Today’s newspaper reports from Montcoal, West Virginia. What does that bring to mind? Me too. I grew up in a coal mining town.
The headlines scream “Disaster”. Why in 2010, when we have updated and improved technology; we have so many experts with solutions, this heart-breaking news?
Today 25 are counted as fatalities down deep in the mine. Now to bring out the bodies.
The mourning has already begun.
Let me tell you a story, really two stories, about the day all the daddies died in my little hometown:
When the town was organized in 1888 coal, that rock that burns, was king. By 1893 the Consolidated Mine on Ward’s Peak (today known as Burning Mountain) was in full gear, putting out a high grade bituminous coal. The company that owned it also opened the Vulcan Mine across the Colorado River, then soon closed it when they found it too dangerous to operate.
The Colorado River, New Castle, Colorado.
A railroad company took the risk of starting up the Vulcan and proclaiming that it could be managed.
On a cold morning, February 18, 1896, forty nine miners ferried across the deep Colorado River, went to work in the Vulcan, and lost their lives.
At noon that day a thunderous blast blotted out every other sound in the world. People rushed out of every house. They knew where to turn their eyes. Black smoke and coal dust marked tragedy across the river.
John French had decided that very day that he would not return to the Vulcan because of the smell of methane gas. He claimed he knew that it was about to blow. He was right.
Townspeople and miners from the Consolidated rushed to the rescue. They reached Ed Welch, battered and dying. He gasped out that he had been blown from about a quarter mile within the mine. They raced to the mine entrance to find it blocked by collapsed timbers, and the strong smell of gas.
It took nearly a month before the bodies were brought out. The whole town was in anguish. Many of the dead were the fathers of large families. One family lost all three sons. Little boys, known as trappers, were victims too.
End of story? No. In 1912, a big fuel company. Started the Vulcan up again. I don’t use the business names of these big companies because they are still dirty words in New Castle. They put job-hungry miners in a life-threatening position, then gave only a pittance to their survivors.
The town perked up with the paychecks from the new mine. The miners were paid by the ton, forty five cents. Mining this thick vein gave the miners the opportunity to dig at least ten tons a day. An unskilled laborer was earning a dollar a day, so the risk seemed worthwhile. Many never even considered the risk, it just what a man did to take care of his family.
An air vent was dug completely through the mountain. A ventilation system consisting of a small fan that pumped fresh air into the mine and a larger fan that pumped gassy fumes out of the mine. Water was pumped up from the river and the mine was sprinkled every other day to keep the coal dust down. In retrospect this was not nearly adequate.
Then in December 1912, another cold winter day, another Tuesday, disaster struck again. Three days earlier the water pipes had frozen, even though they had been wrapped and insulated with hay. The decision was made to reverse the fans, to keep the area warmer. The smaller fan was now the exhaust, allowing methane gas to build up.
The concussion from the resulting blast killed the miners. It was the flu season and only 37 miners had reported for work that day. There are many tales about that day. One wife was giving birth as her husband died. One miner who was ill asked a high school boy if he’d like to earn his wages that day, so he skipped school and went to his death.
So much grief for a tiny town. The day their daddies died.
Today the miners’ names are engraved on a monument in the town park and each July residents and former residents celebrate Burning Mountain Days.
Every coal-mining family extends their sympathy, Montcoal, West Virginia. And those of us who work at much more cushy jobs bow our heads too.