My First Night in the Mines

Copyright 1994 Buddy French


On a warm, summer afternoon in August 1966, I wheeled my 1965 Comet Cyclone into the parking lot at the Gary No. 9 mine. The company had assigned me to work here in the repair shop on the evening shift. This was the moment I'd been waiting for after completing just three months of a six months training program at United States Steel Corporation's No. 6 overhaul shop. I wanted to believe they transferred me to the mine ahead of schedule because I'd done so well in my training. Actually, there was a high demand for coal and the company was willing to send me on early in hopes that one of the old-timers would take me under his wing and help bring me along. The No. 9 mine had just recently been re-opened after being shut down for several years and the company was pushing hard to get it back into production.

United States Steel's Gary mining complex in McDowell County, consisted of a large group of coal camps with each one being identified by its mine number. They were considered model coal mining communities and the mines here were said to be some of the safest in the industry.

After parking my car, I reached into the back seat for my hard hat, dinner bucket, and miner's belt. Attached to the belt was a self-rescuer, a device to breathe through for up to thirty minutes in case there was a fire and you were trapped in smoke. The belt also had a place to attach the large wet cell battery for the lamp mounted on your hard hat. I was given a round brass tag about the size of a half dollar, with the number forty nine stamped on it. This was my check number and I had been instructed to attach it to my miner's belt with rivets and was soon to find out the chilling reason why.

With all my gear in hand, I headed to the lamp house to pick up my battery lamp. At that point the anxiety began to build, for this was all new to me and I wasn't real sure what I was suppose to do. When I entered the lamp house, the first thing I saw was a long rack with row after row of battery lamps mounted in individual charging stations. Suddenly someone shouted, "Hey! Are you one of the new employees?" Yes, I replied as a short, heavy set man with a wooden leg appeared from behind a small work bench. In a very proud tone, he announced that he took care of all the lights. He asked me what my check number was and I told him number forty-nine. He reached to the rack and pulled out a battery lamp with a brass tag hanging underneath it. This tag also had the number forty-nine stamped on it like the one on my belt. He turned to the opposite wall where there was a long board with several rows of individually numbered small hooks. He said, "Anytime you go to work, you must take your tag from under the light and hang it on the number forty nine hook on the board. At the end of the shift, take the tag off the board and hang it back under the light." I asked him why all that was necessary. He said, "If your tag is hanging on the board, the company would know that you were at work that day and if there was an explosion or fire in the mine, they could use the tag on your belt to identify your body if necessary." At that point, the butterfly fluttering around in my stomach suddenly turned into a monster with a six foot wing span. Reality had just hit me right between the eyes. For a brief moment I thought, "What am I doing here?" I thanked the lamp house man and turned to the door with a feeling that a soldier might have as he approached the front lines of the battlefield. But then I told myself I didn't need to worry because I had been assigned to work in the shop. When I stepped outside, I took a moment to survey the mining complex. Directly in front of me was a rail yard filled with coal cars. They were waiting to be dropped about a hundred yards down the track to the tipple to be loaded with coal. On the hill just above the rail yard was the repair shop where I would be working as a mine equipment mechanic. Just to the left and slightly up the hill was a mine portal. It was known as Watson Heading Portal and entered a four foot vein of coal called the Pocahontas No. 3 seam, supposedly one of the richest veins of coal in the world.

By now the monster in my stomach had turned back into a butterfly and I knew it was time for me to join the ever increasing stream of men headed to the shop by way of a long incline up the hillside. At the top of the incline were two sets of tracks with three hundred volt trolley wires suspended over them. Having already been warned, I made sure to duck my head when I walked under them. The tracks led to the tipple and the trolley wires powered the electric locomotives that pulled the coal cars from the mines.

The shop was a modern looking structure with five evenly spaced garage doors across the front. A track led up to each door so locomotives could be brought in for service and repair. With the four o'clock shift change getting close, a large group of miners had gathered at the end of the building near the main line tracks where they would soon catch the mantrip that would take them deep into the mountain.

Not wanting to be late on my first day, I hurried toward the shop. When I entered the door, the place was buzzing with activity as miners were going back and forth, carrying supplies and getting last minute instructions. I stopped one man long enough to ask where I could find Mr. Spencer, the man to whom I was to report. He pointed to the shop office door and said, "Over there." Although I didn't know him personally, I had seen Mr. Spencer before and didn't have any trouble recognizing him. He appeared preoccupied with two other bosses when I entered the office. As I stepped up to his desk, he gazed up at me through his prominent black rim glasses. With little expression on his face, he spoke slowly with a voice that commanded attention and said, "Brother French, if you'll wait outside, we'll get you started after the shift change." I nodded in agreement and walked out of the office.

Upon exiting the office, I was startled when a voice blared out from a loud speaker on the wall just above my head. I quickly turned to listen and a voice said, "Come in Watson Heading Motorman," and after a brief pause came the reply, "This is the Watson Heading Motorman." Then the first voice came back and said, "Man trip wanting to leave 9 East and come to the shop." Then the other voice again, "You're clear to the shop."

Growing up here in the coal camps made it easy for me to recognize the sound of a trolley phone. I knew right away it was probably a work crew inside the mine calling the dispatcher from a trolley phone on their personnel carrier, better known as a portal bus. The dispatcher had a very important job. If you can imagine an elaborate model train set with several different trains running at one time on intersecting tracks, that pretty well describes some coal mines. It was the dispatcher's job to safely direct all rail traffic in and out of the mines. The Watson Heading motorman who operated a large mine locomotive was the dispatcher at the No. 9 mines. He used his phone to communicate with other traffic. The trolley phone was actually a two-way radio. It had a hand held microphone and speaker and worked just like a C. B. radio except it wasn't wireless. The signal traveled across the three hundred volt trolley wire.

Knowing that it would be awhile before Mr. Spencer would see me, I decided to step outside to watch for the mantrips, a term used to describe a group of men entering or leaving the mine. While observing the men as they waited for the first portal bus to come out of the mountain, their mood was very lighthearted with the story telling, laughter and cigarette smoke filling the air. There was no visible fear or concern in their faces as they prepared to descend deep into the earth, because they were seasoned veterans and well aware of the perils of their occupation. Finally the moment had arrived! I watched a convoy of yellow portal buses emerge from the mine. With their headlights on, they slowly rolled up in front of the shop. Most of these portal buses were built by the Lee-Norris Company for low coal. The operator sat in an open compartment in the middle with enclosed passenger compartments on the front and rear of the bus. There was a side opening on each end in which three or four miners could enter and lie down in a reclining position.

After the portal buses parked bumper to bumper, the miners began to crawl out. With their faces blackened with coal dust and round silver lunch buckets in hand, some went into the shop first to get the cigarettes they had hidden, since it was against the law to smoke in the mines. But most of them rushed down the incline toward the bath house like someone on a mission. Before the last man was out of sight, the evening shift crew had boarded the portal buses and headed into the mines to begin the mining process where the day shift crew had stopped. In just a matter of two or three minutes all the commotion had ceased and I was left standing there alone.

I remembered Mr. Spencer telling me they would get me started in my job after the shift change, so I returned to the office where there were three other men with Mr. Spencer. Looking at the names on their hard hats, I could see Davis, Burkett, and Dishman, the first two being bosses. Dishman was a trainee mechanic like myself.

Besides being the general maintenance foreman of the No. 9 mines, Mr. Spencer was a church deacon with a very straight forward, no frills personality, but a man you learned to respect very quickly. After introducing me to everyone, he advised me that I would be working with brother Dishman in the shop and brother Joe Burkett, the evening shift maintenance foreman. Mr. Burkett, who asked to be called Joe, took me on a tour of the shop where there were several different types of mine machinery in various stages of repair. He explained to me that there were currently three coal producing sections in the mines, one being the Hoot Owl section in the low coal of Watson Heading. It averaged about forty eight inches in height. The other two were the 9 East and Spice Creek sections on what was referred to as the east side or high side. This mine was across the hollow and higher up on the mountain side. It was in the No. 4 seam and averaged about eight to ten feet in height. As we walked through the shop, Joe pointed out the mine phone which was used for communication to each working section within the mines. It looked like something out of an old 1930's movie with its hand crank. The phone system was like one big party line and each mine section would only answer to a certain number of rings.

Finally I was assigned my first official job, helping Dishman put a set of brake shoes on a thirteen ton Jeffery mine locomotive. These brake shoes were very heavy and awkward to handle. By the time we installed the third brake shoe and I had my third blood blister on my finger, I realized it didn't take a rocket scientist to do this.

Dishman and I were soon to become good friends, although I can never remember us calling each other by anything other than our last names. As a matter of fact, just about everyone was referred to by last names.

Although Dishman had been there only a couple of months, he seemed like a veteran to me and eager to help anyway he could. I was amazed to find out there were no other mechanics at the entire mining complex on the evening shift. Ordinarily, each of the three working sections in the mines would have its own section mechanic, but with the mines just recently being re-opened, these jobs hadn't been filled. It was up to the two of us trainees to service and repair equipment in the shop and at a moment's notice, take off to one of the mine sections or tipple if there was a breakdown. Fortunately, this first night there were no breakdowns. At last it was eight o'clock and time for supper. Joe invited us into the office to eat. As I sat there eating my sandwich I could feel the floor and walls vibrate as a locomotive with a trip of loaded coal cars passed the shop on its way to the tipple.

After eating, I decided to walk around a little and exited the rear of the shop through a large garage door. I stood outside wondering how I would spend all the money I was making now. Three dollars and thirty seven cents an hour or about one hundred and thirty five dollars a week was more than twice what I'd ever made before. Then I heard another mine locomotive approaching. With the humming sound of its electric motors and brightly shining headlights, it quickly passed by pulling a long line of empty coal cars and disappeared into the Watson Heading Portal. With supper over, the rest of the shift passed slowly and finally it was nearing midnight. It was time for the shift change and once again there was a flurry of activity as the miners made their way up the incline. Their powerful cap lights radiated piercing beams of light several hundred feet into the night air as they approached the top of the incline. Once again the mine trolley phone became busy as the dispatcher was called for clearance. I was picking up my dinner bucket to leave when Joe came from the office and told me I would be doubling back tonight and working the third shift inside the mines at Spice Creek. He said I could work with the service crew greasing equipment since none of the sections mined coal on the third shift because they were down for equipment repair and service.

Being told to work a double shift rather than being asked, had taken me a bit by surprise. I would find out later that most of the miners were so willing to work overtime for the "big" money that the management needed only to tell them when and where to go. So much for my only having to work in the shop, and the double shifts continued for the next three weeks without a break.

I soon found myself scrambling to put on my coveralls, belt and light because I knew the mantrips would leave at twelve o'clock with or without me. I hurried out the shop door and headed for the portal bus that Joe pointed out for me to ride. Everyone had boarded it and the portal bus operator was calling the dispatcher for clearance to leave the shop for Spice Creek. Just as I crawled into the portal bus and hung the chain up across the opening, the dispatcher came back on the radio and said, "Go ahead to Spice Creek and call when you're in the clear." I could see the East Side Portal across the hollow. In order to get there, we would cross a bridge to the opposite hillside where we would enter the portal. After laying back in a reclining position, I felt a slight jerk and then the sound of the electric motor when we began to roll. As I turned my head, the powerful beam of my cap light went directly into the eyes of one of the three miners laying to my right and his pupils lit up with an eerie red glow like something from a horror movie. It looked like the red eye effect caused by a camera flash you sometimes see in a photograph. He instantly snapped at me, "Get that -------- light out of my eyes boy, don't you know any better than that!" The other miners all laughed as I found out very quickly that coal miners have very little trouble saying what's on their mind.

As the portal bus speed increased, so did the clatter sound of its wheels crossing the track joints and the occasional arc from the trolley wire lit up the darkness of the night like a flash of lightning. When the East Side Portal came into view, I noticed the year 1908 inscribed on the concrete arch above the entrance.

By now they all knew this was my first trip inside a mine because I began to ask questions like, "How do you know if the roof is about to cave in?" or "What if there is an explosion or fire?" The black miner laying beside me said, "Believe me boy, you'll know when to run when the time comes." He seemed to sense my anxiety and started talking to me in an effort to calm my fears, as the butterflies had began to appear in my stomach again. I'll refer to him as Harrison because I don't recall his real name. He was probably twenty five years my senior and his always smiling face went well with his friendly personality.

When we entered the portal, I felt my pulse quicken and the air turned suddenly cool, with a distinctly damp and musty odor to it. I leaned over to look out and the portal bus headlights illuminated the tunnel ahead for about a hundred yards. It continued to go slightly up hill with no turns or curves as far as I could see. Large wooden timbers lined both sides of the track for extra roof support. Everything was snow white from the limestone dust or "rock dust" that had been sprayed on the ceiling, walls and floor. Floating airborne coal dust is very explosive if ignited and rock dust is not. Covering the coal dust with rock dust, greatly reduces the chance of a dust explosion. I would later find out that coal miners referred to the ceiling as the top or roof and the mine walls were called the ribs.

As we continued deeper into the mine, the other miners in the portal bus seemed oblivious to our surroundings. To them it was like a carpool trip to the office but for me it was a fascinating experience as I tried to shine my light back into the old workings of each side tunnel we passed. After a while the portal bus began to slow and then stopped at a switch in the track. The operator climbed off and proceeded to throw the switch so it would divert us onto a track that made a ninety degree right hand turn. After pulling the bus up just far enough to clear the switch, he returned it to its original position. Once we began to roll again, Harrison informed me that if we had continued straight, it would have taken us to 9 East. By turning right, he said we were now headed to Spice Creek and would begin a long up hill grade to our final destination. I soon realized he wasn't kidding when he said it would be a long uphill grade because I began to think we might come right out the top of the mountain. I'd never imagined a coal mine being anything but flat inside and didn't know it might go up and down steep hills and be as wide as a two lane highway.

Finally, I felt the portal bus come to a stop and the operator called the dispatcher to tell him we were in the clear at Spice Creek. I quickly unhooked the chain across the side opening and crawled out. We had arrived at the end of the track and Harrison told me we would walk the last hundred feet or so up the heading to the area where the mining equipment was that I would be servicing, but first we would go to the dinner hole. This was an area just past the end of the track, designated as the eating place on the section. It was simply a wooden bench placed along side the rib with extra roof support timbers around it and a hand crank telephone like the one in the shop, mounted on a timber. All the miners gathered around the dinner hole and placed their lunch buckets on the bench. Harrison turned to me and said, "There ain't no segregation in the coal mines, cause after you've worked in here a while, we is all black." With that remark they all burst into laughter, with Harrison laughing the hardest.

After the laughter finally subsided, one of the miners I heard referred to as preacher, stepped forward and said, "Let us pray." As everyone bowed their head, he thanked God for our good health and our jobs and asked him to watch over and protect us this night and then said, "Amen." At that point the third shift officially began. Some stuffed their mouth so full of chewing tobacco, it appeared they had a golf ball in their jaw as they paired off and proceeded up the heading to their different work areas. Before I left the shop, Joe told me I would find two Joy shuttle cars and a Lee-Norris continuous mining machine. When I reached them, a couple of other miners had already started servicing one shuttle car. One of them handed me a grease gun and told me to grease every grease fitting I could find.

After I began to work, I found it more and more difficult to concentrate on what I was doing. There are few lights in the coal mine except your cap light. Because you can only see in the direction your cap light is pointed, and due to my overwhelming curiosity, I was constantly pointing my light around at everything except what I was working on. I couldn't suppress the nagging fear that something awful could happen at any moment. I still had vivid memories of reading about another area mine that blew up and killed thirty six men a few years earlier.

Dishman told me to listen for any popping or cracking sounds coming from the top. He said this might be the only warning of an impending rock fall, but someone a couple of hundred feet up the heading above me fired up a roof drill. This made it impossible to hear anything else because its air operated drills made about the same noise a jack hammer makes busting up concrete on a city sidewalk. Now I was looking up eight or ten feet above me every minute or so to see if there was any loose rock or faulty looking top. Fortunately, after a while one tends to adapt to adverse conditions and when a couple of hours passed, the tension began to ease and I felt much more relaxed, especially when they shut down the noisy roof drill. Now it seemed almost too quiet. All I heard was a couple of miners across from me talking and somebody up the heading above me shouting. I picked up my grease gun to move to the other shuttle car when suddenly there was a terrifying explosion, accompanied by a shock wave of air that made my ear drums feel like they would burst. In an instant I realized what Harrison meant when he said, "When the time comes, you will know when to run." It wasn't even a conscious decision but more like a reflex as I dropped the grease gun and ran as I had never run in my life.

I couldn't believe it, my worst nightmare being realized on my first trip in the mine. By the time I hit full stride going down the steep heading, I felt like I was only touching the ground about every ten feet. After awhile, I glanced to my side and realized I was alone. When I finally managed to get my momentum stopped, my first thought was that they had all been killed. Once I came to my senses, I remembered there were two other miners within ten feet of me and I was sure they could have made it out also. As I looked up the track heading and saw no one else, I knew I would have to go back and see what happened.

At first, I advanced cautiously but the further I went, the more sense of urgency I felt. Finally, I reached the portal bus that I so hastily passed on the way out. At that point I began to hear laughter and the further I went, the more hysterical it sounded. When I arrived at the area where I'd been working, there was smoke and dust still lingering in the air. Most of the crew had gathered there and I realized they were all looking and laughing at me. An almost uncontrollable wave of anger suddenly swept over me when I thought I was the butt of a terrible joke. As I found out later, there was no joke. The roof drill I had been hearing for the past two hours, was drilling holes in the top. There, they placed dynamite charges in order to shoot down rock in an area where a conveyor belt structure was being built. The man I thought I heard shouting at someone was simply the shooter following federal mine law. It says you must call out "fire" three times before setting off a shot of dynamite, to give everyone ample warning. The rest of the crew had gathered in my work area to wait for the smoke to clear when they found out I left like a world class sprinter when the shot went off. To say I was extremely embarrassed would be putting it mildly but after a moment or two, I began to realize how funny it must have appeared to them and I couldn't help but join them in the laughter.

The rest of the night was pretty uneventful but I think it was the longest night I ever experienced in my life. When we boarded the portal bus to come out of the mine, I felt a sense of relief and exhilaration knowing this night was soon to be over. Inside the portal bus, the laughter turned to a roar when Harrison began to kid me again about what a great runner I was.

By the time we emerged from the East Side Portal that August morning in 1966, I felt like I was in a dream and seeing things move in slow motion. I'd been going for over twenty four hours without sleep. As we eased up in front of the shop, the day shift crew gathered along side the tracks and seemed to be eagerly waiting for us to unload. Two or three portal buses from other sections pulled in behind us. As I crawled out, I realized these were the same faces I'd seen getting out of these buses the day before as I waited for my shift to begin.

I will never forget the feeling of the warm rays of the morning sun when I walked down the incline to the lamp house. It was a welcome feeling after being in the mine all night where the temperature stayed a pretty constant 52 degrees and the dampness seemed to penetrate to the bone. I actually felt a sense of pride, knowing I'd endured that first night in a coal mine. I only worked a couple of years at Gary No. 9 and have no regrets for leaving when I did, but I would take nothing for some of the memories and life lessons I gained there.

Memories From The Past

In July 1994, I returned to Gary No. 9 to visit my memories. It was about two weeks short of being twenty eight years since I first worked there and was another typical hot and humid summer day. When I pulled into the area where the parking lot used to be, I realized the building that once contained the lamp house and mine offices was gone. Only a large concrete foundation marked the spot where it stood. The railroad yard where the coal cars were stored was empty and the tracks had turned red with rust. The tipple, which had stood silent several years now, appeared suspended in time. The No. 9 mines shut down because of high production cost and a slackening demand for coal, not because all the coal had been mined out. For that reason I guess I expected to see everything locked up until it could be re-opened sometime in the future, as the company had done in the past. I found myself totally unprepared for the roller coaster ride my emotions would experience this day. When I reached the top of the hill and the shop came into view, it became apparent this mining complex would never again be anything but a memory of another time. Four of the five garage doors across the front of the building had been completely removed along with the trolley wire and track to each door. All the rails of the main line track between the tipple and mines were gone, apparently sold for scrap iron and the railroad ties were stacked into a large pile. The weeds and bushes had begun to overrun the area.

As I approached the shop, to my left set an abandoned Jeffery locomotive that would cost at least $150,000 to buy new today. It could have been the same one I worked on some twenty eight years earlier. For a brief moment my mind's eye could see "Shaky" Davis, a motorman who operated this locomotive or one like it, waving at me as he rumbled by with a trip of loaded coal cars on his way to the tipple.

Upon entering the shop, the deterioration became even more obvious. The company had removed everything of any real value and vandals had done their share of damage. As I walked through, I felt a surge of memories well up inside me. On the east wall stood the tool locker I had used in what seemed like another life. Mr. Spencer's office was empty now, the floor littered with paper and trash. I felt a chill stir within me as the graffiti on the walls seemed to be the soul of this place crying out for someone to save it from a slow death.

When I entered the stock room at the rear of the shop, I found an undisturbed parts bin with its shelves still stocked with parts for mining machinery. With the shop being so gutted, it seemed ironic to find parts still neatly placed in their bins. I literally had to climb over some of the debris in the floor to exit the rear shop door. I wanted to see the Watson Heading Portal one last time, it being no more than a couple of hundred feet from the back of the shop. I stepped carefully through the tall green grass leading up to the mine entrance because there was a good bit of water running from it. Setting in the mouth of the portal was part of an old wooden supply car. I very cautiously entered the mine about seventy five feet, to the point where a roof fall partially blocked the heading. The aging roof support timbers showed the strain of the mountains weight bearing down upon them. Memories ran rampant through my mind as I stared into the darkness and could see headlights of an approaching portal bus. I could see its crew headed to the shop at quitting time, just as I'd done hundreds of times myself, since I only worked in the shop a few months before being transferred in here.

Over the years these mines have produced the wages for many a coal miner to buy his daughter a doll house at Christmas, a new family car or a trip to Florida during miners vacation, such as my father had first done for our family in 1949. They also took their share of coal miners lives. My own grandfather was one of those who was taken early in life when he was killed in a rock fall at the No. 6 mine in 1936 when my dad was just a boy. The grim statistics of those lost lives have helped forge new mine safety laws which has saved countless others.

Up until the 1950's, the upper half of the No. 9 camp was a thriving community with neatly aligned, well built company houses covering the hillsides. Many of my school classmates lived here but the only remaining evidence left of a community now are remnants of old house foundations and portions of concrete sidewalks. Neighborhoods with names such as: Tipple Row, The Circle, and 'Bama Row, have now passed quietly into history and today exist only as a snap shot in my mind.

While walking back toward the shop, I wondered if there would be anyone left to visit their memories here after another twenty eight years. If there would be anyone left to describe what it was really like to live and work in the coalfields during what I would call its golden years, for my generation is the last born of the coal camp culture of that era. I stood at the corner of the shop on that same spot where I stood so many years before, watching the miners board the portal buses while waiting for that first shift to start. When I looked across the hollow to the East Side Portal, I thought of preacher and us gathering at the dinner hole and him praying for our safety. I wondered what had happened to Harrison, for I never did see him again after that first night. Did he change jobs? Is he now twenty years in his grave? The friendliness he showed me and the permanent smile he seemed to wear on his face will be etched into my memory forever. The graffiti written on the end of a parts bin in the shop is a fitting epitaph. Gone, but not forgotten...No. 9.

 

Gary No. 9 Tipple - Photo By: Buddy French

 

Gary No. 9 Shop - Photo By: Buddy French

 

Parts Bin at Gary No. 9 Shop - Photo By: Buddy French

 

Large rock blocking entrance of No. 9East Side Portal which led to Spice Creek

Photo By: Buddy French

 

Deterioration of the mine portal just inside the Watson Heading Portal (1994)

Photo By: Buddy French

 


 

McDowell County


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