Monday, December 1, 2008

Coal Country

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go;
I owe my soul to the company store....~"Sixteen Tons"

The wealth and prosperity of America owes a great deal to coal mining, much of which historically has taken place in Pennsylvania. Having grown up watching shows like Roots, I was made deeply aware of the full range of injustices associated with slavery and racial prejudice towards those of African descent. The injustices suffered by people of European descent in the coal mines was not emphasized much at all during the course of my education. It was not until I married a Pennsylvanian and moved north that I really began to hear the horror stories of the company store and of the unsafe and unhealthy conditions under which even children were compelled to work. The Slavic, Slovak, Irish, and Welsh immigrants came willingly to America, looking for employment; they could not be bought and sold. However, the mining system in many ways was a form of indentured servitude. As one Pennsylvania historical website describes:

Operators tightly controlled most mines and patch towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They had power over families’ personal lives to a degree not found in most other Pennsylvania communities. They typically controlled employment, housing, local government officials, and most businesses in coal patches, as well as private police that patrolled towns. Operators also reduced wages to meet growing competition for shrinking markets, particularly during the 1920s. Most employers saw workers as a production cost to be cut as well as controlled. When miners went on strike or tried to organize unions, operators fought back hard by firing workers, bringing in strikebreakers to replace them, using private police to protect mine property and strikebreakers, and evicting miners and their families from company housing.
The working conditions were extremely hazardous, because of the two big engineering problems in mining coal underground:

  • A system to drain water from the mine
  • A system to ventilate the mine and to provide fresh air to the miners. A special problem in coal mines was the methane (a gas) that sometimes accompanied coal, and which could--and too often did--catch fire and explode.
Young boys often had to work to help feed their families, in conditions which were not healthy or safe even for adults. Workers were not given wages, but were paid in scrip. The scrip could only be used at a store owned by the mining company, who controlled the prices so that the workers would end up in debt just in order to eat and clothe themselves.

The Irish coal miners who came over after the Great Famine rebelled against the unfair treatment and there were some violent incidents, made famous by the film The Molly Maguires.

The injustices towards coal miners continued in Pennsylvania and other states into the twentieth century, long after slavery had been abolished elsewhere.



Unknown said...

Interesting post. Isn't it horrible that the Irish escaped the potato famine only to find themselves under slavery by the mining company. Despite being kicked around a lot, they always seem to keep that fighting spirit.

I think the actor, Charles Bronson is a former Slavic miner from Pa. I love Pa.'s so diverse.

cyurkanin said...

This post hits home for me, although not the Irish part. My parents came from Freeland and Shenandoah, both coal families. The Poles and the Slavs didn't care for the Irish there as they had come to control quite a bit of the society by the 1930's. My mother used to tell me about them wearing their fancy suits and carnations - clean as whistles - while the newer immigrants were always stained black. A real seperation of classes.
A coalminer's life was short and often hellish, both my grandfathers died of black lung. My dad was in the fields picking through the slate for coal (and huckleberries) by the time he was four.
A true picture of the horrors of a coalminers life was presented well in "Lust For Life," where Kirk Douglas played Van Gogh.

Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, the boys in that picture remind me of Filipino street children who also start working when they are very young. It's terrible to make any children labour under such conditions.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

This is so grey, it reminded me of a question "abordée" on French television yesterday:

It was claimed that P. Joseph OFMCap, the grey eminence of Cardinal Richelieu, was clad in "gris, pas marron", grey not brown thus.

I am sceptic. Is there pictoral evidence, or are they just going to literary evidences about the words "gris, grey, grå"?

In times when "black" could mean dark brown (as in negro, noir, or Latin niger - no offense to black gentlemen, my gramp called them "neger" and he was certainly no racist) beige may well have qualified as "grey". Oh, "chocolat noir" is still dark brown, and coffee without milk is still dark brown in optics and "café noir" in linguistics.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Confer the poem written as comment n° 12 on this writing prompt

Trade and economic issues said...

I like to read your blog, this the fist... so next .. permit read again.. smile for you