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.

Trading Money for Safety?

Coal mining attracts workers because the pay is good -- around $50,000 a year, sometimes up to $80,000 a year with what a United Mine Workers spokesman called "reasonable overtime." It creates opportunity in small rural communities where there isn't a lot. And communities become extended families, with their histories focused on the mines.

"These gentlemen, their friendships were forged in the uniqueness of the profession, in the danger itself," said psychiatrist Dr. Bobby Miller.

Miners know that if you want to go home at the end of the day, you had to look out for each other.

But sometimes, said Jeff Goodell, the benefits -- good pay, brotherhood -- come at a price. "If you have one of these great jobs and you go in there and you start complaining about the roof being dangerous and, and there's too much water and, you know, you're afraid that something might happen, they'll fire you and you're out of it," Goodell said. "And so all these guys know it, and so they're forced with the situation of either, of going into a dangerous mine and making a paycheck to feed their family or raising their voice and getting fired."

Although employment in the industry is less than 15 percent of what it was at its peak in 1923, one thing these miners are not is out of date. Fifty-one percent of the country's electricity is generated from coal.

Profits in coal mining have risen steadily since 2000, and in 2004 were in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent. Nick Fantasia is mayor of one mining town that has benefited from that surge -- Fairmont, W.Va., a town that went through a recession when demand for coal dropped in the 1980s.

"I'm shocked, I really am," Fantasia said. "I never thought in my lifetime I would see news articles about shortages of coal mines and shortages of coal miners."

Congress passed the Mine Safety Act of 1969 in response to the deaths of 78 miners not far from Sago, in Marion County. This week's was the deadliest accident in West Virginia since then.

In the notes some miners left were assurances to their families that they were not suffering. What always seemed present during this week's tragedy in West Virginia was not only a sense of the everyday danger miners face, but also the miners' profound awareness of the families who spend their days above ground, in the light.