Coal Mining Steeped in History

Out of one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs in the world have come generations of powerful stories, almost all hinging on life and death and the suspense of waiting.

"You talk to a coal miner there and they can tell you details about every coal mine accident that's happened for the last 75 years," said Jeff Goodell, who co-wrote "Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith," about the miraculous Quecreek miner rescue.

"Every coal miner that I've talked to from this region had at least one relative seriously hurt or killed in a coal mine accident ... It is so deeply a part of the culture that it's almost sort of part of this ... subconscious texture of life."

Conditions in the mines in the early 20th century led to the rise of one of the most famous and powerful labor leaders in America -- John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers union from 1920 to 1960. Lewis characterized himself as "the thundering voice of the captain of a mighty host, demanding rights to which free men are entitled."

From the Molly Maguires to Loretta Lynn

There has been extraordinary drama in the history of coal mining and behind the struggles of miners and their families. There was the secret society called the Molly Maguires, which violently confronted mine owners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia between 1862 and 1877, and saw 10 men hanged for murder.

Then there's the well-known family history of country singer Loretta Lynn, whose father, a Kentucky coal miner, raised eight children on $3 a day, and contracted black lung disease.

If there is such a thing as a mystique associated with a hard, dirty and dangerous life, that mystique is attached to the miners who are such a part of the nation's consciousness and soul.

In the history of coal mining in the United States, it's estimated that more than 100,000 miners have lost their lives in accidents. More than 3,200 coal miners were killed in 1907, the worst year ever for the industry. There have since been significant safety improvements. About 300 miners have died in the past 10 years.

Despite regulations, however, at some mines, safety issues are sometimes overlooked or downplayed. And that's what creates the constant measure of suspense in the regions where coal is mined.

Some dangers will never go away for the nearly 65,000 people who today are employed as hourly wage coal miners. Coal mining liberates highly combustible methane from the earth. Coal dust itself is explosive. And working in a seam, deep in the Earth, will always expose miners to the possibility of cave-ins.

"In an office job, you don't have to worry about the ceiling come crashing down on you. In the mine ... the roof is supported, but you have had people die in roof falls every year," said Jim Toothman, a third-generation coal miner in West Virginia.

His 21-year-old son, Jonathan, now goes to work with him in the rural Blacksville 2 mine.

"Time goes a lot faster underground than it does up here, because up here you see the sun come and the sun go down. Down there, you don't see it. It's all dark, so it goes by a lot faster. You don't keep looking at your watch. It goes pretty quick," said Jonathan.

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