The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Coal Mining In The 1920's

By Theodore R. (Ted) Rorrer © 1984

Issue: May, 1984

Lots of people used to go to West Virginia to work in the mines. Few people visit the mines and have no idea what they are like. Back in the 1940's, I gave a program at the Madison, North Carolina Rotary Club covering how coal was mined around 1920.

(The following is a typed transcript of that program.)

Last week C.P. telephoned and asked me to take the program for Thursday. I immediately thought of something very important for Thursday and told him I couldn't make it but would take the program some other time. He said, "Good, we'll book you for next Thursday." For the past week I have planned to come to Stoneville and felt very much like the fellow going to town. A friend of mine met him and asked him where he was going. He said he was going to town and, "every time I go to town I get just as drunk as can be. Gosh, how I do dread it."

I told C.P. it scared the hell out of me just to think about trying to speak. He said that was all right. Woodrow Wilson turned white one time on the speakers platform. His friends wanted to know if he was ill. He said no, just scared.

As a last resort, I told C.P. I was no speaker. He told me soothingly that it was all right. The boys had heard some pretty bad programs and didn't expect much.

C.P. told me to pick my own subject. I tried to think of something you knew very little about and decided on coal mining.

The two grades of coal with which most of us are familiar are Anthracite or hard coal and Bituminous or soft coal. Though here we use the bituminous coal almost exclusively.

Carbon is the most important element in coal and the kind of coal is determined by the amount of carbon it contains. Roughly, the following figures apply:

90-98% Carbon, Anthracite or hard coal.
85-90% Carbon, Semi-Anthracite.
60-85% Carbon, Bituminous or soft coal.
50-60% Carbon, Lignite.
Under 50% Carbon, Peat.

There are three types of common mines - Shaft, Drift and Slope. A shaft mine goes straight down for several hundred feet and then extends out on somewhat of a level. The slope mine may go down for hundreds of feet but they are often sloping enough that a motor may be used for hauling the coal. In a shaft mine the men as well as the coal are hauled up and down in a sort of elevator. A Drift mine is one that starts from the side of a mountain and extends straight back on somewhat of a level. The most of the mines which I worked in and near were of the Drift type and this is the kind we will discuss.

Let's suppose that a vein of coal has been discovered and is to be mined. First a Branch Line Railroad will be run from the main line to the camp site. Second, a Commissary or Company Store will be built. Third, houses will be built for the miners. Fourth, a Tipple will be built. The Tipple serves as a storage place for coal and is where the railroad cars are loaded.

At one place where I worked there were five veins of coal between the level of the creek and the top of the mountain. Often there is only one vein. The law requires that the top vein of coal be mined first. Otherwise, there would be danger from a break through. Sometimes the vein of coal is very thin and will be referred to as "low coal". Again it may be several feet thick. A vein that is five feet or more is considered good. Seven to nine feet is very good and is referred to as "high coal".

The mining operation is started by cutting a tunnel into the mountain. The beginning or opening of the tunnel is referred to as the "Drift Mouth." The tunnel will probably be around 30 feet wide and the height will depend somewhat on the thickness of the vein of coal.

This tunnel will be called the "main heading" and will extend or be driven as far back as the coal is to be removed. Sometimes they cut through to the opposite side of the mountain. Where I worked was about three miles under the mountain but it did not cut through.

Often a cutting machine is used to make the coal load more easily. This is a machine equipped with an electric motor and has a huge bar or arm about 8 feet long. A heavy chain extends around this arm and is equipped with bits somewhat like saw teeth. This arm is sunk into the coal by means of pulleys and is carried across the face of the coal in the same manner. It cuts a strip about 8 feet deep and four inches high across the face of the heading. Holes are then drilled above this cut and dynamite or some similar explosive is fired to break up the coal. After using a cutting machine, the coal is much more easily shot down and the miner has a smooth surface on which to shovel.

The average mining car will hold about four tons and is low and broad so it may be loaded easily. It is run on a track and is brought as closely to the coal as possible. The miner uses a pick to break up the larger lumps and loads the car with a shovel. These cars are usually pulled either by mules or electric motors. Sometimes mules are used for short hauls until several cars are gotten together and then an electric motor is used to haul the coal to the outside.

Quite often a vein of slate and sandstone rock runs above and below the vein of coal. The man loading the coal throws this out as much as possible. The coal is carried to the outside of the mine in cars and is usually dumped there and carried to the tipple by a conveyor line. Men are stationed along the conveyor line who pick out any remaining pieces of slate or any other foreign substance so that we find very little rock or slate in the coal we burn.

The tipple is usually built up on the side of a hill or in the hollow between two hills. The coal feeds into it by a conveyor line and is either stored or loaded into railroad cars. Here is where the coal is run over screens and graded to size such as lump, egg, nut and slack. Often it is not screened at all and we get what is termed "run of mine". The concrete tipple at Lynch, Kentucky was the largest in the world at the time it was built. It had a dumping capacity of around 30 tons a minute and a storage bin that would hold nearly a million pounds of coal or enough to load 100 railroad cars. At that time Lynch had a population of from 10,000 to 12,000 and was one of the largest mining camps in the country. A mining camp or town differs from a regular town. The mining camp may have a theater, bank, cafe, post office, and one store. These are owned by the coal company. There is no manufacturing or competitive business places. They generally have one or more churches and usually a good school. Everything stays dingy or soiled from coal dust and if you undertake to wear a white shirt without your coat, you will likely have to change twice a day.

The inside of a coal mine is laid off somewhat like the streets of a town. In the town you have a main street and in the mine a main street is called the main heading. This main heading extends as far as the vein of coal is to be mined. Then side streets branch off and these also extend to the end of the vein of coal. Streets are cut through from one to another so that it is finally cut up into blocks similar to a town. Then additional streets called rooms are cut through until it is eventually a network of pillars and tunnels. The reason it is mined in this manner is so that some coal is left as pillars to hold up the mountain. The miners place wooden posts around where they work to help hold up the loose coal, slate and sandstone. These posts range in size from four to 15 inches through. The last work done in a mine is called "pulling pillars". This is taking out the pillars of coal that, helped hold up the top. This work is extremely dangerous as the top comes down as soon as the coal is removed. Lots of men like pillar work because the coal loads easier due to the pressure of the mountain causing it to crumble and break. It does not require so much shooting and picking to break it up.

The inside of a mine is not level by any means. The vein of coal goes up and down hill just about like ordinary land. Water gathers in the low places or hollows and has to be pumped out by electric pumps.

Huge fans are placed near the Drift Mouth that force fresh air into the mine. Brattices are built across certain headings so that the air will be forced to circulate to all parts of the mines.

There are both gas and dust explosions. In some mines gas will accumulate. They are inspected carefully and all precautions taken but sometimes a heavy pocket of gas is hit and becomes ignited. This together with the gas already accumulated in the mines immediately causes an explosion. Fine particles of coal dust settle over everything and during a period of years this fine dust will become quite thick. Sometimes when a shot is fired this dust is stirred up and starts to burn. This immediately starts a draft that stirs up the other dust and the result is an explosion. Either kind of explosion usually stops the fans and the miners die for lack of air. The gas left from an explosion is called "Black Damp."

Coke is almost pure carbon left after Bituminous coal has been partially burned. It produces a very hot fire and burns with practically no smoke or ashes.

It used to be produced in rows of large ovens similar to brick kilns. The coal was ground to dust and burned in these ovens until everything but the pure carbon was removed.

Later chemists discovered the part they were destroying was worth more than the actual coke. Now it is produced in special plants where nothing is wasted. The number of things which are produced from coal is almost unbelievable. A few of them are: Tar, Pitch, Sulphate of Ammonia, Benzene, Gasoline, Oil, Dyes, Medicines, Plastics, Flavoring Extracts and Nylon.

Mining work is very dangerous and men are killed quite frequently. From 2,000 to 3,000 miners are killed annually and many times this number are hurt. Of course explosions take their share. The mines are full of electric wires and people get electrocuted. A small railroad line is necessary in the mine to haul coal and people are killed by the motor and cars. Slate falls account for some and operating a cutting machine is quite hazardous. Lumps of slate called kettle bottoms fall out of the top without warning and huge pieces of slate called "horsebacks" peel off and fall with very little warning.

We think of coal being confined to just a few states. However, it is found in quantity in 28 states. I have the production for five of the leading states in 1937.

Pennsylvania-Bituminous - 111 Million Tons
Pennsylvania-Anthracite - 51 Million Tons
Pennsylvania Total - 162 Million Tons
West Virginia - 118 Million Tons
Illinois - 51 Million Tons
Kentucky - 47 Million Tons
Ohio - 25 Million Tons

Total production 1937 was 500 million tons. Production for 1943 was 575 million tons, a gain of 15% over 1937.

We hear some talk about what we will do after our coal supply is used up. Figures on this may be interesting but they are almost beyond comprehension. The world's supply is estimated at 7 trillion, 397 billion, 553 million tons. North America contains over 2/3 of the total amount. At the present rate of consumption, it will last 2,000 years. 60% of the United States Industrial Power comes from coal.

(Remember folks, this was a speech made in the early 1940's. Compare it with the latest you've read or seen on the news today.)