Chapter 12 of Coal Bloom
Part of the heritage of coal is how miners talk about what they do. When miners are asked where they work they never mention a specific town. They say something like “over on the W” or “up on the Gulf.” Miners’ conversation is a strange mixture of what type of coal they run, in what kind of mine, and what type of work they perform, and it can sound strange to surface workers. As the number of workers employed in the underground mining industry falls from year to year, this way of talking is fast disappearing, now found mostly in books written by those, like myself, who worked in this dark, damp and dangerous occupation. But coal mining has a strange fascination for many. Looking at a fresh cut of coal makes you realize you are seeing something no one else has ever seen. You might be the first human to see the imprint of a fern, a petrified tree stump, or the outline of an ancient insect. Coal thus has a romantic side which makes some miners lust for that life. Many would do no other kind of work, for miners are a breed apart.
But it is a dangerous occupation. A man who survived not one but two of the greatest disasters in mining history talked about the feeling of being in an explosion:
When a mine explodes, if you're not near the explosion, there's a concussion. There's no way to describe it, only it seemed like it numbs you all over. You can't think of anything, the compression's so great. It's almost enough to bust your eardrums. Not no noise, but just the air compressed. When that compression lets loose, well, you come back to your senses.[i]
He was trapped in the mines for five days and he and the other men built barricades to preserve what little good air that remained. Major W.P. Tams, one of the early coal barons and creator of the town that bears his name, recalls the mine explosions that claimed hundreds of miners’ lives. In Eccles in 1914, for example, 183 men were killed in a single explosion. He writes that after such an incident it “was a very moving sight to see the women with shawls over their heads and babies in their arms, asking eagerly each rescue team as they came up out of the blown-up pit, ‘Have you seen my man?’”[ii]
Miners’ families had a very difficult time as well. In Otsego as in every coal mining town the families of the miners "had all experienced that unexplainable empty and scared feeling when the mine whistle would not stop blowing... Almost without exception every mine disaster meant death."[iii] Coal mining families brought their babies into a world of strife and turmoil, especially during the terrible coal mine wars, in the days before the union. The families struggled to survive in the face of social division and a very low yield for their efforts. Such families were like families in other industries, in that they raised their children the best they could and provided for them a roof over their heads and food to eat, as meager as it sometimes was.
After I was forced to take a job in the mines my wife Recie wrote a poem that expresses the anguish every miner’s wife knows:
Back home at last to peace and happiness
To a job you could enjoy
The service to your country a thing of the past
Job hunting you went, with hope and joy, and
I was thinking how happy I would be
To have a husband home on time at last
But jobs were scarce.
Each day you came home in despair
The thing I dreaded most was here at last
The cold, dark mine would be your future
I walked, I prayed each day for your safe return
The camp we lived in was as friendly as could be
But each day if we heard an ambulance
We would gather and wonder
Which one would it be?
With your dark faces/It was difficult to see.
Is it my Dad, or my husband,
free at last from that cold, dark hole?
In 1956 the timber company that owned the land we had lived on all our lives forced us off the leasehold with only thirty days’ notice. It was hard to find housing, not only for Recie and me and two (soon three) children, but also for my mother and father and sister Kathy, who had nowhere else to go. However, I was able to find two houses close to each other in the small coal camp of Helen, about ten miles north of Otsego on Route 16. In 1956 I we all moved here and have been here ever since.
It was a period of adjustment from country living. We had been in the country all our lives and had a hard time adjusting to life in a coal camp. Gilbert writes, “leaving the idyllic setting of the ‘holler’ I felt as if I had moved to a big city. There were houses on both sides of us as well as across the street (actually a dirt road). Only the creek behind our house, black with coal dust, kept me from being surrounded by people.” Coal camps never had the best reputation and in the early days were very dirty. Recie recalls that the house we moved into had no insulation, and you could see through the cracks around the windows. We moved in in the fall of 1956, and are very lucky that was a mild winter.
Coal companies maintained strict order in coal camps.[iv] Former UMWA President Arnold Miller recalls that "not long after I first went to work I was told by the mine foreman, 'If you don't like your d——- job get your cotton-picker over the hill. They's two hundred living down there at the foot of the hill on a box of crackers and a can of sardines who would like to have your job if you don't want it.' ...At that particular time the gun thugs outnumbered the miners three to one... The operators had prior to that declared martial law and took all the guns the miners had. They had nothing to fight with and the law was with the thugs, they were the law." [v] However, with the coming of the union and more federal oversight of mines, by the late 1950’s conditions in the coal camps had improved immeasurably.
After World War I coal operators had realized they needed better towns and housing if they were to attract steady workers. They began erecting “model towns” to attract sober, family-oriented miners. Helen, Tams, and many other small towns in southern West Virginia benefited from this enterprise.
Helen, built in the early 1920’s and named for a daughter of C&O Railway President G.W. Stevens, was one such “model” town. It was similar to other small coal towns in that it had two mines, a boarding house, company store, clubhouse, movie theater, and much more. At one time it even had its own telephone exchange. The coal company erected all these conveniences in order to attract and keep a reliable labor pool[vi] Miners voluntarily had a dollar or two withheld from their paycheck in order to pay the pastor of the church. Rev. Dewey Wilson served Helen Baptist Church for almost four decades, and during much of that time, until the late 1960’s, the church was routinely full for Sunday services and Bible study.
Helen was owned by the Koppers Coal Company and later by Eastern Associated Coal Company. It also had an ethnically diverse population, left over from its development earlier in the century. As historian Ronald L. Lewis writes about another coal town, “development of the coalfields required more workers than available in the local labor market, forcing companies to rely on imported immigrants and blacks, [including] Austrian, Bohemian, Canadian, Croatian, English, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, Polish, Rumanian, Russian, Scottish, Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and Welsh.”[vii] Of these immigrants Major Tams writes that, “Hard as life might be in the mills and mines, it was generally far easier than it had been in their home land.”[viii]
The model town initiative died off after the 1920’s, but coal companies still owned the towns and maintained recreational and other facilities. Our town of Helen was just a few miles down the road from Tams and, at least by the time we arrived in 1957, was relatively clean and well kept.[ix] There were different sections of the town for whites, blacks, and ethnic immigrants. Conditions varied according to the section of the town you lived in, whether the “bosses’” section, the Black section, the Italian section, and so on”[x] Thankfully, our area was free of much of the racial tension that accompanied desegregation in much of the rest of the country. When the historically black school Byrd Prillerman near Amigo burned down, its students were integrated into Helen and other nearby schools. A history professor was quoted in the Bluefield newspaper: “They had a saying that every man was black underground. This was one of the few places where blacks and whites were treated the same and could work side by side and get paid the same amount.” [xi] I myself recall thinking that all miners were the same color, black as coal, when they came out of the mines.
The coal miner’s “bath” was just a big washtub, again with a big pot of water on the stove. When a miner got home he usually bathed in the middle of the kitchen floor, and while he bathed the kitchen was off limits to the rest of the family. Although Major Tams built the first miner’s bathhouse in 1910, even when I went to work in the mines in 1945 I bathed this way until the company built a bathhouse. I know all this is hard to imagine, with our modern bathing facilities.
All coal mining towns had similar living conditions. They were referred to as “the camps” and among West Virginians if you say you were “raised in a coal camp” you will be asked, “Really? Which one?” As the National Coal Heritage Area website suggests, “Even shared conditions of hardship and danger in the mines contributed to a sense of community solidarity that residents often later recalled fondly.”[xii] Talk always comes back to conditions in the camps, the company stores, company grills, company theaters. At the time, there was a lot for young people to do in Helen. In the coal camps, everything belonged to the company, but the community itself was created by the people.