or, “What I learned from someone who died 100 years ago”
Roughly one out of every 17,000 workers in the US dies in the workplace every year, a statistic you may think is a high number. But from 1900 to 1930, the risk of coal miners in America was 56 times that amount. Roughly one out of every 300 miners died on the job. If you are one of the estimated 70% of Americans who “hate their job”, consider those statistics for a second, then answer the question, do you still hate your job? If so, read on. You may not have it as bad as you think…
Last weekend, Andrea and I took a tour of the No. 9 Coal Mine & Museum in Lansford, PA. The museum has thousands of artifacts from the mining days of
the 1800s and 1900s, including replicas of an 1800s miner’s kitchen and hospital room. We learned some interesting things about the methods and tools used for mining anthracite coal, but what I took away from this tour was much more. Like most people, we had heard about the rough working conditions back in the day (including Black Lung Disease), before unions, labor protection, modern technology and safety and the like, but the stories we heard on this tour were nothing short of shocking. Our tour guides, John and Steve, painted a sad but accurate picture of the working conditions the miners faced between 1850 and 1930.
After walking around the museum area for a while (converted from the original “wash shanty” the miners used after a long day at work), we took a small, rickety train ride 1,600 feet straight into the mountain. Fortunately for us, we had electric lighting, something that didn’t exist in these mines when they were opened in 1855. (The mine we were in was operational until 1972!) As we walked through the tunnels, John and Steve told us of the hardships of the miners, many of which started with immigrants landing on Ellis Island and falling victim to conmen representing the mining companies.
A Scary New World
As the stories go, families would arrive in the New World with no money in their pockets, no home to turn to, and the dream of making a life for themselves and their children. Mining companies sent representatives to Ellis Island to “recruit” these workers. These recruiters would fill them with stories of jobs and free housing as soon as these people got off of the boat. To many, the American Dream was meeting them at the dock. But what they experienced was more a nightmare than a dream.
The families were given housing, and the men and boys were put to work. At the end of the week, they were not paid with money, but with credit at the overpriced company store. Before being paid, housing expenses and fees for any equipment damaged on the job were deducted from their already small salaries. If they didn’t have enough money to pay for their weekly food (often the case), they were extended credit, a debt that often compounded insurmountably. Their debt to the company, however, was in no way the only sacrifice these families made to the industrial age, a time when the sweat and blood shed by these immigrants literally built the foundation for America’s future as a super power.
Dangers in the Mine
The working conditions in the mine were, for lack of a better phrase, simply outrageous. Miners worked in almost pitch black conditions, swinging pick axes into walls of tunnels they could barely see. The original miner helmets had open flame candles on their foreheads, which regularly ignited methane gas pockets found in the walls of the mine, blowing up in the face of the miner. Even the use of oil-wick lamps starting in the 1850s and carbide lamps around 1910 didn’t help alleviate the open flame problem of a miner cracking open a pocket of extremely flammable gas.
Other accidents abounded in an unregulated world with no safety precautions. The mine we visited included a 900 feet deep elevator shaft. If a miner didn’t flex their knees as the elevator came to a quick stop on the bottom floor, they could break their legs. Coal carts rolling with 5,000 pounds of coal in them and no braking system often amputated fingers, arms and more from seven and eight year old boys. charged with wedging a stick in front of the wheels if the donkey pulling the cart stopped short. It was as if the mining companies valued the donkeys more than the children themselves. Workers also had to climb up to 150 feet into “Monkey Tubes”, two feet wide tunnels straight up, where they mined without a safety harness. Their body would be wedged into the tube, with their balance being the only real protection from a 150 foot drop straight down without a net.
In this mine, canaries were not used to detect noxious gasses. Instead, rats were the preferred alarm system of choice, due to their ability to identify problems faster and more accurately than a canary. Workers often kept rats by their feet, feeding them to keep them around. Not exactly the hygienic working conditions people expect in modern work environments. If the worker had an accident, the four hour horse and buggy ride to the nearest hospital was almost a guarantee they wouldn’t make it. If they did live through their experiences in the mine, they were given the pension of black lung disease, a fatal condition (pneumoconiosis) for which there is still no proven effective treatment, even with today’s modern medical advances.
A Family’s Sacrifice
The miner’s family was not exempt from the tortures of the mine. From 1900 to 1930, there were 71,160 mining fatalities in the United States. If your loved one suffered an accident in the mine, the company left him on the doorstep of the company house in which you lived. Later that day, a company representative would come by and let you know that you had 24 hours to replace the worker or vacate the company property. Remember, these were immigrants, people who had no friends other than in their mining town. These wives and mothers would have to find a way to fill the position or be ousted immediately from the only home they knew, a tiny, overpriced shack. Whomever did step in and take over the position then also assumed any debts already owed the company by the deceased.
A Lesson Learned
These are just some of the sad stories we heard about the life and pain of the men, women and children who helped build this nation, and the greed of those who carelessly threw lives around for the sake of a dollar. Visiting the No. 9 Coal Mine and Museum gave me more than I expected. Not only did I gain some knowledge of American history, but I also gained even more respect for the hardships of those miners and their families, while learning to be appreciative of what I have. The next time I get frustrated with my work environment (and who doesn’t?), I do need to think, “Hey, it sure could be a lot worse.”
This blog originally posted on 4/5/15 on The Engraving Amore Blog