DARK AS A DUNGEON
Being a coal miner's daughter, the song "Dark As A Dungeon" always runs chills up my spine. It tells young men to listen to this song, and not to seek their fortune in the dreary coal mines. It goes on to say, that danger is double, pleasures are few, and that the rain never falls, or the sun never shines inside the mines. Merle Travis sings that he hopes when he is gone that the ages would roll while his body blackens and turns into coal. Then, he would look from the door of his heavenly home, and pity the miner who was diggin' his bones. My dad, Rev. Emmett B. Riggs, Sr. often referred to the inside of the mines as the "bowels of the earth." That sounded so ominous, and increased my fears for his safety.
I was born in the mining town of Dehue in Logan County, West Virginia, and delivered at home by the company doctor, Dr. Fred Brammer. Dad was always searching for better job opportunities, so we moved often. However, somehow we always ended up back at Dehue, and lived there three different times. It was at Dehue where I learned first-hand about death in a dreary coal mines.
It was my first taste of death when I was told our neighbor, Serafin Nieves, who was 50 years old, had died in a slate fall. He died on Tuesday, August 2, 1949. I was twelve years old. Mr. Nieves had worked for the Youngstown Mines Corporation at Dehue for about 15 years when he was killed. He was the eighteenth mine fatality in Logan County that year.
Mrs. Nieves wife, Sara was visiting relatives in Warren, Ohio, when the accident occurred. Mr. Nieves was laid-out at home which was the custom at that time. My parents and I went to pay our respects, and when we arrived there was a huge crowd of friends and relatives gathered around the front of the house and in the street. We walked into the living-room where his body was being viewed, and I can still hear his wife's wails as she grieved for her dead husband. She kept repeating that she had a premonition of his death, and had been dreaming over and over about a crowd of people in front of their house. I don't recall even viewing the body, but I will never forget Sara's story. ... Like the song goes, "Danger is double and pleasures are few."
It was eighteen months later when I got my next shock. One of dad's friends from Kentucky, Elwood Cooper, who was 33, was killed when the locomotive he was operating derailed and caught him against a header leg. He and a brakeman had just dropped off 20 empties and had started out with a trip of 20 loaded cars. He was killed instantly on Friday, January 19, 1951 shortly after my fourteenth birthday.
The Cooper's didn't have a phone, and someone from the mines came to our house, and asked dad if he would deliver the message of death to his widow, Myrtle and their three small sons. They lived at Slab Fork which was the next hollow on Rum Creek. We didn't have a car, so dad, mom and I took a cab to the Cooper home. After that my memory becomes sketchy. His obituary states that Rev. Caudle Adkins, Jr. from Dehue officiated in the funeral. He is a minister I know well, but I have no memory of the funeral service.
The Youngstown Mine was considered a safe mine, and had a high seam of coal which meant the miners could stand upright inside the mines. Dehue had one of the best safety teams in Logan County. West Virginia had over one-hundred major mine disasters between 1886 and 1968, and approximately twenty-four hundred men lost their lives in those accidents.
By March 8, 1960 we had moved back to Dehue for the third time, and I was working for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in Logan as a long-distant operator. Again, I witnessed another terrible mining tragedy. The Holden Mine 22 of the Island Creek Coal Company caught fire in the coal seam, and it created carbon monoxide gas which killed eighteen men by asphyxiation. However, no bodies were burned. Only twice before had a fire killed a large group of miners. One was at Villa near the state capitol in May 1918 killing thirteen men. The other one was at Pursglove on January, 18, 1943, which strangely enough also killed thirteen men.
Twenty men went into the Holden Mine on this snowy March morning, and not long after work began a slate fall occurred in the tunnels between the men and the shaft bottom. Officials blamed the fire on a cable or trolley line which was suspected to have been knocked down near a wooden timber that arced until the wood caught fire. The coal then caught on fire causing a raging inferno to roar through the tunnels inside the mines. The men knew this, but were sealed off from the fire by the slate fall.
Ventilation expert, Willis Carter told the men he would crawl through a narrow passageway to try an find a way out. A young miner, Kyle Blair agreed to follow him. The others decided to wait until fire fighters and rescue men came to rescue them. Carter and Blair made their way through a circular route through old workings and finally came to safety.
Many rescue attempts were made, but the efforts were foiled by intense heat and smoke. Steel rails were found buckled from the high degrees of heat, and water forced into the hissing coal turned to steam. Luckily, methane gas did not accumulate and cause an explosion. Until the phone lines burned, the trapped miners communicated by mine telephones to the outside. They reported that they were safe, and that the air was good.
As daylight came on Friday, the rescue teams were no closer to reaching the miners, but family and friends still held a vigil hoping for a miracle. Newspaper men became restless and dissatisfied with the information being handed to them by the officials. One reporter complained there was to much confusion in the reports from the rescue teams. Our telephone office was kept busy by reporters calling in their daily stories.
On Tuesday at three o'clock in the afternoon, eight days after the fire began, the fire had been contained. The rescue workers came upon 13 bodies that had been dead for several days from carbon monoxide gas. The first body was found alone about 200 hundred feet from where the other men were found. It was reported by the Logan Banner that one of the men realized death was imminent, and not wanting to upset the others went off to himself to write a goodbye note to his wife. It was found in his dinner bucket. This may have been the first man to be found. Some men were sitting in a normal position, while others were found lying across each other just as they had fallen when the gas struck them.
By Thursday afternoon all the bodies were brought to the surface, and taken to local funeral homes for burial.. Seventy-two children were left fatherless by the holocaust. One miner, Roy L Dempsey left nine children.
A List Of The Victims
Adams, Charles Horvath, Birdie Ardis, Frank Jarrells, F. L. Bevins, Ernest Marcum, Albert Bryant, Okie Newsom, Melvin Carter, James Ooten, Isom Chafin, Josh Rundell, Jack Dempsey, Roy Lee Sargent, Orville Donaldson, Bill White, Carl Hensley, Garfield Workman, Louis
I pity the miner a diggin' my bones . . . deep in the mines that is as dark as a dungeon.
* Note: Resources used to write this story: They Died In The Darkness by Lacy A. Dillon, copyright 1976 in Ravencliff, West Virginia. Song: Dark As A Dungeon was recorded by Country singer, Merle Travis. The copyright is 1947 by Elvis Presley Music, Inc., Gladys Music, Inc., Hill and Range Songs, Inc., and Noma Music, Inc.
*Note: According to John Stepp from Logan County, Kyle Blair who escaped death at the Holden 22 mine disaster, died tragically in another mining accident about 1974. He was a mine foreman on the tipple at a Boone County mine, and fell into a coal crusher.
*Dolores Riggs Davis is author of The Dehue History Book 1916-1994, and A Wife's Vietnam published in 1996.