This week’s topic for Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is Health. It was proving to be a struggle for me as I went through various people, illnesses, and how my mom was a nurse, but since I had discussed her not so long ago I wanted something that was different and not so obvious, and then it hit me – I have so many relatives who were coal miners, I decided to discuss the unhealthy conditions of working in a coal mine.
Coal Miners in My Family
I started making a list of all the men that were coal miners in my family and had not gotten too far on just my dad’s side and I already had over 20. My mom’s side could easily have just as many with her Fairhurst and Boone relatives as they all came over from England in the early 1900’s and settled in Jefferson County, Ohio where they were also miners (my great-grandmother, Phoebe Boone even ran a boarding house for miners).
My coal miners were not just limited to those who were here in the United States like my Blair’s, or the Fairhurst’s and Boone’s who immigrated from England, but my great-great-great-grandfather, James Boone was a coal miner in England. I do know that Isaiah Boone, mentioned later, moved to Utah and mined there and then returned to Ohio.
An Unhealthy Industry
Coal was one of the main resources that ran engines (stationary and locomotive) when the world began going through the Industrial Revolution. Though in the United States coal mining was done in smaller, rural towns, the mines were sometimes owned by railroads, which would obviously make sure the coal got where it needed to go.
Coal mining was not easy work. You were in the darkness all day, hunched over because most of the time the cavities within had low ceilings and you were constantly inhaling coal dust. Many illnesses were caused by lung issues.
Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis
Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust and the lungs become inflamed or scarred which eventually made the person have a difficult time breathing. Another common name for this is black lung.
The stages of the disease often began with a cough, which leads to shortness of breath, then chest tightness. There is no cure, only prevention.
Though technology was not available hundreds of years ago, today’s miners can wear a personal dust monitor that measures the dust exposure, knowing at the end of each shift what the amount of dust was.
Another similar ailment is Silicosis.
Lung cancer in coal mining is primarily caused by exposure to the diesel exhaust daily for five-plus years. This is focused primarily on miners since the 1940’s and is normally combined with pneumoconiosis.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a common ailment among many people in today’s world, even outside of being a coal miner (your common habit of smoking is enough to contribute to COPD, my mother and maternal grandmother were both diagnosed). Like pneumoconiosis, COPD cannot be cured. Examples of COPD are bronchitis and emphysema, and along with coal worker pneumoconiosis, it has been classified as an occupational disease.
Coal miners suffered various skin ailments along with the lung diseases. Eczema and contact dermatitis were issues that came about since the 1950’s due to chemicals, “communal bathing, prolonged and profuse sweating, friction and dirty clothing” causing bacterial and fungal infections (and was the reason for the most days missed).
Though not deemed harmful, “coal tattoos” also were a sign of the coal miner as the miner would get cut and coal dust would get in it before it healed.
Along with suffocation, gas poisoning, another unhealthy part of coal mining are explosions and mine collapse. I know in my own lifetime I’ve witnessed on television in differing areas of the world tragic outcomes where a group of men were trapped underground due to an explosion or a cave-in and it was unknown if the area where the men were trapped had enough air to sustain the 22 miners in China (11 survived), or the 33 miners in Chile (all survived for a period of 69 days), or the 13 miners in West Virginia (only 1 miner survived this explosion).
Explosions in mines are nothing new. I have both direct and collateral ancestors in my tree who died from such mining accidents.
“Mine Explosion Kills Four Men At Wolf Run” – Carroll Journal, 12 December 1935
“Four men lost their lives and 31 had a narrow escape in an explosion early last Thursday night in the Warner Collieries Mine at Wolf Run near Bergholz. Those killed were Isaiah Boone, 50, his half brother, Joseph Boon, 47, and Robert Russell, 25, all of Amsterdam, and Albert James, 50, of Bergholz.”
Isaiah and Joseph Boone were the older and younger brother of my great-grandmother, Phoebe Boone, she was sandwiched between them in chronological order of children of Enoch Boone and Susannah Rigby’s children. Both came to the United States from Leigh, England – Isaiah in 1923 and Joseph in late 1920.
Using Newspapers.com to find articles of the paper, the blast was reported from as far East as Connecticut and as far west as Idaho, and I also found where it was reported in Canada.
Andrew Jackson Blair
“Blair, Andrew J. aged about 44, of B Court was instantly killed about one o’clock this afternoon when caught beneath a fall of rock while at work in the Forks Coal Mining Company mine. The victim was badly crushed. Mr. Blair’s brother-in-law, Abraham Childers, was injured in the same mine yesterday, having the ligaments torn in his leg”. – Johnstown Tribune, Wednesday, 17 November 1926, Page 26 (This article was found on Find A Grave where it was transcribed for his memorial, I was unable to find the original to include).
My great-grandfather was born in 1881 and on the 1900 census was already working in the coal mines. My dad told me that his dad, Leroy, Andrew’s oldest surviving son, also briefly worked in coal mining but had an accident in the same area his father died and that is when he found a different vocation.
I was able to find a newspaper article from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper, The Evening News, with a snippet of his death:
Other Interesting Facts
Coal mining was an institution unlike any other that I know of. Workers worked for a company who not only paid them in company cash or script, the housing was crude and also owned by the mines, the stores that took the script were owned by the company and priced everything high, but they could, because these stores were the only ones that would take the company cash. You were in a never-ending cycle and it really didn’t give you an “out”.
Young boys began working at the mines by the time they were 12 to 14 years old. They were not allowed to work in the mines but they would stay outside sorting the coal. To work within the mines they had to be 18 years old.
The social systems surrounding the mines were ethnicity based. Those with the highest prestige were the Welsh and English (this would have been where Isaiah and Joseph Boone fit in); then the Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans and finally those that were from Appalachia. I am not quite sure where my great-grandfathers would have fit in being born in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, they weren’t foreign but also too far north for Appalachia.
It had to take a person of strong mind and spirit to work in the coal mines day in and day out. My other paternal great-grandfather, Charles Jackson Morgart worked in the coal mines the last handful of years before he took his own life. I’ve sat and contemplated his death numerous times trying to wrap my head around why he killed himself but I’m sure it’s a mystery I’ll never know for sure. Was it a bit of depression from working in the dark after being a farmer? I’ll never know.
I am sure there are hundreds of other illnesses that can coincide with working in a coal mine that I haven’t listed, but this is what I found in just a day or two researching for this blog of mine. Coal mining was a dangerous occupation that until I saw how many of my ancestors did this for a living, I never gave much thought too (well, until you hear about a grave situation on the news). I look at it so much differently these past few years, so many risks, both health and otherwise, that these men took to provide for their family.
* I found the information for the above article and provided links throughout leading to Wikipedia, American Lung Association, NCBI, NIOSH, and the Nursing Times