Coal Mining in Appalachia
History of coal mining in southern Appalachia, and how it radically transformed the region.
COAL MINING IN APPALACHIA
The Southern Appalachian region has long been one of the largest sources of coal in the world. For generations, miners have been digging and blasting their way into the rugged mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama to unearth thousands of tons of what are commonly called “black diamonds.” The explosion in coal mining operations in Appalachia that started near the turn of the century altered its landscape, and its people, forever.
Early Appalachian explorers mentioned the fine veins of coal that spread throughout the region. Thomas Jefferson even referred to the abundance of coal in his Notes on Virginia. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there was little use for coal, other than in blacksmith fires.
But when the Civil War ended, the United States entered a tremendous industrialization period, and coal was desperately needed to feed the factories and railroads that were spreading across the country like wildfire. Capitalists from the urban centers of the Northeast, South and Midwest descended in droves into rural areas such as Southern Appalachia to tap into its human and natural resources.
The first coal mines in Southern Appalachia were run by small local operators with little financing. After the Civil War, however, independent coal barons from outside the region set up shop throughout the hills, with better equipment and deeper pockets. At the turn of the century, many independent operations consolidated into larger ones. This set the stage for the growth of large mining corporations (such as U.S. Steel) in later years.
As World War I escalated around the globe, the demand for coal from Southern Appalachia grew to unprecedented heights. A coal boom followed, and mining companies began recruiting large numbers of European immigrants, as well as African-American “migrants” from the deep South, to join the work force of Appalachian farmers turned miners. At the height of the coal boom, there were nearly 12,000 mines operating in the region, employing over 700,000 men.
Mines in the early days were more primitive and dangerous than the more mechanized mines of today. Miners would dig and blast their way into a hillside, shoring up the walls and ceiling of the tunnel with heavy wooden timbers that they cut from the surrounding forest. They used hand drills to prepare holes to set explosive charges to dislodge the coal. Mules, and later mining cars, were employed to pull the coal from the depths of the mine shaft.
As valuable as mules were, however, they were occasionally sacrificed for the safety of the miners. As mining operations would shut down for the evening, methane gas would sometimes build up in the mine shaft overnight. To ensure that there was no gas inside, a mule would be sent into the mine first thing in the morning with an open flame (carbide or oil) strapped on its body. When the men would hear an explosion or see a smoking mule running out of the shaft, they knew the coast was clear.
To handle the influx of workers, mining companies built company homes for them and their families. They were simple, monotonous, clapboard homes with only one drop light on the porch. Coal was supplied for cooking, and food was either purchased in the company store or grown on the hillsides. The companies issued their own currency called “script” that was used to purchase goods. Credit was rarely extended to the workers, and any large purchases were taken out of each day’s wages. To this day, the remains of many of these old company towns can be seen throughout Southern Appalachia.
Although life in the company towns was a step up for the more impoverished Appalachian families, most found it to be a meager existence. Miners were typically paid $3-$5 a day for a 12-hour work day. Many young boys went into the mines with their fathers to perform “dead work” for which the miner wasn’t paid. Mothers and children were typically dressed in rags. Expenses such as tools, blasting powder, blacksmith services, basic utilities, or health care services were all taken out of the miners’ already meager wages.
And then there was the fear that every miner’s wife had: that her loved one wouldn’t come back from the mine at all. Coal mining has long been one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, and in the early days, it was even more so. Cave-ins were commonplace, and if a miner survived a mining accident, the company offered him little support if he couldn’t return to work. Many miners developed a horrible respiratory affliction known as pneumoconiosis, or “black lung,” from countless hours working in cramped, dark tunnels breathing in the black coal dust.
Many miners chose to fight back against the companies by joining the main miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Some companies responded with intimidation and violence to keep their workers in line. Hired thugs from so-called “detective agencies” were brought in by the company to discourage any union activities. Many violent clashes followed, including the infamous battles in Harlan County, Kentucky and Matewan, West Virginia.
But it was an over expansion of the coal industry during the early part of the century that finally led to its collapse. When World War I ended and European mines reopened, the demand for American coal fell sharply. Prices dropped, and coal companies slashed wages to compete and protect profits. Thousands of mines went bankrupt, closed completely or were consolidated into larger mines.
Although World War II brought a temporary boom to the coal industry, the companies began using more efficient mining machines instead of manpower. Large national industries replaced coal with natural gas and fuel oil, while railroads replaced steam with diesel-powered locomotives. As a result, mine workers migrated out of the region in droves, while other Appalachian miners and their families returned to a life of farming, falling into poverty and malnutrition. The U.S. Government offered financial aid to these displaced miners and their families. This federal assistance program has become an ever-present reality in Appalachian life to this day.
Coal mining continues in the Southern Appalachian region today. The physical scars of mechanized strip mining can be seen throughout the hills. But it is the social and economic scars on the region itself that remain below the surface.
For more information on coal mining history in Appalachia and elsewhere, check out this site:
Kentucky Coal History:
Features information on Kentucky coal mining history, as well as links to related sites across the country.
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14 Responses to “Coal Mining in Appalachia”
Were did coal minning start?
well around tennessee or kentucky the reson i know this is becouse i live in the deep south of tennessee and my papow uncle orther uncle was a coal miner but it spread throught applitchan mountians
I don’t know what the author is talking about coal mining leaving scars. Coal mining is crucial to everyone and everything in the area. It leaves up with land that we can actually use to build houses, stores, etc. The economy is thrives from the coal miniers and when it goes the economy will drop and this will become a ghost town. Coal mining is a good thing even though environmentalist who don’t even live in this area will tell you that it is the most awful thing ever when if we didn’t have it that would be the worst thing to the people here.
I would like to see some pictures of derby holler, wise virginia
Who wrote this article? how can I properly cite this research, if the author’s name is not known?
You can credit The Moonlit Road.com
Hi I’m a little girl and I need to know things about the southeast well about coal just that that’s all I need to know
[…] do better today. But first, let’s reminisce for a moment about a bygone era in American history, the coal mining company towns. Southern Appalachia was dotted with mining camps beginning shortly after the Civil War. […]
I am a writer and a former coal miner from south east Kentucky. I have seen first hand the bad practices of mining companies and how they destroy the land to get to the coal. I have also seen companies performing good mining practices and going the extra mile to help the communities that they are operating in. Lastly as a former assistant manager of a coal company I witnessed first hand how far some property owners will go to stand up for what is right. In my latest book “Murder Seen through the Eyes of a Child” I highlighted some of these bad practices. Also on my website at nathanrhodesauthor.com is where i share this with the public. I am not a anti coal advocate but a pro take care of the earth that God gave us advocate.
[…] anything more fitting for Appalachia. Energy defines a huge chunk of our economy. It defines our history, our politics and possibly our future. Our education standards echo this as well, which might be […]
I know this issue by the Jonhn’s Grisham book “Gray Mountain”
I supposed there were something true
I am looking for a reference for the introduction of caffeinated beverages to miners in this area. I was saw a documentary through PBS that claimed Mining companies provided miners with “mountain dew” which was not initially called that in order that miners would have increased work capacity. This would perpetuate the health issues befalling the mountain people. Have you any reference point?
[…] Coal Mining in Appalachia […]