WILKES-BARRE — Despite the morning’s bitter cold, 84-year-old Katie Lavery of Wilkes-Barre was “super, just super” Wednesday.
And she doesn’t know how she could feel differently. After years of trying, city and state officials erected and dedicated a historical marker at the East End site where her two uncles and 9o others died in a coal-mining disaster 95 years ago.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission unveiled the marker to honor the victims of the Baltimore Tunnel Mine disaster of 1919. Among those who perished were Lavery’s uncles Michael and Victor Harris.
“I think of the heartache that it brought,” said Lavery. “This project took many, many years. Why, I don’t know.”
She said it was a tragic loss that troubled her late mother and grandmother their entire lives.
Sometimes, she said, she found her mother crying for no obvious reason.
Lavery would ask, “What’s the matter, Mom?” only to receive what became a familiar answer: “’I’m just thinking about Michael and Victor.’”
For years, Lavery said, she struggled with many others to seek recognition for those lost and the families affected, but to seemingly no avail.
Then, in 2012 the Wilkes-Barre Mayor’s Office contacted the King’s College History Department. There was an interest in creating a historical marker commemorating the incident, but first it needed to be researched.
That’s when history professors Daniel Clasby and Thomas Mackaman decided to get students involved, and with the support of the college, designed History 471, “The Baltimore Mine Tunnel Disaster Memorial Project,” to do just that.
“Professor Clasby and I built the class around getting the marker,” Mackaman said.
Anthony Cardone, a junior at King’s, was in the class.
“Before I began this project I had never had an experience going out and looking for my own research,” Cardone said. “Now I had to go from library to library looking for books and running through hours of microfilm newspapers.”
Mackaman said the class lasted two semesters, during which they applied for the marker and the students presented their research to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg.
Cardone, a sophomore at the time, said he felt quite intimidated in the state capital, as he had only ever given presentations to peers in a classroom setting.
Mackaman said the experience was positive for all involved and their work was even met with some surprising success when their request for the marker was granted.
“It’s a rare thing to get it on your first go through,” he said of the marker.
That fact was corroborated by William Lewis, chairman of the commission’s marker committee, who attended the ceremony Wednesday.
“The application and presentation were done so well, the request was approved on the first try,” Lewis said. “And this is a much-deserved marker.”
And perhaps no one knows that better than Lavery.
“I can’t thank King’s College enough,” she said. “I know how much work they had to go through. It’s come alive.”
The dedication ceremony on Wednesday morning was the culmination of the students’ efforts, but Mackaman defers some credit to Lavery.
“She was the inspiration and catalyst,” he said.