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by Frank Shortt
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2016 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
All of a sudden someone decided that coal is a culprit. For way over a hundred years America
has been dependent on the coal industry to produce electricity, melt steel, heat our homes and schools, produce nylon, etc.!
Black gold is not easy to get. Sweat of a miner’s brow has produced ton upon ton of one of the most plentiful natural resources on
the planet. During the 1920’s and ‘30’s coal camps cropped up in every area where coal was discovered. Every camp had a company store
where the miners who lived in the camp could spend their hard-earned scrip. Each miner who worked for the company was provided a house
for his family as long as he was able to slave in the mine. If he became disabled or deceased, his home was made available to the
next unwary miner.
Working conditions in the early days were unbearable for miner and animal
alike. Even children were brutally used by unscrupulous mine owners for their nefarious schemes. These children were used to provide
water for the loaders, pick up droppings along the tracks, clean up manure from the overworked mules, and whatever else the owner
could think of to have them do. One of the most famous mining child laborers was Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute
of Alabama. As a seven year old boy he was used in a West Virginia coal mine as a go-fetch-it and was paid barely anything. Due to
the benevolence and compassion of a few people who recognized his intelligence, Washington was able to work his way out of poverty
into one of America’s most famous educators.
A poor miner’s life is one of drudgery! He drags
home at night with every bone in his body aching from the ever-present dampness and hard labor associated with a coal mine. His indulgent
wife, some not so, wonders why her mate snores so loudly. If she had even a faint notion of what his body went through during the
day, she would sing a much different tune! She only knows how to spend his hard-earned cash at the company store. She’s not thinking
that tomorrow there might be a layoff, a market crash, or maybe a strike providing that the miners even have a union. Whenever a dirt-poor
family, meets with financial disaster, the whirlpool that is created spirals downward. To ever rise above the situation takes months,
even years, sometimes.
The life expectancy of a coal miner is much less that most any other profession.
Upon retirement, a person, battles arthritis, COPD, silicosis, and most retirees fight despondency and depression. Suicide is not
an uncommon event in a working coal mine, and even afterwards. It is not a pretty sight watching a person with ‘blacklung’ fighting
for his next breath. Every pore of his lungs has become clogged with coal dust. Any slight scratch on his body has become a constant
blue/black, scarred reminder of his days in the mine. In a coal camp everyone present is a candidate for blacklung; children, women,
and the miner himself. Even the foremen and camp store employees are constantly breathing coal dust. So why did the industry last
At first, mining took on primitive means of extraction. Cars on rails, pulled by ponies
and mules, depending on the height of the coal, were the first means used by large mining companies. These gave way to ‘mining buggies’
to pull the loaded cars to the tipple. In a small truck mine, the operators themselves became the power behind the coal cars. The
farther the coal face proceeded from the mine adit, the harder it became to extract the coal. Later on, rails were used for this purpose
making it a little easier to move the cars by hand. In the modern shaft mines, conveyer belts are used to carry the coal to elevators
which lift the coal to waiting hoppers. As methods of extraction became more modern, larger amounts of coal was removed from the bowels
of hillsides, underneath creek beds, and whole landscapes have been changed by removing Big Banner coal from the tops of mountains.
The demand for coal continued until cleaner, more efficient methods were discovered to make the manufacturing machinery of progress
keep turning. Today, there are billions of tons of ‘black gold’ just waiting for someone to invent a cleaner way to burn it. As soon
as this happens, there will be another coal boom, far superior to any that have ever been in America, or the world.
Many songs have been written about the coal industry. Two of the most notable were written by Merle Travis, son of a Kentucky coal
miner who became very proficient on the guitar. ‘Sixteen Tons’ was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, who was raised in the coal mining
regions of Virginia and Tennessee. This song tells the woes of how hard it is to load sixteen tons of coal under the woeful conditions
of a mine, and also tells how hardened a miner becomes as he loads coal day after day! The other song, ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ was recorded
by Travis himself and reminds us of why miners become despondent and depressed. Other song writers and authors have penned the hazards
of coal mining. It makes one wonder how mine owners and corporations have been able to always have enough hands to pull, from the
bowels of the earth, the one element that has kept America’s wheels greased for so long by eating ‘miner’s strawberries’ (pinto beans)
and corn bread in buttermilk!
I give a big salute to all the miners, ex-miners, and the ones
who went on before to the great ‘Coal mine in the sky’. May they all have an eternity of fresh air and plenty of soup beans and corn
bread to eat!