History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     Some time ago ( April 25, 2002) the writer portrayed a short story concerning Phillip Francis and his experiences in a coal mine. Mr. Francis stated that he went to work in the mines at a very young age. The story this week is “fiction” but very interesting. It concerns the youngsters who did not have a normal life, that life beginning at a very young age in the coal mines. This narrative (date unknown) describes life prior to the child labor laws.

     Our warm friend, “Mr. Coal,” tells us:

     I lay snug and comfortable for many years, way down in the middle of a large mountain, until I grew into a great big coal.

     One day a sharp steel pick cut through the rocks and I was pulled down from my bed and fell to the ground. All was so dark, I could have seen nothing if it had not been for tiny lamps which two men wore on their caps. The men were miners, digging for coal.

     My former neighbor, old “Mr. Wise Coal,” soon fell beside me. He used to tell about the great world outside, where every one, to be really good, must make someone else happy. When he heard the picks he said, “We are going there now, and we will make some children and grownups warm and comfortable. But I am sad when I think of the little boys who must help take us there. Watch to see what happens and you will understand.”

     A coal car, drawn by mules, came along. I thought they must be men, who threw us in and drove the mules; but on looking closely I found that one of them was a boy about 12 years old. My companion shook his head. “It is only half past seven o’clock in the morning. Boys of that age should be eating breakfast should be eating breakfast and getting ready for school,” he said.

     Driving through the mine we came to a big trap door. “When men work in mines, air is forced in to them from the outside,” said old “Mr. Wise Coal.” “The trap doors must be kept closed so that the air will go where the men are working. Boys open and close these trap doors for the cars to pass from one chamber to the other. They are called trapper boys.

     “Look back and see how lonely this one is,” said “Mr. Coal.” “I heard him cough and tell one of the drivers that medicine didn’t help him anymore. The mine was so damp, he always got a new cold.”

     The next trapper boy we passed was John. John wanted to go to school but his parents made him work. They didn’t know that he could earn better wages later, if he went to school now. The trap door was the nearest thing to a blackboard he had, so he drew pictures on that. John liked birds, and couldn’t see any our-of-doors, because it was dark evenings when he left the mine. So he drew them on the trap door, and played they were alive and wrote on the door, “Don’t scare the birds!” And this was all the fun he had.

     As we came out of the mine we met James. They call him “a greaser” because he has to keep the axles of the car greased so that they run smoothly. He had grease all over himself and his clothes.

     Next we met Harry. He does odd jobs about the mine. When he first started at work, he wanted to go to school, but now he does not care. He is too tired to think about it, even.

     At last our car full of coal came to a building, called a “coal breaker.” Here the coal was put into great machines, and broken into pieces the right size for burning. The pieces rattled down through long chutes, at which the breaker boys sat. These boys picked out the pieces of slate and stone that cannot burn. It’s like sitting in a coal bin all day long, except that the coal is always moving; and clattering and cuts their fingers. Sometimes the boys wear lamps in their caps to help them see through the thick dust. They bend over the chutes until their backs ache, and they get tired and sick because they have to breathe coal dust instead of good, pure air.

     Hundreds and hundreds of boys work in the mines and in the breakers from early morning until evening, instead of going to school and playing outdoors. Do you suppose the little fellows sitting all alone in the deep coal mine, or bending over the chutes, ever think of the merry children sitting around the burning coal? The bright room is better than the dark mine. The happy talk is better than the silence. The warm fire glow is better than the cold.

     Do you suppose that the happy children made warm by the coal ever think of the boys who helped to get it ready for them? Do you think of the children who make medicine bottles in glass factories and cotton dresses in mills and tenement homes?

     Sometimes fathers and mothers are so busy taking care of their own children - the children round the fire at home - that they forget the others - the children in the mines and factories.

     Present-day child laws state that no person under the age of sixteen (16) may be employed by any institution/school/Central Office of the Tennessee Board of Regents. Minors who are sixteen (16) or seventeen (17) may be employed under the following conditions:

A. This employment must not interfere with the minor's health or well-being.

B. If the minor is enrolled in school, this employment may not be during those hours when the minor is required to attend class.

C. A minor must have a 30-minute unpaid break or meal period if scheduled to work 6 hours consecutively. However, the break or meal period may not occur during or before the first hour of scheduled work activity.


Time Line

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