Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. The following is
taken from The American Monthly Review of Reviews, November, 1902. Some
editing has been done
There are two classes of accidents,-those
which damage the mine, and those which injure the workmen. The disasters
to the mine are the great explosions and extended falls, which bury
the workings in a mass of rock and coal, and render them difficult to
reopen; for when the roof is destroyed by the breaking up of the rock
strata, it is only possible to hold it up by timbering. Mines are flooded
by an inrush of water from abandoned workings in upper beds, and, in
the Wyoming Valley, they are often lolled with quicksand and gravel
from pot holes; but the most serious of all disasters is a fire. There
is much woodwork within a mine, and when this is set on fire it ignites
the coal. There two ways of extinguishing a fire, by sealing from the
air, and by flooding with water. The former is a tedious and uncertain
process, as the coal may smoulder for months and burst out afresh on
the admission of air. To fill a large mine with water, pump it out,
and repair the damage to gangways takes from ten months to a year and
a half, and the expense incurred is enormous. There are two classes
of fatalities; the great disasters, in which a large number of men lose
their lives; and the minor accidents, which occur day after day, of
which the public takes no notice, but whose aggregate number is far
greater than the former. In the thirty-two years since the anthracite
mine law was passed more than ten thousand persons have lost their lives
in and about the mines; but there have been few great disasters,-the
men simply fell out one by one or two and three in a group; and if,
as was frequently the case, the victim was a Slav, with no relatives
in America, the boarding boss refused to receive his body, saying "
Dead Hungarian no good," and the corpse was sent to a medical college
for the dissecting table.
Mine accidents are caused by the explosion
or inhalation of gas, by blasting, by fall of roof, or by miscellaneous
causes, such as being crushed between cars, falling down shafts, and
being kicked by mules. During last year half of the fatal accidents
occurred in the "breasts" by the fall of rock or coal.
Here will arise a natural inquiry,---
Why, since so much damage results from fire and explosion, are not safety
lamps used instead of naked lamps? There is a wide misapprehension concerning
a safety lamp. It is not an illuminating lamp, but a test lamp. The
principle of the "Davy" is in every school book of physics.
It is that a flame enclosed in wire gauze will not ignite the gas outside
of the lamp; but the gas will burn within the gauze, thus disclosing
its presence. The light furnished by it is dim; and if the flame is
strong enough to heat the wire to a red heat, it will in turn ignite
the gas outside, thus becoming an element of danger.
Electric lighting has been tried, and
does well in mines free from gas; but in gaseous mines there is too
much danger, as a mine is such a rude place that the wire is apt to
be broken, letting loose the electric sparks.
The body of mine law in
the statute books of Pennsylvania may be said to be a monument to the
Avondale victims. The Avondale disaster, which occurred in 1869, was
the first of those accidents resulting in a large loss of life with
which the country has unfortunately become familiar. The Avondale mine
was, compared with the great operations of to-day, a small affair. It
was ventilated by a furnace at the bottom of the shaft, the shaft itself,
with a tall chimney stack at its mouth,
forming the ventilating flue. Over the mouth of the shaft was the breaker,
and the mine had no other opening. One morning the furnace draught ignited
the timbers which separated the flue from the carriage way, the flames
caught in a load of hay which was descending by the carriage, and leaped
to the top, where they set fire to the breaker, which burned fiercely
for several hours, the mass of ruins covering the top of the shaft.
In the mine were one hundred and eight men. It was two days before the
imprisoned miners could be reached, the first of the rescuing party
falling dead as they plunged into the body of "white damp"
which filled the mine. When they were finally found, behind barriers
which they had built in a vain attempt to keep out the gas, they were
all dead,- not by fire, nor yet by explosion, but by suffocation.
The mine laws provide that no breaker
shall be built nearer than two hundred feet from the mouth of the shaft;
that every mine shall have a second opening for the escape of the men
in case anything happens to the main shaft, and that mines shall be
ventilated by fan instead of the inadequate and dangerous furnace. In
addition to these radical measures, there are laws regulating to a minute
degree the entire management of the mines with reference to the health
and safety of the workmen,-such as rules limiting the amount of powder
which may be stored in a mine; the distance which a miner's lamp must
be kept from the powder, and the kind of oil used in the lamps; rules
regulating the working of the breaker, and all other machinery; requiring
the operators to furnish props, to fit up wash-houses for the miners'
use, to provide stretchers and ambulances, and to use all possible effort
to take out entombed bodies. The enforcement of all the regulations
is under the supervision of State inspectors.
The latest laws are those abolishing company
stores, requiring the operators to pay the men every two weeks on demand,
and requiring miners to have certificates. The last law was aimed at
the immigrants from Austria and Poland.
THE OUTSIDE OF A COLLIERY.
The external works of a
mine are but a fraction of the mine itself. A colliery externally is
a hole in the ground, with an unimpressive building over it containing
the hoisting and pumping machinery, and near by the breaker, with its
attendant culm pile. The breaker is a feature of the landscape,-its
size, its uniform black color, softened to gray by distance; its peculiar
shape, unlike any other building in the world, and the long hill of
refuse called the culm pile, make it an object that challenges attention.
A roar of machinery emanates from it; and a cloud of black dust, pouring
from a multitude of broken windows' envelopes it and blackens everything
in its neighborhood. Its shape follows architectural principles, in
that it strictly conforms to its uses. The coal is hoisted to the top
of the breaker tower, where it is crushed between powerful toothed rollers;
after which it falls into screens graded from fine to coarse; thence
it travels through chutes, where the slate is picked out by boys; and,
finally, falls into pockets at the bottom of the breaker, and thence
into cars ready for the trip to the seaboard.
A breaker is often 100 or 150 feet high,
has a capacity of from 1,200 to 1,500 tons daily, and costs from $90,000
to $125,000 to build. The culm pile, which is as high or higher, is
composed of the dirt and coal too fine for use, and is shaped like a
prolonged A tent. Upon the top is a track on which runs a mine -car
pulled by a mule, a small locomotive, or often running by gravity. The
culm pile is originally a high trestle with a track upon its top. Through
the trestle the culm is dropped until it is filled to the top and spreads
out in a long slope on either side. The tracks are extended upon this
hill until the culm covers many acres, sometimes so encroaching upon
a mining village that houses must be removed to make way for it. The
culm piles contain much coal which escaped the scrutiny of the slate
pickers, as well as the fine sizes which passed through the screens.
It is the habit of the women and children to pick coal from those shining
black slopes, and in time of a strike the miners themselves seek the
culm piles with bags and baskets. These hills are frequently on fire,
and burn for years. At night a burning culm pile is a mass of blue,
orange, and red embers, which forms a beautiful spectacle that may be
seen for miles. It not infrequently occurs that tramps, seduced by the
pleasant warmth of one of these smouldering hills, lie down to sleep
upon the culm, and are suffocated by carbonic acid gas.
In the early days of mining, ''chestnut
" was the smallest marketable size of coal; everything smaller
was dumped upon the culm pile. Now since what are called the "junior
sizes, "-pea," buckwheat," and even "rice"
and "bird's-eye,"-are largely used, it has become the practice
to work over the old culm piles by the "washeries," where
the culm is screened and cleaned by water, so that a large percentage
of coal is obtained, although it is of inferior quality, some of it
having been mined twenty or even thirty years ago, and having suffered
from exposure to the air.
Culm is also beginning to be used for
flushing back into the mines,-that is, it is mixed with water and poured
into the mines, when it immediately fills the worked-out chambers. After
it has become settled, and the water is pumped out, it forms a solid
mass, which supports the roof, so that the pillars can be taken out.
A COAL BREAKER--MINE EMPLOYEES
The employees in the 363 collieries
of the anthracite coal region in the year 1900 numbered 143,826. This
is according to the latest report of the Bureau of Mines. The newspaper
are somewhat in excess.
A breast is generally worked by four men,---two
miners and two laborers; each miner calls his partner his "butty,"
the laborers are also "butties " to each other. The miners
have a contract with the operator to work the breast at a certain price
per car, the miners to furnish tools and powder, and to pay the laborers.
It is their business to cut the coal, to direct the opening and advance
of the breast, and to prop the roof. No miner can be employed who has
not a certificate; in order to obtain which he must have had two years'
experience as a laborer in the mines of the State, and must be able
to answer, before the mine examining board, at least twelve questions
in the English language pertaining to the requirements of a practical
A miner's day's work is done when he has
cut enough coal to fill the cars assigned him by the mine boss. He may
do this in three or four hours, when he goes home to smoke his pipe
and talk politics, leaving the laborers to load the cars and clean up
the breast ready for the next day's work. The miner likes his job,-his
place is cool in summer and warm in winter, the hours are short, the
labor light, and the element of danger is never calculated upon. It
is upon the mine laborer that the hardest work falls, and he receives
little more than half as much as the miner.
Of the employees about one-fourth are
boys. The law forbids the employment of boys under the age of fourteen
inside or under twelve outside a mine. The boys inside drive and tend
the mules which pull the coal cars, and open and shut the many doors
in the dark labyrinths. Outside they work in the breaker as slate pickers.
A person of humane instincts cannot contemplate with calmness these
children kept out of school and forced to such grim and tedious work.
In the great labor parades of 1900 large companies of these children
marched through the streets; it was a holiday for them, and, with the
exuberance of childhood, which even the hard conditions of their lives
could not crush, they were shouting and whistling. They carried banners
on which were inscribed sentiments like these:
"What our fathers were we will be also."
"Give our fathers justice and we can go to school."
"We need schooling but must work."
"Abolishment of the young slaves."
"Our mothers are up at 5 P. M. (sic) to get our scanty' meals."
Those poor little banners, with their
badly-spelled legends, were not ridiculous but touching, for they revealed
a state of affairs that even dwellers in the coal regions are not accustomed
to consider. The miner is the unit of the mine labor question. The wage
scale, fixed by the car, is the basis of payment. The other labor of
a mine,-the opening and timbering of gang ways, the laying of tracks,
the cutting of tunnels through rock,-is known as "dead work,"
and is paid for on a different basis,-by the day or by the yard. It
is not considered mining at all.
NATIONALITY OF EMPLOYEES.
There has been a great change in the
personnel of the anthracite mine employees within twenty years. Formerly
Ireland, England, and Wales furnished the sinew which produced the coal.
Many of the men had worked in mines in their native land, lying upon
their backs as they plied their picks in the thin seams of the English
and Welsh collieries.
After the great strike of 1877 the coal
operators, who looked abroad for relief from the power of the labor
unions, found a new race of workmen in the peasants of the Austrian-Hungarian
monarchy, and the Poles and Lithuanians of the neighboring Russian provinces.
To-day the Irishman, Welshman, and Englishman, if he is in the mines
at all, occupies a clerical position or that of a boss. Most of them
have gone into of other businesses. Many of the clergymen, judges, lawyers
and business men of Pennsylvania have come from the coal mines. A candidate
for governor at the present time was a slate picker in his boyhood.
There is no better chance of promotion anywhere than in the mining business,-from
slate picker to laborer, to miner, to mine boss, to mining engineer
or State inspector to superintendent of collieries, to operator,- ail
positions are open to intelligence and industry. The miners and laborers
of to-day, brutish and uncouth as they appear, with their old-world
customs and their unpronounceable names, are already on the upward trend.
They have learned English; they have learned mining; they have become
naturalized. The city reporters who swarm into the mining region during
strikes, taking snap-shot pictures and writing snap-shot opinions utterly
fail to comprehend the conditions of these foreigners. They see rude
unpainted shanties, barefooted women with gay kerchiefs on their heads
exchanging greetings with their neighbors in six languages; they see
men and women gleaning their coal from the culm piles; or they peep
into bare rooms, whose one adornment is an Icon or picture of a Russian
saint or martyr, and cry, "Behold the poverty of the coal miner!"
They mistake these mining villages for "slums." Now, in fact,
this apparent destitute condition is a thing of choice, for these people
live scantily in order to put their wages into the savings banks, and
at present hundreds of them are drawing their money from the banks and
going to the old country to live in comfort the balance of their lives.
In the old times "pay day " in a mining town was a synonym
for a rush of business in the stores; today the merchants complain that
it brings them little increase of trade from the Slav miners. But not
only the Slav villages, but the thousands of comfortable houses in the
coal regions, are miners' homes, and the thousands of well-dressed people
who throng the streets are miners' families. The present difficulty
about hours and wages arises from the fact that there are too many men
in the business,---that is, the cost of production is divided among
too many employees, and the same is true of the hours necessary to keep
up the supply of coal demanded by the market.
THE SEPARATION OF THE TITLE OF THE SURFACE FROM THAT
OF THE COAL BEDS.
In most of the world a man who buys
a piece of land buys from the "top of the sky to the center of
the earth." In the coal regions, as a rule, he buys the surface
only, the coal is "reserved,"-that is, it has long ago been
sold or leased. The exceptions are those lands which have been kept
for higher prices. The owner of a small lot has no object in refusing
to sell the coal beneath it, for he knows that the coal operator will
mine around it, leaving it as a pillar. Not long ago warrants were taken
out for the coal beneath the Susquehanna River and the public roads.
The city of Wilkesbarre owns a park the coal beneath which is unsold,
and there is occasional agitation about selling the coal to improve
The question will arise, "Is it not
unsafe to live above a coal mine,-does not the earth open and swallow
up houses and people ?" We answer, Yes and no. On the outcrop,
along the foot of the mountains which enclose Wyoming Valley, are many
"caves" or "cave holes" 50 or 60 feet in diameter
and 20 or 30 feet deep. They have been caused by the break in the roof
of a mine in the upper coal bed, when the earth rushed down to fill
the hole like sand rushing out of an hourglass.
The upper bed has long ago been worked
out, the falls have already taken place, and the surface settled permanently,
so that at the present time there is rarely a fall. It is a well-established
belief that the land is much safer after a cave than before. There are
strange and grewsome tales connected with the time when these caves
were made. A boy was riding a mule on a canter from the mine to the
stable when the mule stumbled and the boy flew over his head. He picked
himself up and turned around to find himself on the brink of a cave
which had opened behind him, and into which the mule had fallen and
perished in the crumbling, sliding earth. People have fallen into these
caves and escaped through mine gangways into which they opened, and
not long since a woman going out in the morning to milk the cow found
that a section of the pasture had fallen and the cow was quietly chewing
her cud at the bottom of a cave hole. Except at the outcrop, the surface
is seldom disturbed. The coal beds lie so deep that entire mines might
fall in, and long before the surface would be affected the rock strata
would have become fixed in new positions.
The business of mining coal is peculiar,
in that every pound sold reduces the capital of the operator. The coal
beds have a limit, which is already in sight. The coal operator resembles
a farmer who should first sell the grass from his meadows, then the
sod, and finally the soil. The coal operator has already sold the outcrop,
which is equivalent to the grass; and has largely exhausted the upper
coal beds, which is equivalent to the sod. He is now working the lower
beds; and when they are gone, all will be gone. The time at which the
coal fields will be exhausted is estimated at about fifty years. To
carry out the agricultural figure, we may call the utilizing of the
culm banks by washeries and the reopening of abandoned mines as a sort
of aftermath. The policy of controlling the output results in strikes
and other disasters, while mining to the fullest capacity would hasten
the exhaustion of the coal. These are the Scylla and Charybdis of the
operators. The foundation of the coal trust was laid in the years between
1860 and 1871, when nearly all of the three hundred thousand acres of
coal lands were bought or leased by the great companies. Coal land is
now worth from two to three thousand dollars an acre. As the price rose
the companies leased the coal instead of buying the land. Coal leases
are drawn on the basis of a royalty per ton of mined coal, which varies
from ten to fifty cents. There is also in every case a minimum clause,-that
is, the operators obligate themselves to pay a stated sum per year whether
any coal is mined or not.
It will thus be seen what an enormous investment
the great corporations have in lands, some of which have lain idle for
forty years, and will not be mined for fifty years longer, while the
minimum royalty sticks to the lessees like the "old man of the
sea. " A recent decision of the Supreme Court of the State obliges
them to pay the minimum as long as they occupy the land, although they
pay for the coal many times over. In addition to this great investment
is the expense of opening and keeping in repair the mines, the building
of breakers and other machinery, the expenses of cars, mules, and the
wages of the men. The item of repairs may mean the rebuilding of a burned
breaker or the reopening of a flooded mine, either of which will take
the earnings of several years. The profits of five years were spent
by one company in draining a "drowned mine;" while another
spent three years, at an outlay of one hundred thousand dollars, in
over coming a "fault."
The coal monopoly failed in so far as
controlling the coal market was concerned on account of the competition
of bituminous coal, whose field is practically unlimited, which is more
cheaply mined, does not need to be broken, and bears a universal royalty
of only ten cents a ton when mined.
The coal-carrying companies look for relief
from the burden of their stupendous investments in the mining business
to their tolls as carriers, notwithstanding which some of them have
been for a long time on the verge of bankruptcy.