Working the Coal Mines

Coal Mine Life

For the previous 200 hundred years in West Virginia, coal from the coal mines was the number one resource that everyone wanted. Everyone in every West Virginia town that we have visited worked for the coal mines, even if they were not coal miners.

Coal Miner’s Daughter

Coal Miner’s Daughter doesn’t describe me but does describe my mother. My grandfather and his father were both coal miners.  My great-grandfather’s immigration documents from Italy (well after the Civil War) state that his profession was a coal miner.  All my great uncles were coal miners. All their friends worked in the coal mines.  I grew up in a coal mine town east of Boulder Colorado. The location of the biggest mine in town was across the street from my house. I would often play where the coal mine used to be. My mother was always scolding me for playing in what I thought was an empty field. Several years after we moved, the street, almost in front of the house, collapsed into the abandoned mine. Here is a link to the story. Mine Collapse

Coal miner statue at the Beckely Mine Museum
Coal miner statue at the Beckley Mine Museum

On my father’s side of the family, there was also some coal mine ownership.  My father’s family history is way more confusing than my mother’s side of the family. At least that is how the legend goes. The story goes that Mike Fox owned a coal mine in Marshall Colorado named the Fox Coal Mine started in the 1870s finally closing in 1939. At the end of the story was that the mine changed hands several times and ownership was lost during the depression. These ancestors were also involved with hard rock gold, tungsten, and silver mines both in Boulder Canyon and to the west of Rollinsville.  When I was a child, my father took me to two of the old gold mines.

Life in the coal mines

I never appreciated how difficult coal miner’s lives were until I came to West Virginia.  When I was a Boy Scout I remember going into the coal mine in Erie Colorado. I am sure that I was wide-eyed and I remember going down the elevator cage into the mine. I was probably also trying to act cool and unimpressed at the time. Trying to be cool occupied much of my youth (unsuccessfully)

Old log cabin used in first half of 1800s
Log cabin used in the first half of the 1800s

I remember light bulbs strung on a wire on the ceiling. The lights were far enough apart that you could see about three lights from any one place. They were also far enough apart that unless you were standing under the bulb, they didn’t provide any useful light. While we were in the mine, I assume (I don’t remember) they turned the lights out for a brief moment just so we could experience the mine without any light.

I think that I also remember how dirty the mine was. I knew that when my grandfather and great uncles exited the mine that they all took cold showers and changed clothes, at the mine before they walked home. 

Kitchen at the miner's house.
The kitchen at the miner’s house.

My grandfather had a tool shed (converted outhouse) behind the house that held some of his personal mining equipment. He had a cotton hat and a carbide lantern that he would use to light his way through the mine. The hat was to hold the lantern so that he still had both hands to work and load the coal. These antiques are now on display at the coal miner’s museum in Lafayette.

The Beckley coal mine museum

In Beckley, West Virginia the town has turned a coal mine into a museum. The museum has indoor exhibits of coal mining equipment and a collection of buildings replicating part of a company-owned coal-mining town. The biggest part of the museum was that the town also turned the coal mine into a museum. In Beckley, you can go inside the mine.

The first and biggest thing they did to make the mine into a museum was to raise the ceiling. In this mine, the coal seam was about thirty inches high. That means that the ceiling of the mine was thirty inches high. It also means that from the time the miners went into the mine, until the time they came out, no one stood up. All the work inside this mine was done on hands and knees.

Thirty inch high coal seam.
Thirty-inch high coal seam.

The Simpson Mine

The first thing I looked up right after visiting the museum in Beckley was how thick the coal seam was at Simpson Mine in Lafayette. The information that I found said that the coal seam was between six and 14 feet thick. If this is true it means that my family did not have to spend all day without standing up (they were all short). While a six-foot ceiling was not ample, it was way better than a 30-inch ceiling.  At the other extreme, a 14-foot ceiling was very dangerous to the miners. Rocks falling from 14 feet can get moving really fast and can do some damage.

Coal camp church at the Beckley Mine Museum
Coal camp church at the Beckley Mine Museum

I don’t know for sure that my family worked at the Simpson mine in Lafayette Colorado. It was probably the mine they worked at. At the same time, there were four other mines in Lafayette and it is likely that they worked in all of them at one time or another. The Simpson was seven blocks east of my great-grandfather’s house. There were other coal mines, only a couple of miles away. At that time, a couple of miles was considered easy walking distance. 

Stained glass windows inside a church converted into a coffee house.
Stained glass windows inside a church converted into a coffee house.

Mine towns

In West Virginia, at a coal mine, the town was a company-owned town. Sometimes this was called a closed camp. The mine owned everything and this means that the miners lived (and paid to live in) company housing. The miner’s also purchased company food at the company-owned store using company printed script that was only good at the store (rather than real money). The miners were paid as little as possible. 

Living room at the miner's house.
A living room at the miner’s house.

The going wage at the mine was about ten cents per ton. Less in earlier years. Some coal mines paid a little more and most paid less. If you didn’t load coal going out of the mine you didn’t get paid. Also if you didn’t load fast enough you were fired and replaced with a more industrious miner.  Only a few of the mineworkers had jobs that didn’t involve loading coal.

Sixteen Tons

The song Sixteen Tons describes the situation perfectly. The song shows the wages for loading sixteen tons of coal into the mine cart didn’t cover the expenses of working in the company town. “Sixteen tons and what do you get; another day older and deeper in debt.” The mine owners attempted to extract the wages back from the workers as a way to increase the profit for the mine. 

Two-ton coal car.
Two-ton coal car.

Mine owners were also known to replace workers with fresh ones who would work for less than the going wage for the mine. The mines even would fire workers (and kick them out of the camp) so that they would have to walk to the next mine and get a job working for less money. Sometimes the miners would have to exchange their script for real money. This was often done at a discount to further benefit the owner. As the song says, you really did owe your soul to the company store.

Lafayette

Lafayette didn’t start as a coal-mining town, rather it was the place of the Miller/Foote farm and stage-stop. It was founded as a 320-acre farm in 1863 and then divided up into a town in 1888. The coal mines in Lafayette started selling coal in 1888. I’m certain that the available jobs spurred land sales. By 1900 Lafayette was very popular and prosperous. Mary Miller started the town by dividing most of her holdings all east of Public Road. Locations west of Public Road were added to the town after 1888.

In Lafayette, the mine tried to be a company town working with the described model above. This eventually failed for several reasons. First of all, was that the mine didn’t own the town. The Millers sold both interests in the mine to investors and sold lots to anyone with enough money to buy them. The town was divided into private lots and had many owners.  I assume that there were two levels of workers, some who only worked and lived at the mine and others like my family who went to the mine to work.

Large bedroom at the superintendent's house.
Large bedroom at the superintendent’s house.

Another reason that the company town model failed was that there was more than one mine, with different owners, all within easy walking distance. Thus there was a competition for workers. Noncompany-owned commerce was all within walking distance. To get a closed camp, where the company owns everything, there needs to be more isolation. Some of the mines in nearby Erie and others were operated as closed camps.

Life in a mine town

Somehow, my great-grandfather in the late 1800s or early 1900s purchased nearly half a city block and gradually became a farmer (real big garden) rather than a coal miner. By this time, all his sons were still working in the mine. I mention this because the house my great grandfather lived in was two miner’s houses assembled into one. I am not sure how he got it, but moving the house was probably part of the purchase. Part of my reason for mentioning this is that at the Beckley Museum there was a nearly identical house.

Large bedroom at the miner's house.
Large bedroom at the miner’s house.

My grandfather and his father lived on Cannon Street which is the namesake of the Cannon Mine also about six blocks to the east. One of the first coal mines that my great grandfather worked at was in Canon City Colorado so he probably did not purchase the lot from the Miller family directly.

Ice box at the miner's house.
Icebox at the miner’s house.

One of the interesting stories about the founding of the city was that Mary Miller, as part of the land sales contracts, forbids any alcohol sales east of Public Road on the land she was selling. Thus all the bars were on the west side of the road. The reason given was that she was a member of the temperance movement. This doesn’t however jive with the records from 1866 – 1871 where Mary and Lafe Miller owned the Miller Tavern Ranch (a saloon) south of South Boulder Road.

Elevator Shaft display at the Beckley Mine Museum.
Elevator Shaft display at the Beckley Mine Museum.

My great-grandfather probably concluded that working in Lafayette was going to be better than staying in Canon City. Between 1888 and 1900 the population of Lafayette doubled. Between 1900 and 1910 the population doubled again.

Shanties

My great-grandfather’s house was small. It had four rooms. Each room was about 100 square feet. Under the house was a partial basement/partial crawl space. A small additional room was added to the house well before I was around. Eventually, they even added indoor plumbing and an indoor bathroom.

Behind my great-grandfather’s house (and across the street from my grandfather’s house) were shanties. The one behind my great-grandfather’s house was probably a collection of shanties, assembled together as one bigger shanty. By the time I was growing up, this shanty was used for storage. This shanty was much smaller than my motorhome and slept at least six adults.

Inside a large shanty at the Beckley Mine Museum
Inside a large shanty at the Beckley Mine Museum

The shanties across the street were stand-alone and much smaller single-room tiny houses. Each was about 60 square feet, perhaps smaller. While sitting on the bed you could cook dinner on the tiny coal-burning stove. In one step you could be out the door. One of my grandmother’s friends lived in one of these shanties and I visited often. The “community” outhouse was down the block.

In any coal-mining town

The buildings in these pictures are similar to the ones in Lafayette.  Any of these buildings could have been found in any coal mining town. The church seems to duplicate the ones in Lafayette. So does the superintendent’s house. A few of the houses in Lafayette were obviously much nicer than most of the houses of the same age in Lafayette.

Superintendent's house at Beckley Mine Museum
Superintendent’s house at Beckley Mine Museum

Lafayette was a town of coal miners. It was not a town of coal mine owners. They lived in Louisville, Boulder, and Denver. By the time I was growing up all the mines were closed and most of the mining equipment was either buried in the plugged mine or hauled off. Only the boarding house, miner’s houses, and shanties remained. While I was growing up they even started paving the streets.

At the Beckley museum, it seemed to me that most of the houses were the finest representative of the best found in a coal mine town. They were freshly painted and had more room and were way cleaner than anything I remember.  The church, schoolhouse, superintendent’s house, and all of the exterior buildings, even the shanties at the museum were bigger and nicer than the ones I remember.

Room and Board

Many miners were married and thus they had to rent a house from the mine for their family. Typically at many coal mines, one of the rooms in a miner’s house was full of beds for rent. Bachelors would sometimes rent a bed from a married couple. Generally, this was called room and board. It didn’t mean that the renter would get a whole room.

Coal burning stove inside a miners house.
A Coal-burning stove inside a miner’s house.

Room and board meant that the miner would have a place to sleep and meals.  The board part of “room and board” was named “board” because the meals were served on a wooden plank. A geographic bachelor may return to his wife on weekends. Other bachelors would rent a shanty or live in a company dorm room at the mine. 

Lunch Pails

For as long as I remember our family used the term lunch pail to describe a lunch box. I really didn’t know why until way later in life.  A lunch pail was what the miners would use to take their lunch down into the mine. Not until visiting the museum did I understand the contents of a lunch pail. It was a multiple-layer aluminum assembly of a lid (which served as a plate) one or two deep plates and a large pot all stacked together with a wire handle. Under the lid, the two plates would hold the food and the bottom part held water. If a miner didn’t bring everything he needed into the mine then he didn’t have it during the day.

Lunch pail sitting on petrified tree stumps.
Lunch pail sitting on petrified tree stumps.

Working the coal

Coal runs in a layer between layers of solid rock. Both the rock and the coal are sedimentary laid down at the bottom of ancient lakes. I remember seeing coal seams down by Coal Creek just south of and east of Lafayette. If the coal seam didn’t come to the surface it is unlikely that a mine would be found. Today sometimes coal seams are found by digging test holes and identifying the layers while digging a vertical shaft.  As coal miners dug out the coal seam they would follow the seam and extract about seventy-five percent of the coal along a seam in a grid pattern. The twenty-five percent of the coal the miners didn’t dig out remained and held up the rock layers above it like pillars hold up a roof of a big building.

Ideally, as the miners dig out the coal they create a grid pattern of tunnels each about eight feet wide.  From these tunnels, secondary tunnels are dug each extracting the coal in a new direction.  At first, only a single miner would dig a tunnel but if the mine and was big enough a crew was created to dig each tunnel. In each tunnel, the mine would lay a railroad track with small mining carts to extract the coal. Each cart would hold about one or two tons of coal.

Blasting

The first step in digging a coal seam is to bore holes using an auger, by hand, into the coal seam horizontally. These holes were about six feet deep into the coal seam. Next, an explosive charge was placed at the far end of each hole to break up the coal so that the miners could remove it. “Fire in the hole” was the warning call right before the miners lit the fuse.

I remember that my family would tell tales of how they would charge the hole by packing in an extra-large explosive. Usually, the tales would have some point where someone was surprised by the blast, or the blast was too big or maybe the charge did not go boom when it was supposed to.

Coal Loader in Thurmond
Coal Loader in Thurmond

Digging

After the blast, the miner’s work was to break up the larger chunks with a pick and load the cart. From there the cart was attached to donkeys or mules and they pulled the cart to the extraction point. In the Simpson mine, the coal was extracted by elevator. In the Simpson Mine, they used mules rather than donkeys because the ceiling was higher. The mules never saw the light of day. They spent their entire lives underground in the mine. At any one time in the Simpson mine, 400 miners and 40 mules removed coal as fast as they could. The exit of the mine was right next to the railroad track.

Rail cart entrance at the Beckley Mine Museum.
Rail cart entrance at the Beckley Mine Museum.

Dolly the mule

My grandfather had the job of guiding the mule pulling the cart. The other family members at the same time were preparing the next load. The only reason that my grandfather had the job of guiding the mule was that Dolly wouldn’t pull the cart for anyone else. 

West Virginia is not the first time we visited a coal mine town. In 2019 we stayed at a coal mine town converted into a state park in New Mexico. Here is the story if you missed it. Attacked by Hummingbirds

Links to places & history mentioned in this article.

Beckley coal mine museum

West Virginia Coal Mine History

Lafayette History

Simpson Mine in Lafayette Colorado

Lafayette History Simpson Mine

5 thoughts on “Coal Mine Life”

  1. My family were not miner’s but took their lunch to the fields in a lunch pail, not near as fancy. Grandma used 1 gallon lard tins.
    When I was in high-school I worked with a man who had worked as a coal miner as a child. He was the ugliest person I have ever seen. Mainly due to the scars on his face and misshapen ears. After working with him a few days and learning that he was a kind and gentle sole, I asked what had happened. He told me of working in a coal mine where he had to crawl in on his belly, when the dust got thick it would ignite burning any exposed skin, resulting in the scars and the loss of most of his ears.

  2. In the late ’40s & early ’50s, during strikes coal trucks still hauled 100# bags of coal into the Denver area to sell.

    Dad & his brothers would throw bags of coal off each truck to miners & families, especially in winter.

    Until the mines couldn’t generate enough income to keep the water pumps running. The mine flooded & that was the end. Everybody, miners & my ancestors, were then put out on the streets.

  3. I am glad you brought up Coal Miner’s daughter because that is the first thing I think of when I heard the words, Coal Miner. Being from TN, I did not realize there were coal mines in Colorado.

    I think it is glorious of God to knit our lives together.
    What you learned as a child, now intrigues you and completes the story as an adult.

    A coal miner seemed like such a dreadful life with the inhaling of the dust and cramped quarters. The paid little money reminds me of the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary tour in TN.

    I never heard of the temperance movement before, thank you for continuing to educate this old lady.

    WOW, a lunch pail and room and board have whole new meanings for me, now.

    I have to admit I have never toured or been in a coal mine. Plenty of caves, just not a mine. I am now inspired to add it to my bucket list.

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