Fifty-three Feet Down

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.

Ralls County Courthouse. Photo courtesy of the Ralls County Missouri Historical Society.

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.”

Ilasco quarry workers: In front, Tony Nicosia; L-R: John Sunderlik, Paul Mazzola, John Patrick, Raffaele Zerbonia, Tom Zupan, and Steve Kisel. Photo ca. 1922, courtesy of Virginia Patrick Arthaud.

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).

3 responses to “Fifty-three Feet Down”

  1. Maria Ordeanu Avatar
    Maria Ordeanu

    Dear Professor Gregg Andrews,
    I just read the moving story of (Ion) John Moga. I remember the more academic story written in your book “The City of Dust”.
    I would like to thank you for your constant emotional approach to poor foreign emigrants, including Romanian workers in Ilasco.
    My grandfather Danil (Dan) Ordean was himself a member of a blasting crew. I think he knew Moga, because they came from two very close places. Lancram and Sebes were only 4 km away, now they are united. (Sebesul Sasesc, meaning the Saxon Sebes, as it was written on his cross in the Marble Creek Cemetery). They both came to the United States and settled in Ilasco in 1903. They both married in 1909, although my grandfather made the trip back home to marry a girl from Lancram. She first agreed to go with him to the United States, although she was frightened by the long journey and the crossing of “that great water”. She postponed the trip because they had their first child and then the Titanic sank. The tragic event deeply impressed the people around them, as almost every family had at least one member in the United States, and many others were prepared to take the risk of going to “America,” as they say. As for my grandmother, she decided never to travel to the United States. So, my grandfather returned to Ilasco alone, hoping to stay for a shorter period of time. But World War I broke out and the journey back home was no longer possible. He was not in a process of naturalization, so it was drafted and watched.
    It is so sad that his compatriot Moga went to fight in World War I, returned safely to Ilasco, but died shortly afterwards.
    I don’t think my grandfather was still in Ilasco in October 1920. I’m still investigating the case, but he probably left the United States with the first opportunity to cross the Atlantic, with a detour across the Mediterranean, because the German, Austrian and Hungarian seaports were still closed for traffic.
    There are so many other stories to tell. Like you, I’m trying to find out more. As long as we remember our grandparents and parents, we keep them alive.
    I look forward to hearing new stories from Ilasco, a place I didn’t really know two years ago. Thanks to you and other people from Ilasco, I feel like I’m traveling back in time. It’s been over a hundred years ago. OK, I should have done that sooner. Maybe I should do better.
    But it wasn’t the right time. It is now and I am grateful that it comes to light, step by step.
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Maria,
      On a day when I am sick with Covid, your wonderful words make me feel much better. I appreciate the time and effort it took to write such a full, thoughtful message. Yes, your grandfather probably knew Moga. Thanks for pointing out the geographical proximity of their towns. Romanians were the dominant immigrant group in Ilasco before World War I, but Slovaks replaced them as the most populous group by 1920. I’ve never found a suitable explanation for the exodus. Your grandmother’s fear of the ocean was shared by countless others at the time. My father was a blaster, too., but not until after World War II when conditions in the quarries were much safer. I’m delighted that you found the Ilasco FB group two years ago. I enjoy your participation in the group so much. Thanks for sharing information and insights into your own family’s history. Your grandfather was in Ilasco from the very beginning of the town and Atlas’s operations. Thank you again for such a thoughtful message that further encourages me to continue with my blog site. Best wishes, Gregg


      1. Maria Ordeanu Avatar
        Maria Ordeanu

        Dear Gregg,

        Thank you very much for your kind words.
        I am sorry to hear that you are ill. I experienced myself the virus and definitely it is not a pleasant situation. But, it will pass. Hoping for your full recovery!
        As for Ilasco, I am glad that I was able to identify the place, but without reading your book and without the FB page, it would have been just a name. I am very grateful for this chance!

        All my best wishes,

        Liked by 1 person

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