The year was 1920, and the wind was at his back. John Moga lit out for work one day and he never made it back. Romania had been his home and a rock quarry what he knew. He came ashore in 1903 and started blasting with a crew. At a cement plant on the Mississippi in Tom Sawyer’s town, loading dynamite from morning till night, fifty-three feet down (Song lyrics by Gregg Andrews, “Fifty-Three Feet Down,” Doctor g-dawg Music, 2000).
On May 26, 2014, I clipped a fragrant white peony and laid it at the foot of Ion “John” Moga’s lonely grave in Marble Creek Cemetery, where so many of my relatives are buried. On this Memorial weekend visit with my 64th birthday coming up in ten weeks, I guess I felt the weight of the past more than usual. The cemetery looked beautiful, its spring flowers in full bloom. Romanian gravestones give the pristine cemetery a distinctive “Old World” feel. In some cases, stone markers cry out for names. In others, names are no longer legible or, at the very least, nearly impossible to make out. On the cemetery’s edge of the woods, some had washed away in the mudslides of time, down into a deep ravine. The Old-World gravestones seem like quaint relics and reminders of our industrial past, especially the dangerous nature of cement manufacturing and the routine expendability of cheap labor. A reminder of the too-often-forgotten underside of the American dream.
It had been 22 years since I first poked around in the dusty basement of the Ralls County clerk’s office to mine numerous job-accident lawsuits against the Atlas Portland Cement Company. Missouri had no worker’s compensation law until 1926, so the only recourse for families of victims was to rely on Atlas’s voluntary largesse or to sue for damages and maybe reach an out-of-court settlement. All around me in the basement were blackened packets of lawsuits that lay undisturbed for 75 years or more.
Why did Moga’s gravestone and the tragic way his life ended still resonate with me after all those years since I wrote City of Dust? Why was it that when I performed as a songwriter at Cheatham Street Warehouse for the first time in 2000, I wrote “Fifty-three Feet Down” for the occasion? A naturalized American citizen from Romania, as well as a US Army veteran of World War I, Moga was blown to pieces in a dynamite explosion in Atlas’s Ilasco quarries on October 12, 1920. Also killed in the explosion was Sam Giunta, a US Army war veteran and naturalized citizen from Italy. Giunta was a member of the same blasting crew, and his brother Joe also was seriously injured in the explosion.
About eight o’clock on the morning of the tragedy, they and other “powder monkeys” were lowering dynamite into three holes, each about 53 feet down. Safron Lupu loaded hole no. 1 without complications, and in hole no. 3, John Patrick did the same. After Moga successfully loaded 100 pounds of dynamite into hole no. 2, foreman Pete Limbean directed him to go ahead and load an additional 25 pounds. As Moga prepared to carry out the order, a Star drilling rig began drilling new holes nearby. He froze, protesting that the equipment should be turned off until the dynamite loading was over. Limbean yelled at Mike Bayjohn and Eli Hickerson, operators of the equipment, but they replied that due to earlier delays, they had orders to drill the holes as quickly as possible. Moga, upon receiving new orders from Limbean, lowered the additional 25 pounds, but when he peered into the hole, he saw that the dynamite was stuck on a ledge: “Oh boy! Dynamite stopped, lodged up here about twelve feet below the surface.”
As directed by Limbean, Moga then used a wooden tamping stick to try to dislodge the dynamite and finish loading the hole while the drilling rig operated close by. Abram Adams, a Romanian blaster at the scene, later testified about the danger posed by the drilling: “I had never known in my experience. . . a drill to work or to be going and operating within fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five feet when the holes were being loaded with dynamite. . . When a drill is operating close by and making one of these holes, it jars the earth and makes a vibration of the ground around the holes.”
For three or four minutes, Moga carefully worked with the tamping stick in an effort to carry out his foreman’s orders. Adams described what happened next: “I was loading dirt when I heard the explosion. I turned my head back. I saw a big fire and the explosion made a light and a big smoke in the air. It blew him to pieces, and for several days we found pieces of his body scattered around.”
Atlas insisted that the explosion, which blew off Moga’s head and arms and sent him into the air about 75 feet, was the likely result of his own carelessness, and that he knew the risks when he accepted the terms of employment. Mary Moga (later Goucan) appealed a decision by Ralls County Circuit Judge Charles T. Hays to ensure the “due protection of property rights” by blocking the case from going before a jury. On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court remanded the case for trial in the Hannibal Court of Common Pleas, where a jury awarded Goucan $9,000 plus costs in the summer of 1927. Atlas appealed to the state supreme court, but before the case could be heard in 1929, Goucan and Atlas reached a settlement, nine long years after Moga’s death (Andrews, City of Dust, pp. 79-81).
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