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Sacrifice and Challenge: Life in a Coal Mining Camp

Have you ever wondered what your ancestor's life was like living in a coal mining camp?

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Melissa Slate
Word Count: 540 (approx.)
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Have you ever wondered about the life that your coal-mining ancestor led? What were the day-to-day challenges and what was his daily existence? By looking at the sociological aspects of the coal-mining experience, we can gain much insight into the daily lives of coal mining families and make some accurate assumptions about their day-to-day routines. Let us step back in time for a few moments to examine life in a coal mining camp.

Coal companies frequently constructed small towns that were located in close proximity to the mines. This was a matter of convenience to the coal company. Coal companies needed manpower to mine the coal and one way of ensuring that was to make housing convenient for the coal families. Coal companies built churches, stores, and schools in addition to housing for the miners. However, these structures took a back seat to the primary structures necessary to mine and move coal such as railroad tracks, coal tipples, and coke ovens. Frequently the camps lacked telephones, restaurants, movie houses, drug stores, or beauty parlors.

The houses were often built just alike and in rows that were closely spaced. The best houses were reserved for the men with the best positions in the mines and the coal camps were often segregated with the worst housing going to African American miners and the many immigrant workers who were employed. The houses were frequently in disrepair, and thick layers of coal dust covered everything in sight. Very often, the homes had no running water or garbage disposal.

Miners were paid for their labor in coal company script, which could be spent at company owned stores for food and supplies. But, that was after deductions were made from the miner's pay for housing, coal to heat their homes, and payments to the company owned stores. It was not uncommon for a miner to pick up his pay envelope and find that he was in debt to the coal company because of these expenses. Families could exchange coal company script for cash to shop other places, but often for only pennies on the dollar. Company stores were sometimes the only sources of food and supplies for mining families.

The women of the camps economized every way that they could; they made their own clothing and household furnishings when possible, and some even made extra money by doing laundry or taking in boarders. If space permitted, some raised gardens to supplement their food supplies. Their work was just as tough and hard as the miners' work was. Recreation time for the coal mining family was sparse.

Even the children had a tough existence. By the time a boy was nine or ten years old, he too was working at the same mine that his father did. The girls fared no better; they assisted their mothers with the cooking and cleaning and any other chores that were needed. Education was often limited for children simply because of the necessity of work for survival.

Coal mining families were proud people who were able to rise above the circumstances of their existence. Often families were coal-mining families for three, four, or more generations. If your ancestor was a member of a coal mining family you can be proud of their grit, determination, and their character.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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