History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

This article tells the story of a coal miner and his life, beginning with his slow progress as a boy who starts in a breaker, and ends, an old man in the breaker. Perhaps many of the coal miners in the area can relate to this young man's experiences. It was experienced by a Rev. John McDowell in about 1902.

"I'm twelve years old, goin on thirteen," said the boy to the boss of the breaker. He didn't look more than ten, and he was only nine, but the law said he must be twelve to get a job. He was one of a multitude of the 16,000 youngsters in the mines, who, because miners' families are large and their pay comparatively small, start in the breaker before many boys have passed their primary schooling. From the time he enters the breaker there is a rule of progress that almost always followed. Once a miner and twice a breaker boy, the upward growth of boy to man, breaker boy to miner, the descent from manhood to old age, from miner to breaker boy: that is the rule.

So the nine-year old boy who is "twelve, goin on thirteen," starts in the breaker. He gets from fifty to seventy cents for ten hours' work. He rises at 5:30 o'clock in the morning, puts on his working clothes, always inundated with dust, eats his breakfast, and by 7 o'clock he has climbed the dark and dusty stairway to the screen room where he works. He sits on a hard bench built across a long chute through which passes a steady stream of broken down coal. From the coal he is assigned the duty of picking up the pieces of slate or rock.

It is not a hard life but it is confining and frustrating. Sitting on his uncomfortable seat, bending ever constantly over the passing stream of coal, his hands soon become cut and scarred by the sharp pieces of slate and coal, while his finger nails are soon worn totally down from contact with the iron chute.

The air he breathes is saturated with coal dust, and as a rule the breaker is severely hot in summer and tremendously cold in winter.

In many of the modern breakers, to be sure, steam heating pipes have been introduced into the screen rooms, and fans have been placed in some breakers to carry away the dust. But however favorable the conditions, the boy's life is a hard one. Yet is a constant introduction to what is to follow.

The ambition of every breaker boy is to enter the mines, and at the first opportunity he begins there as a door boy, never over fourteen years of age and often under. The work of the door boy is not so laborious as that in the breaker, but is more monotonous. He must be on hand when the first trip of cars enter in the morning and remain until the last comes out at night. His duty is to open and shut the door as men and cars pass through the door, which controls and regulates the ventilation of the mine.

He is alone in the darkness and silence all day, except when other men and boys pass through his door. Not many of these boys care to read, and if they did it would be impossible in the dim light of their small lamp. Whittling and whistling are the boy's fundamental recreations. The door boy's wages vary from sixty-five to seventy-five cents a day, from which he provides his own lamp, cotton and oil.

Just as the breaker boy wants to be a door-boy, the door-boy wants to be a driver. When the mules are kept in the mines, as they usually are, the driver boy must go down the shaft in time to clean and harness his mule, bring him to the foot of the shaft and hitch him to a cluster of empty cars before seven o'clock. This collection of cars varies from four to seven according to the number of miners. The driver takes the empty cars to the working places and returns them loaded to the foot of the shaft. They are then hoisted to the surface and conveyed to the breaker when the coal is cracked, sorted and cleaned and made ready for the market. There are today ten thousand drivers in the anthracite coal mines. These boys are in constant danger, not only of falling roof and exploding gas, but of being crushed by the cars.

When the driver reaches the age of twenty he becomes either a runner or a laborer in the mines, more frequently the latter. The runner is a conductor who collects the loaded cars and directs the driver. The laborer is employed by the miner, subject to the approval of the superintendent, to load the cars with the coal which has been blasted by the miner. As a rule he is paid so much per car, and an exact number of cars comprising a days work. The number of cars vary at different mines--averaging from five to seven--equaling from twelve to fifteen tons of coal. The laborer's work is often made difficult by the water and rock, which are found in large quantities of coal veins.

Each laborer is looking forward to becoming a miner in the technical sense of the word, that is, the employer of a laborer. To do this a laborer must have had two years' experience in practical mining and be able to pass an examination before the district board. If he passes he becomes a contractor as well as a laborer. He enters into a contract with the company to do a certain work at so much per car or yard. He blasts all the coal, which involves judgment in locating the hole, skill in boring it, and care in preparing and determining the size of the shot. The number of blasts per day ranges from four to twelve, according to the size and nature of the vein. He is responsible for the propping necessary to sustain the roof.

According to the law the company operator must furnish the miner the needed props. But the miner must place them at such places as the mine boss chooses. Most of the boring is now done with hand machines. The miner furnishes his own tools and supplies. His powder, squibs, paper, soap and oil he is compelled to buy from the company, which employs him. His equipment includes the following tools--a hand machine for drilling, drill, scraper, needle, blasting barrel, crowbar, pick, shovel, hammer, sledge, cartridge pin, oil can, toolbox and lamp.

As a rule the miner rises at five a.m. and enters the mine shortly after six. In some cases he is obligated to walk a mile or more underground to reach his place of work. He spends from eight to ten hours a day in the mine. Taking 300 days as the possible working time in a year, the anthracite miner's daily pay for the past twenty years will not average over $1.60 per day, and that of the laborer not over $1.35.

It is an endless routine of a dull sluggish world from nine years until death--consists of a sort of voluntary life imprisonment. Few escape. Once they begin, they continue to live out their routine, ignoring their daily danger, knowing nothing better.

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