On Oct. 2, 1979, Marilyn McCusker arrived at her job at the Rushton Mine along with her gear – a hardhat with lamp and battery pack, paper union card, lunch pail and leather mining belt. Later that day, her tragic death would make national history, sending shockwaves through the Pennsylvania coal mining community.
The series of events that would eventually lead to McCusker’s death began in 1974, when she, then Marilyn Williams, applied for a position at the Rushton Mining Co. in Centre County, Pa. For years, McCusker had worked steadily, holding down jobs as a bartender and in a nursing home. She applied for a job with Rushton Mining in hopes of improving her family’s standard of living. Rushton Mining denied McCusker and other women employment based on their gender, setting off a legal battle. In 1977 a court awarded the women jobs working in the mine and $30,000 in back pay.
Mining is a physically challenging and dangerous job for men and women alike. The days are long, temperatures can be bone chilling and heavy coal dust fills the air, coating a worker’s skin and lungs. But the $90-a-day pay was far more than McCusker had earned at her previous jobs. The income was important to the then – unmarried Marilyn Williams, who was raising a teenage son. She looked forward to building her own home and ultimately quitting the mine to start a business with her soon-to-be husband, Alan McCusker.
At about 3:15 p.m. on Oct. 2, 1979, five years after Marilyn McCusker first applied for a job with Rushton Mining, she became the first woman in the United States to die in a deep-mine accident. She was performing the dangerous job of roof bolter helper when a section of the mine roof collapsed. Tons of rock and debris fell on McCusker, suffocating her.
McCusker was a champion for women’s rights, fair wages and employment in a typically male dominated field. Her struggle against discrimination continued even after she died, when her husband applied for death benefits. Pennsylvania laws prohibited a man from collecting benefits after his wife’s death “unless he is incapable of self-support.” Alan McCusker vowed he would take this fight all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The mining company agreed to pay him and his son a total of $227 a week, with an additional life insurance payment of $12,000 to each of them. In 1991 the famed Rushton Mine closed its doors permanently and 250 people lost their jobs.
Marilyn McCusker’s items appear in the new exhibit, Pennsylvania Icons. CAP Curator Carol Buck selected the artifacts as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.
About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.
About Pennsylvania Icons:
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.