History of coal mining in southern Appalachia.
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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