What Does It Take to Go Down into the Earth for Coal?

Iain Murray | Posted on 04/13/10

It would be a mistake, however, to characterize mining communities only in relation to disaster, however large the threat looms. One trait miners share that is important in disasters and day-to-day work alike is industriousness. Mining is hard work and requires constant effort and attention to detail to be successful.

These days we rarely hear anything about the coalminer unless he is cast
as an environmental villain, willing to see mountaintops, streams and
atmosphere despoiled for his work, or as a victim, subject to explosions
inflicted on him by unscrupulous mine owners.  Both these
characterizations are not just inaccurate but exploitative, portraying
the miner as something he is not for some ulterior motive. 

I was born and raised in the coal mining country of the North-East of England,
where the phrase "coals to Newcastle" comes from.  Since I moved to the
U.S., I have come to specialize in energy policy and have therefore once
again come to know coal folk, this time in Appalachia, the mid-West and
the Northern Rockies.  Their character is similar to those of my home,
and, for that matter of my ancestors.  Their communities tend to share
the same traits, and they are worth celebrating.

The first virtue any miner or his family must possess is courage.
Working underground for long periods of the day, in confines that may
collapse and where explosive gases are natural, is an extremely
dangerous profession.  All miners and their families are aware of the
risks involved in mining, and live with them.  The profession
compensates for these risks; mining salaries are usually the highest in
the area on average.  Mining has also become a much safer profession
than it was even thirty years ago.  As wealth increased in America, so
did the safety levels demanded of mining by workers and mining companies
alike.  Indeed, those who criticize mining companies should realize that
nothing affects the bottom line as adversely as an explosion.  Yet the
risk is ever-present.  It takes a man of courage to descend into the
shaft every day and a woman of courage to marry a miner, knowing the
risks her husband faces (if I seem sexist here, one must accept that the
vast majority of miners are male).

Because of this risk, a second trait a miner and his community must
possess is resilience. A mine explosion can devastate a community.  When
the Trimdon Grange disaster killed 84 men in my home county of Durham in
1883, the miner's poet, Tommy Armstrong summed up the effects on the
community:

Let us think of Mrs Burnett,
Once had sons but now has none.
By the Trimdon Grange explosion.
Joseph, George and James are gone.

February left behind it
What will never be forgot;
Weeping widows, helpless children,
May be found in many a cot,
Homes that once were blest with comfort,
Guarded by a father's care,
Now are solemn, sad and gloomy,
Since the father is not there.


Recovering from a disaster requires resilience because, in so many locations, the community would die without the mine.  Most mining communities are located where they are simply because of the presence of coal, and have no advantages other than that.  Therefore, after the disaster, the mine must be re-opened as soon as it can.  Meanwhile, the families of the community, and the mining company itself, must rally to the bereaved and aid and comfort them.  Tommy Armstrong's poem above was written to raise money for the widows and orphans of Trimdon and we see the same instincts today. 

Within hours of the recent disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia, not only had large organizations like the local Salvation Army moved to provide food and water for the rescuers and victims' families, but local restaurants were doing likewise. It would be a mistake, however, to characterize mining communities only in relation to disaster, however large the threat looms.  One trait miners share that is important in disasters and day-to-day work alike is industriousness.  Mining is hard work and requires constant effort and attention to detail to be successful.  Outside the mine this translates into a common virtue of house-pride. 

In my experience on both sides of the Atlantic, many miners reside in houses that could charitably be
described as weathered, yet they are often very well-kept.  A text describing the miners of Durham from 1894 suggests that this trait results from the very fact that the house the miner lives in was provided for him by the "colliery" and the miner therefore "has little fear of his goods being taken for an accumulation of rent should he be thrown out of work through no fault of his own."  As mining as a profession has grown more lucrative, it should come as no surprise that this has translated further into pride in material wealth.

A counterpart to industriousness is less admirable.  It is often said that miners "work hard and play hard," and this often translates into a liking for hearty food, strong drink and the entertainments that go with them.  While Britain is known as a land of warm ale, it should be noted that beers in mining country there are generally served as cold as American beer.  These cold beers are often quite weak in alcohol
content, being designed to slake the thirst of miners parched after a long day in hot, dusty conditions.  The tradition of miners drinking large amounts of beer is therefore long-established on both sides of the pond.  Yet, as that 1890s text commented back then, "The ruffian is considered as much a ruffian in a colliery village as anywhere."

But perhaps the characteristic least remarked upon in popular depictions of coal country yet one that I have observed time and again is the miner's desire for self-improvement.  Miners regularly form associations aimed at adult education and American miners are among the most well-read people I have met in relation to energy policy and local history.  Miners have a proud history in the development of the
co-operative movement and also the creation of labor unions, although miners on both sides of the Atlantic have found themselves ill-served by their miners' unions, which changed into vehicles of political power and turned to violence before falling out of favor.

Miners are not villains or victims, nor are they any more paragons of virtue than any other sector of the community, even if their common virtues are indeed admirable.  Nor are they rednecks or hicks, even if some of them would apply that label to themselves as a matter of regional pride.  In the end, miners still today demonstrate those characteristics that led Francis Whellan to write in 1894 of the Durham miners that "natural ability and intellectual capacity of a high order are qualities by no means rare amongst this useful and hard-working portion of the community."

 

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