Coal Mining

The Early Days

People have been mining since the eighteenth century, and compared to that time period; the lot of coal miners has only recently improved. Miners have lived with dangers the rest of us can't even imagine: slag falls, explosions, fires, gases, cave-ins or being crippled for life either from broken bones or the 'black-lung' disease that coal miners still aquire from breathing in coal dust. And it was not just in America, as they were mining for coal in Europe before they began here in the states.
In Europe, an investigation was made in 1841 by the British Parliament on the conditions of the coal mines. The conditions were especially horrid in Scotland.
The investigative committee found conditions; such as water constantly dripping from the ceilings, and standing ankle deep in shafts and other places. Some of the coal seams, the areas in which the miners had to work, were only 20 to 28 inches which meant the miners had to lie in the water and mud on their sides while working. I can't imagine how they managed to crawl to bring their load out. My step-father has told me that he often worked on his knees and then had to crawl in the mud and water to get to another area to work.
In the early years in Europe, women and children, sometimes as young as five, also worked in the mines. The commision discovered that the women were treated no differently than the men. They were expected to carry the same load as the men, and produce the same amount of tonnage. In fact, often the women had it worse because they were smaller so they were the ones sent in to places that were too small for the men to enter, so they were the ones forced to endure the most cramped work areas. Young girls and boys were both given the same jobs to do in the mines. The girls, being smaller were in the same situation the women were in and could go in the smallest places.
Early American coal miners suffered hardships just getting to their workplace. Shafts would be carved into the mountain,making a main artery or main entrance, then this main artery became similiar to a dark hallway with walls of coal leading down into to various chambers or rooms. These hallways were held up by leaving pillars of coal to hold up the roof, and sometimes reinforcing it with timber. The only light the miners had were the lamps on top of their mining hats. The miners might have to travel a mile or more in these 'hallways' that were not adequately tall enough for most men. They Had to walk hunched over, or crawl in many places just to get to their workstation, even then they never got a single chance to stand erect and stretch in a 10 or 11 hr workday.
In coal mines the outside extremes of weather don't affect the underground air, it stays at around 60 degrees at 90 feet. Every 75 feet lower they go, the temperature rises one degree.
In the 19th century, the mines underground were hot, and damp. Fungus thrived, fine coal dust was in the air they breathed, and could become explosive. Gases are called damps. Methane or marsh gas (CH4) is most common. Mixed with 5% oxygen, methane was firedamp and is highly explosive. Black damp is Carbonic acid gas, an atmosphere deficient in oxygen. Effect on miner produces numbness, dull pains in joints of legs and arms, violent headache and drumming sound in ears, accompanied by deafness. Can cause death by choking. Bad air weakens the miners.
An early ventilating technique was to install a furnace at the bottom of the shaft. Some distance away, an air intake shaft was sunk. The furnace shaft acted as a chimney, drawing the warm air up and out. Fresh air entered the intake shaft to replace the air drawn out of the chimney.
Using the only escape hatch as a chimney was the cause of the Avondale(PA) Mine disaster of 1869. This was the first great anthracite coal mine disaster. The company built a rickety wooden coal processing plant above the shaft and it caught fire from the furnace, the fire roared up the shaft and ignited the breaker.
The work force of 179 men and boys had just descended. The building was wrapped in flames and non-combustible material fell down the shaft, followed by pieces of burning timber. 10,000 people came to help, but they could not put out the fire. Fathers and sons were found locked in each others arms, some kneeling in prayer, some fell while walking.
So the mines in the early years in the United States were no better than in Europe. The main difference was that here, only the men and boys were expected to or even allowed to go into the mines. Unfortunately the Avondale(PA) Mine disaster of 1869 was just the beginning of a long line of mining disasters and the loss of so many lives in the coal mines in the United States.

Written by Gracie Stover
"Miners and Medicine", by Claude A Frazier, M.D., with F.K. Brown; Published by: University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1992
"Where The Sun Never Shines," by Priscilla Long; Published by:Paragon House, New York;1989
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Page designed January, 1999 BY Gracie Stover