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The Life of the Coal Miner

A glimpse into the working conditions of our coal mining ancestors.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Melissa Slate
Word Count: 546 (approx.)
Labels: Social Aspect 
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When Tennessee Ernie Ford sang the words "You load sixteen tons and what do you get . . . another day older and deeper in debt," he was giving a poignant reflection of our coal-mining ancestor. The words are familiar to us, but do we really comprehend the life of danger and hardship that these hardy men led?

Deep inside a mine is total pitch-black darkness. In order to be able to see, each miner had to carry a lamp that was attached to his hat. In the early days of coal mining, these lamps consisted of an open flame that was fueled by carbide. When calcium carbide is mixed with water, acetylene gas is produced. However, the presence of any open flame inside the mines brought with it the threat of igniting pockets of methane gas and causing an explosion.

The miner's day often started early, many arose at 5:00 a.m. to enter the mine shortly after 6:00 in the morning. Then he frequently had to walk a mile or more inside the mine to reach his work area. Once there, he put in 8-10 hour days mining the coal by hand. Sometimes the miner would have to dig coal on his hands and knees or while lying on his back and, not uncommonly, in puddles of water.

A miner's shovel filled with coal could weigh in excess of 20 lbs. Miners were paid to mine coal by the ton. The coal was shoveled into cars and an average miner loaded 8 to 9 tons of coal per day and was paid on average, in the 1920's, between 48 and 70 cents per ton. The coal was loaded into a type of rail car for transport to the outside. The miner attached a round metal disc to the car that was inscribed with a number that identified the car as being his. The car was then taken to the outside and weighed and the miner's wages recorded. Accounts of the miner being cheated by the companies when the coal was weighed have been told, and miners would sometimes hire their own person to double check the weight of the coal that he had loaded to prevent this type of cheating.

The miner's wages were directly influenced by the amount of time he spent doing other jobs besides loading coal. Before the coal could be loaded, the miner had to set explosive charges with dynamite and blast the coal free of the rock face. The miner had to set his own supports under the roof to prevent the rock overhead from falling as he worked. In addition, the miner had to bail water from his own work area.

Dangers were ever present in the working life of a coal miner. A miner was constantly aware of the threat of rock falls, explosions, or accidents from blasting. The miner's job, before mining became mechanized, was dirty, tough, and dangerous. If the miner was lucky enough to end his work career instead of his career ending his life, he faced the possibility of life-long disability from respiratory problems such as black lung that were common to miners.

So, the next time that you flip your light switch, remember that the coal miner has sacrificed a lot for the technology that we enjoy today.

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.

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