In January 2006, we had the Sago Mine accident. 13 miners lost their lives and it prompted me to recall some of my life in the West Virginia coal fields and I wrote what follows. Now we have had another. What’s changed these days is an all out assault on the Coal Industry by environmentalists and the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency. If you scan the stories in the news, you won’t find much information about Coal Miners, their families and what the coal industry means to my state and to our country. Instead of writing something new about the recent accident, I will just repost what I wrote 4 years ago – although some of the links had to be updated. Pray for the families and the community.
*I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”
I was born in Pineville, West Virginia, the county seat for Wyoming County, which sits in the southern end of the Logan Coal Field. I lived in Green Camp about three miles from Pineville, about a mile past the main Wyoming Coal Camp. The Island Creek Coal Company built these camps. I don’t know the origin for the name of Green Camp, but recall that all of the old company built houses were green.
*Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
The train tracks ran beside the Island Creek Company Store, pictured at the bottom of these Wyoming pictures. These tracks were for coal trains. The tracks ran beneath coal tipples that filled the cars at the mines. Sitting between the tracks that ran beside store and the Guyandotte River was Wyoming Grade School. I couldn’t find any pictures of the old one story wooden school house, which no longer stands. It held grades 1 through 6 and it’s where I spent my first 6 school years. Principal Harvey Stoneman introduced, Buddy Parks, Jimmy Coy and me to the board of education there after we sneaked out of the schoolyard, across the tracks beneath an idling coal train and into the company store to look at toys stocked for Christmas. I was playing basketball on the schoolyard’s dirt court with other boys when Jim Warner (our little league baseball coach, also a coal miner, and relative of former NFL player Curt Warner) came by and told us that someone shot President Kennedy. Mr. Stoneman told Jim that was a bad joke and admonished him not to say such things in front of us kids. A solemn Jim Warner said, “No sir, it ain’t a joke.”
Skin Fork Creek ran through the middle of Green Camp separating the upper and lower camps. I lived in the lower camp that stretched from WV State Route 10 down to the river. Lower Green Camp consisted of two rows of boxlike green coal company houses, one row on each side of a narrow dirt road. We used to go down to the end of the road where it touched the river – a center of activity for us kids. We’d go swimming, fishing or rock skipping. At night, we’d build a fire and sit on the riverbank telling lies. In the winter when the river froze over, we’d play on the ice. Some summer days, we’d wade across a shallow spot on the river and play on Frog Island. We named it that because it was thick with frogs. There was a pond on Frog Island. It was a small inlet from the river that we named Sunfish Hole because it was full of Sunfish. You may call them Bluegills. We used to swim in Sunfish Hole, although we stopped swimming there for a whole summer when Jackie Swick drowned in it. On that day, when we all came back across the river, no one missed Jackie. Later that night, the whole camp went out searching for him. Finally, the men lit their kerosene lanterns and headed across the river to Frog Island. They came back in a while having found Jackie at the bottom of Sunfish Hole. Jackie’s was the first funeral I ever attended and the first dead body I’d seen. They dressed him up in a suit and laid him out in the living room of Elzie Warner’s house. Jackie didn’t have a father at home and his mother didn’t have much of a place for a visitation.
Our Church sat on a hill in the bend of the road between Green Camp and Marianna. I remember Sunday school class contests to see who was the fastest at finding Bible verses. Sometimes, in the summer, we’d have cookouts after Church. We called them weenie roasts. The adults would cook hotdogs and we’d eat them – usually way too many of them.
There was a lot of porch sitting on summer nights in Green Camp. Many men worked at night. The miners called it the Hoot Owl shift. One night we got news that Ralph Bledsoe died in a mine accident. I remember all of us going to the Bledsoe house that night. They lived in the upper camp and the sons were Gary and Jerry.
My Dad was a miner. When he was 12 years old, his Father died in a mining accident. Dad was the oldest of seven children. At 15 years old, he went into the mines to work and support his mother and siblings. That was in 1933. He spent more than 30 years at it. A slate roof slab fell on him once. It injured him seriously, but he recovered and went back into the mines. It was pick and shovel mining in the days that my Dad did it. Miners spent hours on their knees digging in coal seams where it was too low for them to stand.
You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Paid by the tons they loaded, they worked until they loaded their quota for the day. My Dad died from Black Lung disease years after he came out of the mines. The requirement for proper ventilation systems helps prevent that disease now.
I hope you didn’t mind me running the home video for you, but I wanted to tell you a little about life in a Coal Camp, which was much like life anywhere else except that everything revolved around the mine. There are no more Coal Camps and no more company stores, but the close-knit mining communities where practically everyone is involved in some way with mine operations do exist. The recent accident reminds us of that.
When my Father started mining, more than a half million men worked in coalmines. The year I estimate that he began working in the mines there were 532,182 miners. Fatalities were 1,064. That’s less than ¼ of one percent. In 2004, we had 108,734 miners and 28 fatalities. For a business that’s inherently dangerous, that’s not bad. You may be surprised to know that truck drivers have a higher accident and fatality rate than miners do. So when you hear about mine safety violations keep it in perspective and understand that inspectors can walk through an office building and find many safety hazards.
Coal is important to the United States and the world’s economy and it’s especially important to West Virginia’s economy. For example, coal-burning power plants provide nearly half of our nation’s electricity. Clean fuel technologies that turns coal into clean burning liquid fuel has the potential to free us from our Arab Oil strangle hold and create many new jobs in this region and across the country. An accident such as the one just experienced is a tragedy. Still, we must remember the importance of coal mining, the reliance our country has on it and the important contribution miners make. If America’s politicians truly want to help miners, they’ll do it by placing the emphasis on this tough job performed by courageous men that it needs and deserves. Whatever else happens, we cannot allow a reaction from political opportunists or other interests that diminishes what the coal industry does and has the potential to do for our country.
*Lyrics from Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford
Copyright © J.D. Pendry 2006