for their fellow miners when a dynamite charge was set to go.

Father and son were crouched behind the safety of solid rock, awaiting the blast. As the story has come down to us, the two Georges, senior and junior, waited for what seemed like an eternity behind that rock.

Finally, the explosion went off.

Young George motioned to his father, signifying that it had been their blast and not one from one of the rooms worked by other miners. Just as his father was peering from behind the safety of the rock, a second blast ripped through the Empire Mine.

Too late, the younger Cordak realized the dynamite blast hadn’t come from their room after all, but from another.  The second explosion had actually been the charge set by the Cordaks.

The blast sheared off the top of George Cordak’s skull, killing him instantly.

Still safe behind a wall of rock, his son was unhurt and, now, horribly alone.    

As it does in any mining town, word of the accident spread quickly through Clymer. Neighbors and friends soon converged at the house on Franklin Street, bringing food and condolences.

The body was prepared for the wake and burial, George’s shattered head was wrapped securely in linen, for the wood casket, surrounded by burning candles, would be open in the parlor of the Cordaks’ home until the funeral service at St. Michael’s.

The youngest child, my mother, Helen, was just 8 years old. She reacted to the tragedy by retreating, running into a closet and closing the door behind her, hiding in darkness as black as the coal mine that killed her father. She stayed there through that long June day until her mother, growing concerned about her youngest, finally found her just as the sun was setting.

In addition to the solemn funeral rites of the Greek Catholic Church, there were the bureaucratic rituals of the state, forms to fill out, reports to file.

First, there was the obligatory death certificate reporting his "accidental death due to dynamite explosion in coal mine."

Because the death occurred in a mine, there was another report filed with the state of Pennsylvania, showing it to be the ninth death of 1923 in the state’s 25th Bituminous District. It is written in the very readable handwriting of a state official named Thomas S. Louther:

"June 5; Empire M., Empire Coal Mining Co. George Cordak, Sr., 47; fatal, Inside mine.  P[ick] miner, Polish, U.S. citizen. Married, 3 children under 16 years. Blast--returned too soon--{face of entry}; carelessness of victim; Indiana County."

While the incorrect listing of George Cordak as "Polish" might have passed without much notice, the cold official designation, "carelessness of victim," would have especially stung young George Cordak if he could have read that entry in Pennsylvania’s official registry of mine fatalities for 1923.

Meanwhile, the rituals of mourning unfolded, starting with the wake in the Cordak home.

The funeral liturgy was held Thursday morning, June 8, at St. Michael’s, a short walk uphill from the Cordak home to the new brick church that had been completed only four years earlier.

It was in the cream-colored church that George Cordak’s friends and family gathered in the Greek Catholic church for the funeral liturgy. With Father John Zavalidroga officiating, the coffin would have been opened inside the church, bringing tears, sobs and wails anew. The sad, slow funeral dirge, sad, slow hymn,  "Vičnaja Pamjat'," or "Eternal Memory," would fill the church, the syllables of the Church Slavonic words drawn out in ritualistic grieving. The otherworldly scent of incense would fill the space.

After the church service, the funeral party boarded the streetcar for the nine-mile trip to Indiana, to climb another hill to St. Bernard’s Cemetery, then the main Catholic burial site in the area, where the body was interred with more solemn ritual and the same mournful singing.

Unlike some of the headstones around him, the grave of George Cordak wasn’t marked in Italian or Slovak or another foreign language. It was in English, George Cordak’s new language, in the style of the America he’d called his home for almost three decades. As was the fashion of the time, an oval enameled portrait of Cordak, or Cordyak, as his name is  spelled on the granite headstone.

The only mention of his passing in the local pres comes from the June 14 edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette, in the column devoted to all the newsworthy happenings in the borough of Clymer. Tucked after a report of Miss Anna Mayernik’s health improving after an undisclosed illness, and just before the latest on Mr. and Mrs. Chas. Kasinics traveling out of town with their children, visiting, is this:

"Mr. Mike Matsko and son of Cleveand O, attended the funeral of Mr. George Kordiak Thursday."

Mike was George Cordak’s cousin. When he and his son headed back to Cleveland after the funeral, they didn’t return alone.

Young George just couldn’t shake the feelings of guilt, replaying the tragic events of that horrible day over and over in his mind. And he could never, ever re-enter the McKean Mine where his father died.

Whether it was his fault or not, George carried the guilt for his father’s death.

In June 1923, young George Cordak left the mines forever, left Clymer forever, and returned with his father’s cousin to live in Cleveland. It would be a few years before he rejoined his mother and the rest of his family in a place far very away from Clymer.


tommcmahon | Oct. 13, 2010 at 7:33 p.m. (report)

Great story, Tim.

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