Written by John Wallencheck, JWALLENCHE@aol.com
When coal is brought out of a mine it is done in small mine cars that run on tracks just like the ordinary railroad. The difference is that the small mine cars hold only about 8 to 10 tons of coal and the railroad cars hold 40 tons or so. There has to be a means to get the coal out of the mine cars and into the railroad cars to ship whereever. The means for doing this is to empty the mine cars in a building called a tipple.
The mine cars usually are placed in a mechanism that holds the car and then turns it upside down, thus emptying it in one fell swoop, which means in about less than a minute. The coal lands on a conveyor belt which conveys in to the what are called shakers. These are large bins that shake back and forth and have screens in the bottom of them that allow the coal to be sorted by size. The screens with the larger holes, sometime as large as 12 inches in diameter, down to the ones with the smaller holes, that have holes perhaps about one half inch in diameter. One can readily see that the only coal remaining in each shaker will be the individual lumps that are larger than the hole in that particular screen.
When coal is mined, usually by a cutting machine or by explosives, usually contains some rocks or slate which are not combustible and these items must be removed. When I worked on the tipple when I was 15 years old in 1943, I was a slate picker. I had to stand on a small platform that ran along the conveyor that was now carrying the sorted coal to be dumped into the waiting railroad car that ran on tracks under the tipple. The slate and rocks were picked out of the coal by hand and thrown on a pile. When this pile grew large enough it was emptied into a large clamshell bucket, very much like one would find today on any kind of digging machinery used in construction. The major difference was that the slate bucket rode on two wire cables up a very large hill and then dumped on the other side in a valley formed by another hill.
The railroad cars underneath the tipple were controlled by a cable attached to one end of the line of empty railroad cars. As each car ran under the tipple it was filled by the coal brought to it by the overhead conveyors. As soon as it was filled it was disconnected from the line of rail cars and shunted to a track depending on its destination. A railroad locomotive would visit once a day, sometimes even more often, and pull or push the loaded car to another section of track about a mile away where it was merged with loaded cars already sorted out by destination. Eventually another locomotive would arrive and the loaded cars would be attached to cars already part of a train going to wherever the coal was needed.
GOB PILES or SLATE DUMPS
Referring back to my description of a tipple I mentioned that slate and other non combustible materials were picked out of the coal and then dumped away from the mine. However, this material often contained combustible coal that was not saleable and had to be disposed of. In West Virginia where I grew up and worked on the tipple we referred to the pile as a "slate dump", while other places such as where you lived it was called a "gob pile."
Over a period of years the slate dump was running out of capacity so the coal company hauled what would normally be dumped in the slate dump to any area they found suitable throughout the community. In fact, they dumped quite a few truck loads of this material right next to our house. We kinds couldn't wait for the truck to unload so we could start digging in the new load to find what coal was in it. We would create small piles of our own of coal and hauled them home to put in our coal houses. Even though the miners could buy coal from the mine at something like $2.50 per ton, what the family didn't have to buy was money saved and we kids enjoyed doing it.
Over a period of years, perhaps ten to fifteen, as the slate dumps had more material dumped in them, the weight of the material would creat pressure and this would result in spontaneous combustion, somewhere deep within the dump. The dump would burn until all of the combustible material was burned. This could take years depending on the size of the dump. While the coal within the dump was burning the slate and rocks would not burn but being subjected to the intense heat they would turn red.
When the fire eventually burned itself out and the dump cooled down, again, several years being involved, the company would then have the material, now called "red dog" because of its color, loaded onto trucks who would then dump it on the roads in the community to fill in the large holes (there was only one paved highway running through our community, all the rest of the roads were dirt roads) and ruts. Over time the passage of trucks and cars over the red dog roads made them reasonably smooth, so there was some benefit from the cast off materials.
I hope this explanation did not tire you out before you finished reading it. But it sure did bring back many memories of growing up in a coal mining community.
Used with the permission of John Wallencheck.