At present, there are fewer miners than ever, but production is at its peak. For all of its advances and improvements, mining is still a very dangerous job. What does it mean, then, to be a coal miner? For the rest of this paper, we will look at the history of mining and the life of miners and their families.
Eastern Coal and the Rise of the United States as an Energy and Industrial Power
As our nation continues to struggle with its energy destiny, we can look to our own history of building a nation on the back of King Coal as we look to loose ourselves from its grip. Eastern coal was the primary engine of the rise to American industrial might in the 19th and 20th centuries. By examining the rise of eastern coal, we may find some object lessons that will help us to imagine the next American energy revolution as we continue to balance our need (desire?) to use coal.
Pennsylvania has a long history of coal mining. In 1790, coal was discovered in Schuylkill County. The first recorded delivery of coal to Philadelphia took place in 1800. In 1812, anthracite, the hardest, most calorific, and cleanest burning form of coal--was used to fire steel mills in Philadelphia, and the economic possibilities of coal were increased greatly. Much like England before it, coal delivered the world-changing commodity of steel to America in enormous quantities. From the boilers necessary to operate industrial age mills, to the use of coal-fired foundries to create the sheets of steel necessary for American military might, coal became the linchpin to American economic might in the days before oil. After the shift to oil for most transportation-related purposes in the 200th century, however, coal remained the source of electricity generation. Without coal and coal-fired power plants, rural electrification would not have happened when it did, and the development of our entire country may have been vastly different.
When the burning of anthracite coal was mastered around 1812, it started a chain reaction of technological advances that spurred national growth. The difficulty of transporting coal overland led to canal development projects and caused coal men to become excited by the prospects of steam locomotion. Tramways were often used for coal transport, but since they operated like land-based canals, they were inefficient and made coal expensive. When the first steam locomotives became viable in the 1820’s and 1830’s, coal men were quick to buy into them. However, these trains were wooden, and burned wood for fuel because the technology for burning anthracite effectively was not yet developed. England, with ample reserves of bituminous coal, maintained a strategic advantage. However, when anthracite was mastered, the first domino for many economic phenomena fell.
Anthracite: The Key to the Industrial Engine
Once anthracite burning was mastered, America was not only able to match Britain’s output of coal and iron, but it became the world’s largest producer of coal and iron. This production was largely regional, and the Northeast outpaced in its development the South, further exacerbating rising geographic differences and tensions. At the time of the Civil War, the North had thirty-eight times the coal of the south.14 Here is another example of coal as a political power broker. One can argue whether or not coal created a country that was industrially unbalanced, or just accelerated the process. But it is clear that the north’s coal-driven industrial might was a player in the Union victory. Coal miners may have added to the liberation of the very people who would be used against them when they tried to improve the conditions of their labor: freed slaves were often brought from the south to serve as strikebreaking miners. John Sayles remarkable movie
shows the legacy of this racial tension. Set in the 1920s in Mingo County, West Virginia, the film shows a union organizer and his struggles to organize a multiracial union with striking miners and Italian and Black strikebreakers.
Because coal was the key to steel, it was the key to railroads. The transcontinental railroad would have never reached Promontory Point for its final spike had that spike not been made with coal; farming would never have become a lucrative export business without trains to transport crops to the commodities markets and to ports, and American agricultural and industrial wealth would never have become what it is today without that dirty black rock.
Coal and the Mirror of History
On the other hand, if coal had not been so effective, American urbanization would never have occurred as it did. Urban sprawl, tuberculosis, and Jacob Riis’ infamous Lower East Side tenements would not have occurred had those people never followed the jobs to the coal-fired mills. Mother Jones would never have been so shocked and appalled by the conditions of child labor in Pennsylvania mills, and she never would have led her Children’s Crusade. The tremendous demand for coal and its resultant riches would not have led to the concentration of power in the hands of robber barons, and American history would have been markedly different.
Because of the high demand for coal and the dangerous nature of extracting it, mining coal promised higher wages for those willing to undertake this work. As a result, Pennsylvania and Illinois became major destinations for Irish and other European immigrants who would come to America with the promise of steady work in the mines. However, the rush to secure coal and its economic benefits led to many challenges for American Social history. Unfettered growth always comes with a human cost, and the lives of coal miners illustrate this picture quite clearly.
We have explored the processes related to coal’s use, and we have looked at some of the possibilities that coal provided for the United States that led to its rise as an industrial power. However, we have yet to explore the people upon whose backs this national phenomenon was carried: the miners themselves. The average miner lived in a town owned by the mine company, and was subject to a highly centralized form of social control. Often, miners for a single mine would be composed of several different groups of immigrants: Irish, Welsh, Scandinavian, Polish, Italian, and other European groups. This alone made organization a difficult prospect. Added to that difficulty, the control of homes by the mine, the stores by the mine, and any other set of social organizations by mines left the miners with very little choice: mine under our conditions or get thrown entirely out of town. However, these conditions did not, in and of themselves, render miners impotent. Some of the greatest labor victories in American history were achieved by miners: such was the centrality of coal. But for all of their victories, they had an accompanying tragedy.
Coal and its Discontents
Here, we will briefly explore four crises in coal country that illustrate the challenges that coal’s centrality in the machinery of America posed for workers who, while operating this machinery, always risked being mangled by it.
The Anthracite Strike
The Anthracite Strike of 1902 was a crucial moment in coal mining history. The strike began when John Mitchell, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, demanded a living wage for the anthracite workers in Western Pennsylvania. The strike resulted in a “coal famine”15 and a crippling energy blow to the east coast. This resulted in the involvement of President Theodore Roosevelt, who eventually brokered a deal between the union and the management of the coal fields. Historian Robert Wiebe, describing the national mood at the end of the strike, painted this picture: “The hero--Mitchell--had triumphed for organized labor, the reputation of the villains had been blackened, and the prestige of a righteous President had risen.”."16 This was a watershed victory for American Labor: a president stepped in on the behalf of workers and ruled against the corporate bosses. This solidified the UMWA’s position, launching it on a nearly 40-year journey as the most influential union in the country. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones devotes an entire chapter in her autobiography to the topic, and it serves as the basis for one of the lesson plans attached here.
The Centralia, Illinois Mine Explosion
The Centralia Mine Fire, and John Barlow Martin’s resultant work of investigative journalism, led to the downfall of Illinois governor Dwight Green and launched Martin’s career of tireless public service. The mine exploded on March 25th, 1947, but the story begins far before that. It is a tale of intersecting failings on the part of unions, individuals, and governance that resulted in the third worst mining tragedy in the United States since 1940.17
John Barlow Martin was a reporter for Harpers Magazine who was sent to cover the mine fire. His article has become a hallmark of investigative journalism which, at the time, was compared to John Hershey’s
for its emotional weight and quality.18 Martin worked on the piece for months; the article was published in the March, 1948 issue and took up almost the entire magazine. Martin states his purpose for writing the article unflinchingly: “Let us seek to fix responsibility for the disaster. This will raise the broader question: What is the matter with the coal industry?”19
The mine fire was really an explosion caused by years of accumulated coal dust and another blatant safety violation: using dynamite in the mine while workers were present. One fastidious mine inspector had worked tirelessly in cooperation with union workers to expose unsafe conditions in the mine, but political maneuvering at the statewide political level kept the state from acting: mine inspectors were tasked by governor Green’s to raise political funds from the mine operators, and therefore neglected their duties throughout the office. Driscoll Scanlan, the inspector for Mine No. 5, while innocent of this crime of commission, was found guilty of a crime of omission: he did not shut down the ill-maintained mine, for fear that he would be fired and that a more lax inspector would replace him. As a change agent, the inspector could not bring himself to take this step. At the same time, the federal government had assumed control of the mine--along with many others--during WWII and was managing them with toothless regulations that impeded real oversight. All that the government management of the mines did, according to the miners, was to outlaw striking and remove from them the one weapon that could have saved 111 of their lives. Finally, the United Mine Workers did not act in the best interest of the miners, as John Lewis, the president, was looking out for his brother, a mine supervisor for another regional mine, was guilty of the same regulatory shortcomings as the state was in No. 5.
The article is instructive: it does help students explore, through an exquisitely written, touching account of what was wrong with the coal industry in the 1940s. Readers are able to see how the intersection of competing selfish interests and mismanagement leads to great human tragedy. Interviews with the miners and their wives provide a moving human element to the story that makes for gripping reading. In a time of national uncertainty all too close to another tragedy, this article shows students how journalism can further the search for truth and closure when confronting loss and confusion.
The Centralia, Pennsylvania Mine Fire
In February 2004, another journalist from Harpers Magazine wrote about the tragedy of a mining industry so woven into the fabric of American political society that the industry and its governmental overseers could not extricate themselves quickly enough to save mining from itself.
The Centralia mine fire, one of the greatest mine-related environmental disasters in American history, began burning in 1961 and continues to burn today. Again, we see a story of bureaucratic wrangling, budgetary challenges, and bad timing that all combine to create a failure greater than the inadequacies of the parts.
At the time the fire started, a series of debates over whose jurisdiction the fire was in (and therefore whose budget would be affected), whether or not the state had a right of action, and the responsibilities of the state to the residents of the town took so long that the fire was beyond control by the time any action was taken. From that point on, every time monies were allocated to contain the fire, the funds either ran out just before the job of containment was finished or the methods employed to fight the fire were decided on by shortsighted optimism, and ended up being counter productive. For example, one method of checking to see if the fire was burning in a certain area was to drill coring samples. The state agency read the samples as being naturally discolored, whereas an independent consultant found the discoloration to be searing. While the two sides argued, the freshly drilled coring hole fed the fire anew, and it spread. The town, once a healthy borough of 1100, now boasts 14 residents, all of whom are being waited out by the state government; because of the advanced age of most of these 14, the wait will likely end soon.
The fire is still controversial because the mining community that was Centralia (most residents were relocated to other communities) still has members that believe that the fire is important primarily because anyone who can extinguish it will be able to access the remaining coal and turn a ready profit on its removal.20 This is but one illustration of the legacy of distrust that those who work in coal mines hold for those who own the mines themselves.
The Quecreek Miner Miracle
Coal continues to be a major force in Pennsylvania to this day; its disasters occasionally impact the American consciousness. In 2002, the Quecreek mining accident captivated America for a week, when nine miners were trapped in a tunnel when a faulty map failed to locate an abandoned, flooded mineshaft that the miners accidentally drilled into, causing a flood that trapped them.21 In this case, nearly 72 continuous hours of cable news television resulted, along with a made for television movie. CNN has devoted an entire website to the “Quecreek Miner Miracle”22 in which all nine miners survived.
This mine disaster was avoided by the ingenuity of the miners and the teamwork of the rescuers. It shows how the focused energies of a group of individuals and agencies can fix mistakes and avoid greater tragedy. Not only is it a statement about the lessons that the mining industry and regulating agencies have learned from their mistakes, but also informs students about the possibilities for good results from good governance, public support, a responsible press, and effective follow-up investigations.
Pride and Shame as Motivating Forces
As we have seen, the mining of coal is an enterprise that is arduous at best and fatal at worst. Therefore, the people who perform this dirty and dangerous work have both a heightened sense of shame for performing this dirty work and an elevated sense of pride for being able to do what so few others can. At the same time, miners all too frequently claim to be born to mining: “I’d quit tomorrow but I don’t know nothing else…I’m a miner, that’s all.”23This seemingly contradictory social psychology has played a significant role in the coal miners’ long, proud history of advocating for the improvement of the conditions of their lives and labor. This, in turn led to the development of a rich folk history of those who worked the coal mines. This has led to many works of literature worth discussing briefly here.