Fifty Years of Night

Book excerpt: ‘Dreadful Breaker of Men’

Excerpted from Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill. Published in 1963 by Little, Brown & Co. Republished in 2001 by the Jesse Stuart Foundation. Used with permission of the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

Editor’s note: In Chapter 10, Caudill describes the many ways coal miners were hurt or killed.

Great amounts of finely powdered coal collected on the coal ribs and elsewhere throughout the mines. This substance is highly volatile and when conditions are right can explode with a power approaching that of dynamite. Occasionally when coal was shot from the face in a particularly dry working place the air was left saturated with millions of dancing particles of this deadly dust. When a spark from an electric wire or the flame from a lamp ignited a quantity of the particles, the flame surged with a mighty roar throughout the dust-filled air, and to the collections of dust lying on coal ribs, timbers and other surfaces. Flashing like lightning and booming like massed cannons, the explosion raced down headings, entryways and working places until the fuel was exhausted. Such chainlike explosions might last for several seconds as the fire rushed from one area to another. When the fiery tornado reached the long straight underground corridor leading to the driftmouth, the effect was like that achieved in a gun barrel when the powder has been fired. Sometimes the swiftly advancing fire reached the driftmouth and belched out an immense yellow tongue.

The power of such an explosion was incredible. Picks, shovels, sledgehammers, rocks, lumps of coal, empty coal-cars and human bodies were flung down the tunnels like pellets in the barrel of a shotgun. The electric power was snuffed out and the fans which pushed air into the mines were bent and put out of action. Not infrequently fires were started in the coal seams and the sulphurous fumes contaminated the whole area. Men who had escaped the vengeance of the explosion might then die from suffocation.

In the gloomy half-darkness of the mines men were sometimes caught between moving cars and the supporting timbers, and their bodies and limbs mangled horribly. Sometimes a hapless miner was caught between the top of a loaded coal-car and the periodic collar-poles which supported the roof. The space between the top of the car and the bottom of the horizontal collar-poles was rarely more than six or eight inches. As the car was pulled along the track, the miner’s body was “rolled” very much as a pencil may be rolled between one’s hands, crushing ribs, pelvis and shoulder bones to bits.

Within a few years after the mines were opened electric locomotives began to replace the horses and mules which pulled the underground trains of coal. Power for those machines came from naked cables suspended from the tunnel roofs. The wire was never more than a foot or so above the motorman’s head; many motor operators accidentally touched it and were electrocuted. Other miners straightened up at an unfortunate moment, or stumbled over cross-ties and touched the deadly cable. The consequence was always death or serious injury.

But the most frequent accidents were the roof falls. Most of the coal in the plateau has a slate bottom with a layer of sandstone on top. This overlying sandstone is separated from the coal by a shield of slate, sometimes two or three feet thick. This soft slate adheres weakly to the sandstone. It could be held up only by numerous stout timbers or, in more recent years, by steel roof bolts. With startling frequency huge slabs of the slate broke loose from the sandstone and, splintering oak collar-poles and hickory jack props, crashed onto the heads of the miners, crushing their bodies against the muddy floor. Many miners who worked through this era used crowbars and jacks to raise tons of fallen rock from the flattened bodies of their fellow workmen. An aged Negro once related to me how he and two of his “buddies” loaded the pancake-flat remains of a foreman and two miners into a coal car for removal to the outside. Their bodies, he said, were ground into the floor and the miners scraped them loose with their huge coal shovels. As he put it, “We had to jest shovel ‘em up.” But such slate falls were not always fatal. Often they crushed spines, arms and legs and left the miners grotesquely mangled and twisted.

The black powder used in the mines was another dreadful breaker of men. The fire-train fuse so widely employed before the electric fuse replaced it was not always reliable, and the spitting trail of fire sometimes diminished to a slow smolder inside the tamped hole. After waiting a long interval for the fire to eat its way to the charge and thinking the shot had failed, the disappointed miner approached his working place “to pull the charge.” All too many times he arrived just as the fire ate its way into the charge of powder, and with a roar tons of coal were blasted at him. Men were slain in this way and others were reduced to lifelong cripples. Still others were blinded by particles of fine coal which were thrown into their unprotected eyes.

By accidents of these types and by others so varied as to be past count, the industry took its toll in the ranks of its workmen. It is difficult to estimate with any accuracy the number of men killed or seriously injured in the eastern Kentucky coalfields in these neophyte years, but thousands of widows and orphans were left in the camps, and multitudes of ruined, broken miners were cast out to loaf before their dreary hearths and on the porches of the commissaries.

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