Coal—A Burning Issue in the Past
THE predawn mist hangs heavy in the mountains as the rising sun fights to make its appearance in the eastern sky. The flickering glow of oil lamps can be seen through the dingy-paned windows of row after row of dilapidated shanties lining the mountainside. In the semidarkness within, wives and mothers try desperately to scavenge food for lunch-box dinners to feed the male members of their family.
Minutes later, the weary males emerge from their houses. Dim lights glowing from their helmets, giving them the appearance of hundreds of giant fireflies, they descend en masse to the rocky road below. Slowly, as if on parade, they march—the old, the middle aged, the young, and the very young. They are Americans, English and Blacks, Irish and Welsh, Czechs and Slovaks. They are Italians and Hungarians, people from Poland and Greece—a potpourri of almost every nationality in Europe—coal miners all.
The marching parade stops. The wait begins for the rickety elevator to take them down hundreds of feet into the bowels of the earth. The musty smell of rotten timbers that support the tons of weight above their heads and the noxious scent from mildew fills their nostrils. The sound of dripping water is constant. The popping and cracking sound of settling earth they must get used to.
Thus begins each miner’s day of extracting 16 tons of coal from deep within the earth.
The Demand for Coal Felt Worldwide
The Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s had begun. New factories were springing up across the land, and old ones were expanding to fill the needs of a growing nation. Coal was the needed commodity to fire the boilers and generate the energy to keep the industry alive. The demand for coal was being felt around the world, and from America the cry for men to work in its mines was heard across the seas.
The experienced coal miners of England and Wales heard the distant cry for help across the sea. Considering the “colonies” to be a land of opportunity, they emigrated to America. The cry for mine workers was also heard in Ireland where coal-mine owners had sent salesmen to peddle the “American dream” of a land of plenty—high wages, fine homes, churches and schools, and a system based on equal rights for all. The fact that their transportation would be paid for by the mineowners only underscored their belief that America indeed was a land flowing with riches and opportunities.
If there were those who felt that their Emerald Isle was too beautiful to leave and the nine-week journey across the sea too long even for a better life, their thinking was soon to change—the potato famine! The potato was the staff of life for the Irish. An average adult consumed 9 to 14 pounds a day. In 1845 a mysterious blight, which was to last for six death-dealing years, struck the potato crops. Over a million people in Ireland died from the famine. Those peddling the American dream were suddenly besieged with cries for ship passage. Every available ship was pressed into service, often with inadequate accommodations and sanitary facilities for the hundreds that crowded into the ships. Many died. Entire families were wiped out. It is estimated that 5,000 perished on the way to America, their dead bodies thrown into the sea. Nevertheless, during the years of the potato famine, 1.2 million Irish immigrants reached American shores.
There the bubble burst for many. The dream turned into a nightmare. The “fine homes” were poorly constructed shanties with no plaster, no ceilings or wallpaper, and where cold wind made its presence felt in the winter. The furniture consisted of crudely made beds and tables and rough chairs. The “high wages” were a few cents an hour—less than a dollar for a very long day’s work. There were none of the promised schools. Children grew up unable to read or to write their own name. Many of the miners and their families ended up as good as slaves, with little means of escape.
For example: The shantytowns were owned and operated by the mines. So were the company stores. Most mineowners refused to allow another store to operate within its limits. Consequently, the miners were forced to buy all goods from the company store—food, clothing, and tools—at prices substantially higher than at other stores, sometimes three times higher. If other stores operated nearby, then the miners were not paid in cash but in coupons and tokens, called scrip, which could be redeemed only at the company store. If the miner refused to buy from the store, he was fired and blacklisted, and other mine operators refused to hire him.
It was not uncommon for children to have to work off the company-store debts inherited from their father. Note, for example, a part of an editorial, appearing in a New York newspaper in 1872: “Sometimes generation after generation works to pay back debts begun by their grandfathers. Those who have a few coins in their pockets earn them by menial labor after working long hours in the earth.”
So it was that with no other place to go and no money to leave, the miners became slaves to the mineowners.
Since child-labor laws were not then known, mine operators took advantage of young males, sending them into the mines at a very early age to work long hours in cramped spaces where only their small bodies would fit. Some as young as five would work topside separating coal from the slate as it moved along on conveyor belts, their fingers and hands often crushed out of shape. Others, exhausted from 14 hours of work, fell into the conveyors and were crushed to death. Other tiny tots were left sitting alone in dark passageways underground for 12 hours a day opening trapdoors for the mules to pass through—the mules were better cared for than the humans.
Working conditions for young and old were a constant threat to their life. Underground explosions, mine fires, cave-ins, floodings, death by poison gases or suffocation, being trapped for days without light, food, and water—these were the day-by-day perils that played havoc with their sanity.
The miners decided that conditions must improve, both above and below ground. Attempts were made to form unions, and grievances were taken to the mineowners, asking for improvements and safer working conditions, higher pay, the abolition of the company-store policy, the exclusion of children working in the mines, all of which the mine lords ignored.
Next came the refusal of the miners to work. Coal strikes were the order of the day. The mines were forced to shut down, and mineowners brought in hired thugs to break up the strikes. Families were thrown out of their shanties into the bitter cold. Men were beaten, and women about to give birth were forced from their houses. By the owner’s orders, company doctors refused to give any medical assistance.
The Molly Maguires
Long before the Irish emigrated to America, a deep-seated bitterness existed between the Protestant English and the Catholic Irish. So when the Irish found themselves on American soil but under English mine lords and bosses, it was a bitter potion for them to swallow. During the great conflict between miners and mineowners, the Irish formed a secret society called the Molly Maguires. They were a small band of Irish miners who took revenge on the mineowners, bosses, and operators, killing them in their homes, on the streets, and in the mines.
A reign of terror spread through the mining towns. Mines were bombed, railroad cars that carried the coal were blasted off the tracks and destroyed. The English mine officials suffered badly. After a long period, after a spy had infiltrated their ranks, the Molly Maguires came to a disastrous end—20 of its members were hanged, 10 in one day.
The “Mollies” were just one tooth in the gear of the miners’ uprising machine that sounded the death knell of the dictatorial rule by the mineowners over the miners. A strong union was eventually formed that governed the miners throughout the nation, ensuring better pay, safer working conditions, abolition of child labor, and so on. Today, mining is a respected occupation with benefits that lure thousands into the earth looking for coal.
[Blurb on page 16]
Explosions, fires, cave-ins, poison gases—these were the day-by-day perils
[Picture on page 15]
A company store with some scrip used for money