Coal mining rapidly became the backbone of the Industrial Revolution during the early twentieth century. Seeking better employment opportunities, thousands of African-Americans, and European immigrants migrated to the coalfields. The coal mining was mostly conducted in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, and West Virginia at the beginning of the twentieth century. It expanded to the western states and the Rocky Mountains later in the century.
Due to the popular belief that children should contribute to the family’s income as soon as possible, numerous young children also became coal miners. Thus, there is no actual typical coal miner. The government seldom collected any official data relating to the coal industry during its earlier years; therefore, it is very difficult to describe what the former life of a coal miner was like then. However, despite the variances among the mining camps from one state to another, there are some working and living conditions that the majority of coal miners had in common.
Extremely dangerous, strenuous and mostly unstable, the working conditions for most miners were very deplorable. Weather, economic conditions, politics, mining mishaps, and unionization efforts frequently forced the mining operations to cease, thus making for very unstable employment. Whenever the mine did close down, the miners were never certain how long they would be out of work, and they were not paid for the days they did not work. Even when working, the miners never knew for sure if they were going to be able to retain their home, feed their families, pay their debts, or invest in their future
Lasting 10-22 hours, shifts entailed working in a small dark, damp space that was typically located several miles below the Earth’s surface. With low ceilings and the spaces barley more than four feet wide, the miner spent most of the hours dislodging ore while lying on his back or side, or standing hunched over while loading the ore in to carts. Facing possible cave-ins, explosions, fires, poisonous vapors, toxic coal dust, and asphyxiation were a normal part of the daily routine. Toilet facilities did not exist inside the mines, so the poor sanitary conditions also contributed to the miner’s health risks. Being maimed or killed while using machinery was frequently the result of carelessness, exhaustion, or any type of distraction. Working above ground was only slightly less dangerous than working below the surface for most of the miners, regardless of age. The mine operators seldom compensated miners or their families for injuries, severe disabilities, or fatalities.
Due to being located in rural areas, most mine operators set up their own mining towns, retaining ownership of the land, buildings, businesses and mining equipment. Some mining camps were very affluent, sporting two or more churches, a public school, and multiple businesses, as well as multiple mining operations. They even sported baseball and football teams. Other camps mostly consisted of downtrodden shanties with the company store being the community’s primary meeting place. Married miners who had their families with them usually rented a house, while single miners rented rooms in boarding houses or lived in a barracks supplied by the company. Poverty, payment methods, and long distances from other businesses usually forced the miners to do most of their shopping at the company’s store. Almost every mine provided healthcare for the miners and their families, with a monthly fee being deducted from their pay for these services.
Despite the lack of government databases, the national and state archives contain numerous first-hand accounts, as well s photographs relating to the twentieth century coal miners. Some official documents that demonstrate what the former life of a coal miner was like are also available. Additionally, many websites provide useful and interesting insights into the former life of coal miners.
References and recommended reading:
- Explore History
- History Matters
- Mine Safety and Health Administration (source 1)
- Mine Safety and Health Administration (source 2)
- West Virginia Archives and History: West Virginia’s Mine Wars
Reginald Pratt is a freelance writer who focuses on the construction industry, the manufacturing sector, international business and trade, mining, and other topics. Those involved in the mining industry may want to view the high quality mining pumps available here.
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