Dark as a Dungeon- Mining in Appalachian Kentucky: Part 1

Coal Dust as Medicine, Pick & Shovel Days and living a life that gives you the nickname “Horse Shit Dan”

The following is a collection of quotes, paraphrases and thoughts I had while reading/watching the following:
They Say in Harlan County- An Oral History – Alessandro Portelli
– A fantastic oral history book, 100% recommended
The Devil Is Here in These Hills – James Green
– A decent book about the mine wars in the Appalachian region, mostly West Virginia. Only recommended if you find yourself really into this topic
Harlan County U.S.A. (Documentary)
– Oscar Winning documentary. Ends up focusing more on the labor strikes of the 70s and tying those into those of earlier generations. 100% recommended
The Mine Wars (Documentary)
– American Experience documentary. Focuses on the armed insurrections on area in WV and KY. 100% recommended
Harlan Miners Speak – Theodore Dreiser
– A heavily biased narrative put out by an activist in the 30’s to influence the public. I can’t recommend it as a history of mining but I can recommend it as a history of how humans have been biased for a long time, not just recently. Probably filled with as many truths as exaggerations, but a very interesting piece to pick through
Matewan – Film (1987)
– Independent film that is basically impossible to find online in any decent quality, though a few people have assembled it in clips on youtube. For a 30+ year old independent movie it holds up pretty well, it has a lot of stars you’ll recognize in it like Chris Cooper (who was also in October Sky, a movie based in a mine camp), James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, Darth Vader’s voice), Mary McDonnell (Dances with Wolves) and David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, Lincoln)

Link to Part 2- Dark As a Dungeon
Link to Part 3- Dark As a Dungeon
Link to Part 4- Dark As a Dungeon

Part 1 – Pick & Shovel Days

It’s a modern day luxury to not have your work define your life. From antiquity up through some point in the 20th century this was essentially the case for everyone. Many surnames exist as a shortening of how people used to be defined- Miller, Smith, Baker, Potter, Cooper, Farmer, Hunt, Page, Thatcher, Woodman, Turner- people’s names were tied to their occupations just as their very lives. It’s hard to imagine those ties in modernity. Zeno the Marketer is just sad and Zeno the Senior Customer Associate is ridiculous and probably won’t fit on a drivers license. But a lot of occupational surnames casually fit into our modern world without telling the deep story of how hard our ancestors worked. And a lot of these came from mining. Miner. Collier. Bottom. Cage. And the most descriptive but least enduring of them all- Horse Shit Dan.

Pre-war coal miner is arguably the toughest freeman’s job that existed in the history of the industrialized western world*. So much so that old time miners often looked down on modern miners (1950-present) as “having it easy”, and keep in mind that modern miners might have the remaining toughest freeman’s job in the industrialized west. Despite coal’s destructive effects on the environment, climate, communities and individuals, it built western society during the first few phases of the industrial revolution. The work was hard, but the job had to be done by someone. Of course, these companies weren’t exactly excited to pay anyone very much to do it.

*Of course there are enslaved people all throughout history with harder work, more abusive management and less options available to them

Coal Dust as Medicine, Pick & Shovel Days and living a life that gives you the nickname “Horse Shit Dan”

From all accounts, pre-mechanized mining is about as hard as hard work gets.  This is back in what the old timers called ‘pick and shovel days’. Starting sometimes as early as 15 years old (lying and saying you’re older) you’d wake up early in the morning, head into a mine with a candle fixed to your cap, leading a mule which tows a cart that will help you get your quota for the day- 9-21 tons of coal, with the quota increasing over the years with available technology. Picking up and transporting 9-10 tons in a 12 hour shift with a pick and shovel should seem incomprehensible to anyone today- even coal miners today- and these men were doing it 3-5 times per week.

The song 16 Tons by Merle Travis (popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford) refers to 16 tons as a quota, but 16 tons seems like an inhuman amount. If this was to be done in a 12 hour shift without a break that would mean that a man would have to drive their pick into the rock wall, dig out the debris, parse through unusable stones and load up 40-50lb (18-22kg) of coal every minute for 12 straight hours. The 16 ton number is very frequently cited as the standard quota, but everyone is likely muddling this across the decades because of the fame brought by the song. Quotas nowadays are significantly higher, likely over 50 tons, and in the 1910’s they were expected just under 10 tons of coal per day. 

“It gets very spooky in there buddy”

Quotas which seem insurmountable to an outsider were expected to be met consistently despite some truly terrible conditions. The mines were dark, wet, cramped labyrinths, susceptible to collapse and gas buildup. In the early days, there was enough of another kind of buildup that gave the moniker to the previously mentioned miner, “Horse Shit Dan“, as his job was to clean up all of the horse manure left in the mine.

“It gets very spooky in there buddy…I worked in coal so low you couldn’t turn over”. These guys weren’t even bending over oftentimes, they were crawling on their bellies. “If you were in 36 inch coal, that’s high coal for around here…But when you get down to twenty-five-inch coal, your back is rubbing the top and you have to crawl or stretch. I’ve got scars on my back from roof bolts, everybody does.” These miners were digging out their quotas on their bellies and knees, all the while overhead the mountain was groaning and shifting atop their hollowed out vein, “…there would be rock falling, all overhead growling and crumbling.” 

According to the miners*, workplace conditions weren’t really a concern to management. Laws were on the books about different safety measures such as limited shift lengths, limited required quotas and various safety practices, but they were mostly ignored until after WWI. Even then, management would drag their feet, as an audit or inspection of the a site or camp was very easy to fabricate, and most of the mining companies had a lot of political influence over the economic challenged states like Kentucky and West Virginia. Pennsylvania miners were able to organize and improve conditions much more effectively, and I assume this is because state government wasn’t so uniquely reliant on coal mines for economic contribution. In poor, remote areas, worker safety existed only as little more than a wish. The result was a lot of lost lives and a lot of pain in “old” age, which was not very old at all. Miner life expectancy lagged drastically behind the rest of society’s. “My dad…had black lung, he had emphysema, kidney problem, he had everything. He had an autopsy report on him, three pages long.”

*This is key to remember, because the fight between miners and management is obviously very polarized and the fight is full of exaggerations, spin and half-truths. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true – there’s very little defense of these old mining companies even offered – but it’s important to keep in mind

“Coal dust is medicine”

It was perceived by the miners that their lives were completely expendable, which is in line with many other industries during the turn of the early 20th century. However the threat to the workers lives in mining was constant – deaths on the job were not exactly rare.

Miners felt that they were a special kind of asset- a replaceable one. There are multiple references to quotes like “we can’t replace mules like we can a man. Take good care of ‘em.” “You be sure, don’t get that mule no place where the rock will fall in on him… What about me? You’ve got to buy a mule, you only have to hire a man”.  Here is the same general sentiment being shared by a man in the documentary Harlan County, USA*. The mule anecdote is very popular to tell, so it was either ubiquitous practice or it’s a tall tale that has grown. But it shows how the miners felt they were treated and valued.

*The full oscar winning doc is on Youtube and is a very interesting watch, detailing history and a labor clash in the 1970’s. The full link is at the top of this post. The first few minutes show miners working- keep in mind this is from the 1970’s, so this is apparently the “easy” work compared to pre-mechanized work before WWII

The very practice of mining seemed to depend on a tribal knowledge of the men who had mined and survived before. The Room and Pillar system sounds particularly precarious, a practice where large swaths of a vein would be cleared out, held up every few dozen feet by a remaining pillar of coal. Imagine the pillars in the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings except with a ceiling about 4 feet tall. Oh, and as you finished mining out a vein, you had to collapse the pillar on your way out, or “rob” it, taking care not to let the mountain fall on you as you took your leave. Most rockfall injuries came as a result of robbing pillars.

Image result for room and pillar system
Image Credit Note that the little drawn guy is standing up straight, which probably wasn’t the case back in the day

Alright Frodo, start taking these suckers down one by one on your way outImage result for mines of moria

The threat of injury and death was omnipresent and followed you once you left the mine or even when you quit. Carbon monoxide poison, methane buildup explosions, dust explosions, roof collapse, mechanical failure, coal town diseases, black lung, emphazema- there was no shortage of ways that the mine could kill you. During the worst stretches, some mines hired out an ambulance to sit at their camp. “They had one ambulance down there called the Verda special. They had a man killed, just about every day in that mines”.

Before the first world war, it was not uncommon for a man to be fired for the act of complaining about or reporting safety violations. Coal dust itself wasn’t even listed as a hazard to miner’s health until after the 1950’s. In fact, coal dust was originally claimed to be good for miners because it “prevented tuberculosis”*. “Do’c, I’m spitting up coal dust. ‘Ah, that’s good for you, that coal dust is medicine.” Until 1968, only silicosis was recognized as a miners occupational disease.

It’s hard to overstate what this dust inhalation did to a miner’s body. A veteran miner sometimes looked like an animated corpse late in life. A funeral home director in the Appalachian region mentioned that, thanks to the embalming process, “A lot of times they look healthier after they die than they did before they die.” Spouses would come in and observe the cold body of their loved one laid out on a slab and remark that they “look like [they] looked twenty-five years ago…thirty years ago…when we first got married”. As the industry evolved, mechanization made the dust issue worse- so just as work got easier, the long term effects got worse. The issue of black lung really can’t be overstated. The problem proved so pervasive that the UMW had to cut back their own health program because of cost- they couldn’t keep up. 68% of claims by KY miners were turned down even after laws were passed citing black lung as a recognized workplace hazard.

*Here’s a LINK to video of company doctors citing their sources for this claim

Coal Dust as Medicine, Pick & Shovel Days and living a life that gives you the nickname “Horse Shit Dan”


I’m dividing this into multiple parts. Next post I’ll dig into life in the coal camps and the interplay of some conflicting ideologies as they played influence on the people of the region.

Link to Part 2- Dark As a Dungeon
Link to Part 3- Dark As a Dungeon
Link to Part 4- Dark As a Dungeon


Comments are closed.