Immersed in suffocating dust and darkness, coal miners still arguably face some of the harshest working conditions in the world. Indeed, the warren of tunnels crisscrossing the coal-rich hills of the U.S. was largely dug before workers’ rights emerged. And this collection of historical images reveals what life was like for the men who toiled in those early mines.
Now whatever may be said of the mining industries and their negative impacts, coal has fueled incredible social transformations. Before the adoption of oil as a major energy source, coal was widely used to power houses,and drive steam engines. Moreover, without coal there may never have been an industrial revolution.
However, coal mining has also borne a high human cost. For you see, a hundred years ago, accidents and injuries were common in the mines. And nasty diseases such as cancer or Black Lung claimed the lives of many workers, too. Furthermore, despite the significant risks endured, company bosses tended to regard their laborers as expendable and easy to replace.
In fact, a century ago, the concept of workers’ rights was practically nonexistent. For example, miners were expected to labor for a minimum of six days per week. To add to that, there were no weekends off, sick pay or compensation in the event of accident or injury. Indeed, if a worker died on the job, his family would scramble to replace him, lest they lose their house.
Unfortunately, for most mining families, there appeared to be little choice but to accept the dreadful conditions foisted upon them. After all, there were few jobs at all in the countryside. And, to begin with, most mining companies were not unionized either. Still, most miners got on with their jobs and lived with a sense of community and purpose. But for now, let’s go back to where it all started.
Now the earliest known use of coal in the Americas dates to the 14th century with the indigenous Hopis. And white settlers didn’t start utilizing it until the 1740s in the west. However, it was not until the late 19th century that coal became a more popular fuel than wood. Then, between 1906 and 1920, coal supplied more than 75 percent of all energy in the U.S. As we’ll find out, the type of coal actually mined for changed over the years, too.
In the early 1800s, coal mines predominantly extracted bituminous or “soft” coal. Characteristically soft, bituminous coal contains a tarry compound called bitumen (also known as asphalt) which is used for sealing roads. Frighteningly, this coal is also notorious for producing large quantities of firedamp – a blend of gases prone to explode. As such, its extraction requires stringent safety procedures such as gas monitoring.
Then, in the 1840s, anthracite or so-called “hard” coal took over. Of a higher grade than bituminous coal, anthracite is clean-burning and produces no smoke. Furthermore, it is also highly efficient – a small piece produces a relatively large amount of energy. Naturally, anthracite became a popular household fuel.
Meanwhile, the growth of the coal mining industry was paralleled by the rise in the price of wood. Now this was largely due to deforestation on the east coast. Furthermore, the availability of anthracite near big conurbations such as New York and Philadelphia, spurred the expansion of local railways. Indeed, most big railroads in the east extended their lines in to the coalfields. As for anthracite coal, a threat was on the horizon.
Yes, because while anthracite spurred the expansion of construction and steel production, the demand for it declined from around 1869. For it was less common and more expensive than bituminous coal – which again took over the mantle. Meanwhile, coke had also come to replace anthracite in steel smelting processes. So where did most of the mining take place in the U.S.?
Well, coal mining in the United States was historically centered on a handful of states, such as Pennsylvania. Now West Virginia was for notable its high numbers of European and African-American immigrants during the late 1800s. Meanwhile, Kentucky eventually became home to two enormous coal fields – The Western Coal Fields, which stretch as far as Indiana; and the Eastern Mountain Coal Fields, which helps form the Appalachian coal basin. As we’ll now find out, life for the miners was anything but easy.
Yes, daily life in the mines was tough for numerous reasons, as one miner explained to The Independent in 1902. So he was employed in the fields in Pennsylvania, aged 35, and described by the editor as a “typical American”. Furthermore, he was a lifelong miner, the son of a miner, and a father of four children. What’s more, he outlined the perilous nature of the job.
He wrote, “Day in and day out, from Monday morning to Saturday evening,
between the rising and the setting of the sun, I am in the underground
workings of the coal mines. From the seams water trickles into the ditches
along the gangways; if not water, it is the gas which hurls us to eternity and
the props and timbers to a chaos.”
Alarmingly, he told the newspaper, “On our right and on our left we see the logs that keep up the top and support the sides which may crush us into shapeless masses, as they have done to many of our comrades. “We get old quickly. Powder, smoke, after-damp, bad air- all combine to bring furrows to our faces and asthma to our lungs.” But that’s not all.
According to the miner, education was not available for him or his three brothers. Although they went to school, their schooling lasted only until they were 12 years old. Thereafter, like so many children in mining communities, they were dispatched to a screen room to work as “breaker boys.” And as we’ll see, it was perhaps one of the most tedious jobs going.
For instance, the job of a breaker boy was to sort coal pieces by hand, separating them for impurities. Not all breaker boys were children, however. Sometimes elderly miners, no longer fit for hard labor, sorted coal, too. By the mid 19th century, the use of breaker boys was generally frowned upon by the public. However, shockingly, mines continued to use them well into the early twentieth century.
After serving as breaker boys, many children were promoted to “drivers” and then to laborers. Of course, work in the mine was far riskier than in the screen rooms. For example, in 1906 (pictured) a boy called Frank, aged 14, was hospitalized for a year after a coal car crushed his leg. And, as we’ll find out, being at home may not have been much fun either for the workers.
You’ve guessed it, housing for coal miners tended to be simple, wood-built and sometimes verging on ramshackle. For example, take a look at this 1937 photo from Birmingham, Alabama. In fact, miners’ houses tended to consist of just a handful of rooms. While children tended to occupy one single room, often with shared beds, drawers could be used as makeshift baby cribs.
But workers’ houses were not merely of modest construction. Indeed, for they could be inconveniently situated, too, depending on the location of the extraction sites they were working at. For example, this Kentucky residence was situated 1.5 miles from the nearest store, and nine miles from the nearest city. To make matters worse, it’s not like the pay and conditions made up for any of this.
That’s right, perhaps one of the unfairest aspects of life was the existence of a coupon or “scrip” system. For instead of receiving cash, workers would sometimes receive tokens which could only be redeemed at the company store. Now this meant that the company could force its workers to buy their goods, and charge them at inflated prices.
Meanwhile, according to the miner quoted by The Independent in 1906, wages were generally too stingy to make ends meet. Yes, among the monthly expenses were rent, butcher’s and grocery costs, church dues and industrial insurance. Naturally, they also hoped their children might enjoy social advancement, for which they would’ve had to pay for, too.
As the anonymous worker went on to explain, “The luxuries of the rich we do not ask; we do want butter for our bread and meat for our soup. “Our boys are not expecting automobiles and membership cards in clubs of every city, but they want their fathers to earn enough to keep them at school until they have a reasonably fair education.” Furthermore, coal mining was the kind of job you might not come home from.
Yes, aside from poverty and grind, coal miners also had to contend with a host of potentially fatal dangers. And these included roof collapse, gas explosions, poisoning, suffocations, rock bursts and outbursts. Indeed, deadly accidents befell more than 100,000 miners in the 20th century alone. What’s more, even if you survived the working day, there was still a chance of getting a chronic lung disease.
Furthermore, such risks are likely to have had a psychological impact on workers, too. For example, witnessing the death of a friend, co-worker or family member in the mines would have been upsetting. In fact, the miner talking to The Independent witnessed horrific accidents befall his two brothers on separate occasions. Shockingly, one was crushed to death by a rock three weeks into the job. And the other was caught up in a fatal explosion.
As the miner went on to explain at the time, “One of my brothers struck a gas feeder. There was a terrible explosion. He was hurled downward in the breast and covered with the rush of coal and rock… for a moment [I] was unable to realize what had occurred… [However] in a short while we found him, horribly burned over his whole body, his laborer dead alongside him.” But the drama didn’t end there.
For you see, his brother was unmarried and had been living as a boarder. At his sibling’s request, the ambulance took him to his house rather than the hospital. Now perhaps they already knew the likely outcome and simply wanted to say goodbye. Yes, because the brother was suffering from extensive burns, a broken arm and leg, and internal injuries. Nonetheless, two doctors assessed him at home and offered a grim prognosis. Indeed, they expected him to die.
Miraculously perhaps, the brother pulled through. But it was no easy feat. For he required more than three months in bed and another seven weeks rest before he could work again. And during all that time, he appeared to have received zero compensation from the company. In fact, virtually all the costs for his care and living had to be covered by his brother. However, as we’ll see, changes were coming.
Indeed, it was cases like these that inevitably paved the way for emergence of the labor unions. Firstly, ideas around work had been changing since the mid-19th century. For example, thinkers such as Karl Marx highlighted the class struggle as well as socialism – an alternative to capitalism. And already this was sweeping through Europe. Of course, the mine bosses resisted change. And this led to a series of violent conflicts known as the Coal Wars.
For your see, in West Virginia the first storm clouds began gathering in 1912 in Kanawha County. Here, the local coal mines employed some 8000 men. And realizing that they had some leverage over the company, the miners pressed several demands. These included the right to purchase items from non-company shops and the right to unionize.
Of course, the bosses rejected their terms. So the miners staged a strike. And when the bosses enlisted a private security firm, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, to intervene, all hell broke loose. For example, clashes between the agents and the strikers resulted in 50 deaths. And, ultimately, some 1,200 state troopers had to be deployed to restore the peace.
Now the strike was eventually called off, and the conflict settled in 1913 with the signing of the “Hatfield Contract”. And this was drawn up by the governor of West Virginia, Dr. Henry D. Hatfield. But although the clashes had signified the most violent labor conflict in American history, the coal wars were still not over.
That’s right, in 1920 Baldwin-Felts agents caused a bloodbath in the small town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. There, 3,000 miners had gone on strike in solidarity with the United Mine Workers of America and were sacked. During their subsequent eviction from company homes, a gun fight broke out, killing several, And this included the Felts brothers and the town mayor, who perished. However, there was a further backstory to this.
Indeed, during the clash police chief Sid Hatfield, who was for the unions, had attempted to arrest the Baldwin-Felts agents. Now he was subsequently acquitted of any wrongdoing, but later murdered. And this led to an armed gathering of around 15,000 unionists – one of the largest uprisings in history. Moreover, what followed in Logan County came to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Alarmingly, the battle lasted for five days, from late August to early September, 1921. And during this the unionists clashed with the so-called Logan Defenders – an alliance of 3,000 cops and strike-breakers. Significantly, the defenders had the backing of the mine operators, and were under the command of Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin. What followed saw around one million rounds fired, and 100 people killed. Ultimately, the U.S. president Warren G. Harding was forced to send federal troops to break up the battle.
With bosses reluctant to see any decline in profitability, strikes and clashes in West Virginia persisted for many more years. However, the struggle for fair working conditions did receive national attention and garner widespread solidarity. Finally, the National Industrial Recovery Act 1933 was passed, granting workers a standard wage and the basic right to unionize. It was a start.
Meanwhile, the coal industry underwent a series of technological transformations that would eventually revolutionize labor conditions. Interestingly, chief among them was the invention of the first mining conveyor belt by Richard Sutcliffe, an Irish mining engineer. By 1940, some 60 percent of all U.S. coal was mechanically loaded. As such, the demand for miners declined.
And tragically, as opportunities for employment ebbed away, many mining towns fell into decline or depression. For you see, work that had once supported generations of families could no longer be relied upon. So a process of outward migration began. However, those miners who managed to hold onto their jobs did see a corresponding rise in wages.
Nowadays, while the American coal industry has shrunk, it is still the second largest producer worldwide. And unsurprisingly perhaps, it is behind China, where coal continues to fuel 60% of the nation’s electricity. Indeed, the coal industry in China employs some five million people. And like the U.S. 100 years ago, safety standards in the mines appear to be inadequate. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20,000 people die in mining accidents every year in China.
By contrast, conditions in American mines have markedly improved since the 19th century. For example, between 2005 and 2014, an average of just 28 people per year died in mining accidents. Nonetheless, respiratory diseases continue to plague coal mining communities, especially in West Virginia. And toxic runoff, air pollution and flooding continue to impact local environments.
Ultimately, some liberal commentators have branded coal mining areas “sacrifice zones”. And it’s not difficult to figure out why, given the impact on people’s lives, as well as that of the environment. But that perhaps overlooks the different world we then lived in. What’s more, it’s still comforting to know that those early American miners were prepared to make a life for themselves. No matter what. And furthermore, workers’ rights are now recognized.