Burning stones: Mining history tells a dark tale

Despair settled in the grimy creases of a face made old through wear. His lungs sucked heavy dust with every breath, his bones deformed from repetitive labor. His hands are cut, and often bleed from handling thousands of stone shards. The boy is 8 years old and for whatever reason he has been sold to the “company store” to live and probably die in a coal mine. It was the 1800s and he was a “breaker boy.” These children sat for hours hunched over chutes while plucking slate scraps from broken coal.

Pennsylvania was a progressive state by 1870, so the more than 10,000 children working in the mines were benevolently protected by a law prohibiting their hours from exceeding 10 a day.

Coal – a natural element of nearly pure carbon – has a history reaching into the distant past, possibly as early as 50 BC in England. In North America the Native American Indians were knowledgeable about “black burning stones” long before the arrival of Europeans on their shores. Even earlier, in South America, the Aztecs used coal for heat and carvings.

In the 1800s, the importance of coal changed dramatically. Coal fields fed progress as the Industrial Revolution swept the world and created an insatiable appetite for the fuel known as black diamonds.

Coal was needed to power the steel mills, modern steam operated machinery, electric power plants and railroads – and the railroads controlled many of the mines. The mines owned the towns surrounding the black pits along with all the houses, medical care and the infamous company store. Tennessee Ernie Ford popularized the song Sixteen Tons lamenting that “I owe my soul to the Company Store.” The tune was a fairly accurate portrayal of the life of a miner. In the early years, the only place to purchase food and supplies was the store owned by the mine. A tally was kept and purchases were made against paychecks. Men also had to buy their own picks and shovels and pay the company to keep the tools sharp. Wages never seemed to catch up to the bills.

In the scheme of mining hierarchy, the worth of women, children and men was much less than the value of the mine mules. When a man was injured or died in an accident the body was delivered to the porch of his house. The horse drawn wagon, often called the Black Maria, carried dread to families when it appeared on the street. Everyone watched to see by whose door it would linger. Mules on the other hand were treated fairly well. They were bathed, fed and given a day off in the outdoors on occasion. Death certificates were issued for mules.

The majority of the mine workers were immigrants from dozens of different European countries. The lack of communication skills and lack of familiarity with American customs made it easy for mine owners to control workers’ lives. Desperation to pay what was owed to the company store often led parents to claim a child was older so the youngster could be put to work at the mine. To complete the absolute control of miners, the owners often paid them in scrip only good at company stores.

A mixture of hopelessness and misery led to the formation of the Molly Maguires, comprised mostly of miners with Irish heritage. They formed the secret organization to protest horrible working and living conditions and discrimination. The violence, anger, terrorism and efforts to organize the miners came to an end in the late 1870s when several of their members were tried and hanged.

There was little evidence that the Molly Maguires were responsible for coalfield crimes, only the allegations of one powerful industrialist, and the testimony of one Pinkerton detective.

Successful unions eventually did exist. The United Mine Workers was founded in 1890 making history as one of the first interracial and interethnic organizations. At last conditions below and above ground at the mines began to change for the better.

The state of Pennsylvania is still rich in coal. Today it is the fourth largest producer of coal. Some seams run deep, and others are closer to the surface. Shamokin, Pa., is the location of the world’s largest man made mountain known as the Glen Burn Colliery Culm Bank; it is made up of waste dumped from the mines.

Author’s note: In 1950, my father visited friends in Shamokin, Pa. The friends used coal for warmth and cooking. During the visit the kitchen stove ran low on coal. The homeowner retreated to the garage where he filled a bucket from a shallow pit inside his garage. That coal seam fueled the home for years.

Small pieces of coal that might have been missed in the sorting process were gleaned by women and children from the huge piles of debris. These dumps could catch fire, presenting another environmental hazard to mining communities along with acid mine drainage and methane gas. Air, water, land and humans were all at risk until rigid environmental standards were put in place.

The value of even a small handful of coal was demonstrated during the severe depression of the 1930s. Children would often wait along railroad tracks, waiting for a train to pass. If the engineer was generous he would have lumps of coal tossed to the waiting children. Lucky youngsters triumphantly carried the coal home.

Underground fire was a danger in mines; the burn could last for years. One of the most well-known fires began in 1962 in Centralia, Pa. It made the entire town unlivable. Workers battled the fire, flushing the mines with water and fly ash, excavated the burning material and dug trenches, backfilled, drilling again and again in an attempt to find the boundaries of the fire and  plan to put the fire out or at least contain it. All efforts failed to do either. Today it still burns, and the threat continues.

Conditions in the mines have improved, protecting both people and the land. Coal may help America break dependence on foreign oil, but memories of wresting black diamonds from the depths of the earth continue to haunt.


Coal mining vocabulary

Knocker up: retired miner who was given the task of knocking on workers’ doors to wake them for the early shift
Black damp: mine gas
Coal crackers: a person from the coal region
Culm: coal refuse
Gob piles: slate mounds dumped from coal mines
Nipper: errand boy at the mines
Red dog: gob pile on fire
Growler: a miner’s lunch bucket
Getter: strong miner using pick ax
Hack: heavy pick

1910 newspaper article

Lestershire has Burglar Scare!

Miscreant Attempts Coal Stealing at Dead of Night!!

Burgular scare this week but swift work was made of the midnight miscreant. Certain south side families have been missing coal from their coal boxes and it was very evident that somebody was getting a good supply merely for the taking. A man and his wife decided to lie in wait for Mr. Thief and found a man with a heavy bag of fuel slung over his shoulder. The owner started in pursuit and although the thief made a mad effort to escape a few notches were clipped off the speed record and Mr. Robber was finally forced to drop the sack of black diamonds. It has been impossible to determine his identity but it is probable that Mr. Thief will not be seen around these parts again.