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Fish or Cut Bait

Where the Rain Never Falls and the Sun Never Shines
By Bob Ciminel


February 08, 2006

The recent coal mine tragedies in West Virginia reminded me of the dangers that my grandfathers faced shortly after the turn of the century when they entered the coal mines. Both of my grandfathers came over with the wave of immigrants from southern Europe in the early 1900's. The larger coal companies wanted immigrants because they provided a large, inexpensive labor force. The enticements included free transportation to the mine site, the opportunity for steady work, and company-provided housing that allowed immigrants to send for their families. All that was needed was youth, a strong back, and a willingness to accept the hazards and working conditions that existed underground.

My mother's father worked in the mines owned by the Consolidation Coal Company in Frostburg, Maryland, near Cumberland. My paternal grandfather found work in the Idlewood mine operated by the Pittsburgh Coal Company. The high school I attended in the 1960's was built on the former site of the Idlewood mine. The school's driveway was located where a row of company houses once stood, one of which was my grandfather's home.

jpg Montour No. 10 coal mine

"The Montour No. 10 coal mine near Pittsburgh ceased operation in the 1970's"

Although my maternal grandfather began work in Frostburg, he soon learned that the coal seam in Pittsburgh considerably thicker, averaging eight feet in height. In the Pittsburgh Seam, a miner could stand up and dig coal. Bidding farewell to Frostburg, my grandfather moved to Bulger, PA, about 20 miles west of Pittsburgh, and began work at the Bulger Block Coal Company.

In those days, miners were contractors, not employees, and they were paid by the ton, not by the hour. Miners had to buy their own supplies, including blasting powder, and rented their homes from the coal company. Few miners were paid in cash; the coal companies preferred to issue scrip, which was only accepted at the company store. This was another way of keeping the work force tied to the mine. Having a captive work force also allowed many coal companies to realize sizeable profits from their stores and rental houses. In some cases, coal companies made more money from their stores and houses than they did from mining coal.

The Pittsburgh Coal Company paid my grandfather 50 cents a ton for the coal he mined at Idlewood, but paid nothing for any slate or rock that had to be taken out. The Pittsburgh Seam consisted of an upper and lower coal measures separated by several inches of slate and shale. A layer of unstable sandstone called "top rock" was located above the coal seam and also had to be taken out to protect the miners from cave-ins. On average, the miners at Idlewood removed about two tons of slate, shale, and rock for each ton of coal they mined. Tennessee Ernie Ford's 1950's coal mining hit, "Sixteen Tons," didn't apply to the Idlewood miners; they had to load 48 tons to earn their $8.00 a day.

jpg cutting a kerf

"Two coal miners cutting a kerf at the bottom of the coal seam."

Mechanization was new to coal mines in those days, so most mining was very labor-intensive. A miner and his "buddy," usually a new, inexperienced miner, worked in a "room," approximately 10 feet wide. The rooms were driven at right angles off of a "butt." This resulted in a checkerboard pattern that left pillars of coal to support the roof as mining advanced. This method of mining was called "room-and-pillar." The network of tunnels and crosscuts, when viewed from above, made the mine look like a city with streets, avenues, boulevards, and neighborhoods. Instead of saying uptown or downtown when giving directions, miners used the terms "inby" and "outby", which used the location of the shaft or mine entrance as a reference point. As in a city, every passage had a unique name similar to a street address. For example, a foreman might tell a miner that he is assigned to work at, "Monkey Butt 7, in the Northwest Section, South Mains, 2 West, Second Butt Entry."

Coal was mined by hand after it was fractured using explosives. The miners began by using a hand-auger to drill holes diagonally into the coal at the face, or front of the room. Once the holes were drilled, the miners lay on their sides and used picks to cut a deep slot in the bottom of the coal face. This was called a "kerf." The kerf created a weak point in the coal seam. After packing the auger holes with black powder and a fuse, they were "tamped" with a foot or two of coal dust. Once all the holes were loaded, a shot firer, who was normally an employee of the coal company, came to fire the explosives. Many early mining disasters occurred when the miners would not wait for the shot firer and lit the fuses with their own lamps. This exposed the lamp flame to the air near the coal face, which might contain explosive concentrations of methane gas. Other disasters occurred when the miners did not properly tamp the auger holes and the flame and gases from the explosives caused coal dust to ignite in the room. However, in most cases, all went well and the combination of explosives and the weak point at the kerf would cause the coal to break into manageable lumps for loading.

Mining accidents were common in the early days of coal mining, and labor was cheap. After one fatal accident, a mine superintendent was overheard saying, "Well, at least we saved the mules." As terrible as the recent accidents in West Virginia were, they pale in comparison to the carnage that went on in the coal mines of the early twentieth century.

In 1907, more than 3,200 miners died in our nation's coal mines; there were 28 fatalities in 2004, and the accident rate has averaged about 25 deaths per year since 2002. When compared to the number of people employed in the mines, the accident rate in 1907 was 5 deaths per 1,000 miners; in 2004 it was 0.25 per 1,000 miners. In 97 years, we've reduced the fatal accident rate by 95%. Obviously, there is still room for improvement, but short of using remote control or robotic mining, with no one underground, we may not be able to attain a fatality-free industry.

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Fish or Cut Bait by Bob Ciminel


Bob Ciminel's articles may include satire and parody, and mix fact with fiction.
He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.

Bob lives in Roswell, Georgia, and works for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.  He is also a conductor on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.


Bob Ciminel ©2001 - 2005
All Rights Reserved

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