COAL MINING IN EASTERN KENTUCKY AND WEST VIRGINIA IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE CENTURY
Here is what coal mining was like before the coming of power-driven equipment. It was a labor intensive, dirty, dangerous job. Cave-ins and explosions were a constant threat. Water and rats were always present. A six-day work week with ten-hour days was the rule. Miners went to work before dawn and didn’t emerge until after dark, seeing daylight only on Sundays. Permanent injury was a possibility. Black lung disease loomed in the future.
Why, then, did so many men take up underground mining as a profession? First, it was a job, and there weren’t many jobs in the region. And, it was a macho-man’s world. Fearlessness and physical strength were much admired. Claustrophobia was not tolerated. There were no sissies in the mines. It was a hard, dirty, dark, physical, man’s world.
The end product in our region was the relatively soft bituminous coal. The tools and devices used in those times were simple and few. The miner began with an auger, a six-foot long hand-held drill about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, sharpened regularly by the blacksmith. Using a hand crank built into the auger, the miner drilled a deep horizontal hole into the coal seam. He was often working on his knees in our shallow seams of coal. The auger rested on an iron breastplate worn over the chest for added leverage. A “real man,” I was told, was able to run that bit all the way into a seam without taking a break! That would have quickly separated me from the pack.
The hole was then cleared with a scraper, and a charge of black powder was gently shoved to the base of the hole with a six-foot tamping rod tipped with brass to prevent a spark. Next, a “needle,” a pointed iron rod about six-feet long and 1/4 inch in diameter was run to the back of the hole to puncture the paper-wrapped powder charge. Waste material was then packed tightly around the needle with the tamping rod. Sliding the needle gently from the hole left a small tunnel leading back to the powder. A 6 x 1/8 inch rocket-like “squib” was then placed in the hole and lighted. It shot back into the hole, setting off the powder. It sounded like a shotgun blast.
Using a pry bar, a pick, a shovel, and bare hands, the coal was broken up and loaded onto a small cart and pushed on wooden rails to the mine entrance. Waste material like slate or clay was not permitted in the cart. A miner was paid by the number of “clean” carts he filled in a day. He marked his carts with his own numbered brass tags. Even with all the danger, dust, dirt, disease, and long, hard hours, I never heard an old miner complain. Mining to him was the best job in the world, the United States the best country, and his state and town the best places on earth to live.
I’m not at all sure their women felt the same way. I asked a waitress friend where her family was from originally. She said her grandfather was a coal miner in West Virginia but had moved to Ashland, Kentucky many years ago to work at the steel mill.
It seems that her grandmother had tired of the cave-ins and explosions that happened all too often, and after one more such incident, she confronted him and said, “I’m leaving!” And he, in good Eastern Kentucky-West Virginia fashion, replied, “Well, alright.” She said, “I don’t think you understand! I’m leaving, and I’m leaving the children with you!” As he grabbed his coat he said, “Where are WE going?” They moved to town and, we think, lived happily ever after.
[Ernie Tucker is a retired college professor, and his articles appear regularly in Columnist with a View. He lives in Ashland, Kentucky where he encounters some of his past students daily. He is also an avid collector of antique automobiles, tools and ephemera. You can contact Ernie at: firstname.lastname@example.org]