Child labor was indeed a reality in coal mining Appalachia. Children rose early to work in the mines and their day was already well underway by 7 a.m. Children as young as 12 years-old took jobs as pony drivers. The pony drivers guided the carts that were filled with coal and pulled by ponies back to the outside of the mine where they were weighed and dumped.
In researching the genealogy of your coal-mining ancestors, you might encounter the term "trapper." This was usually a young lad whose job it was to open and close ventilation doors in the mine. When a pony cart came up to the door, the door was opened, the cart passed through, and the door was closed again. The purpose of the doors was to keep fresh air directed to the mine where the workers were working. This was a lonely job for the boys, as they had to sit at their stations for hours, only seeing another person when the carts came through.
Another child occupation in the mining industry was that of a "greaser." His job was to keep the axles on the coal cars greased so they ran smoothly. There were also "general utility" boys who did odd jobs about the mine.
"Breaker boys" worked in the breaker house where coal was broken into chunks, the right size for burning. Their job was to pick the rock and slate from the coal, which was constantly moving down the conveyor belts. They often had cuts on their hands and coughs from breathing coal dust for hours on end.
These children worked in total darkness for as long as 12 hours a day, sometimes longer. The air they breathed was cold, damp, and filled with coal dust. They very seldom saw sunshine and did not go to school. By the time their work was done, they were too bone weary to play. Sleep was necessary because tomorrow's workday came quickly.
These children faced the same hazards of death, darkness, and sickness that their fathers did. Most continued working in the mines until their elderly backs were too hunched over to walk any longer. Our coal-mining ancestors were tough and brave and they deserve our respect and admiration.