Both Sacred and Feared: the Symbolic Quality of the Mine

In communities like the one in Tallmansville, W.Va., where 12 miners died last week, the mine is a powerful and paradoxical institution. While it offers a living wage to many men who may not otherwise be able to provide for their families, it's also a dark, dangerous and sometimes deadly place.

The tragedy in the Sago Mine showed the strange duality that members of a mining community experience. Being a miner may run in the family, but some fathers, like Terry Helms, who was killed in the mine, make sure the tradition ends with them, unwilling to see their sons in harm's way.

"He wanted better for myself and my sister," Nick Helms, Terry's son, told ABC News. "He didn't want me to have to endure the strenuous work."

Fred Ware Jr., 59, another victim of the Sago Mine disaster, told his fiancée that he believed he would meet his end in the mines. Randal McCloy -- the lone survivor of the accident -- tried to resist the lure of the mines, but succumbed because it was one of the nation's highest-paying, blue-collar jobs. He made an hour trek from outside the county each morning.

Whatever the case, West Virginia historian Noel Tenney said the mine loomed over the communities that surrounded it -- communities where people tended to take root for generations.

"Mining has a symbolic quality," he said. "Mining has often been referenced to hell. It has also been held up by miners as a sacred place."

The Company Town

Not even a century ago, small mining towns like some surrounding Tallmansville were company towns. This meant the company that owned the mine was basically the town's governing body.

"The only thing that can start it up is the mine, so the employer starts up the town," said Price Fishback, an economic historian who specializes in the study of coal mining in the United States. "That creates bad relationships."

Vestiges of that tension between workers and management reared their head after it was discovered that the statement that only one miner had died and that 12 had survived was called a "miscommunication." Family members rushed at the officials, and SWAT teams were called in to pacify the crowd. Some people threatened to sue.

Fishback said that coal-mining regions like Appalachia were usually so remote that it was often the mine that encouraged people to move in, allowing the company immense amounts of control.

Mine-owning companies developed their own currency called scrip that people could spend in the company store, which often had inflated prices that drove families deep into debt. That situation inspired the famous country song "Sixteen Tons," made famous by Merle Travis, a singer who frequently sang about mine country.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt.

Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go,

l owe my soul to the company store.

In the early half of the 20th century, options were extremely limited. Things have changed, and those rural areas have become increasingly developed. Yet the mine's pull is still powerful -- especially since coal is making a big comeback. As oil prices rise, the demand for coal increases, Fishback said. Since 2003, the year the war in Iraq began, the price of coal has nearly doubled. Working the mine is a tantalizing possibility for a young man fresh out of high school.

People Set in Tradition

"There is a very strong sense of place in this state, so it sets up a lot of conflict with young people," said Tenney, a professor of cultural studies and folk life at Fairmont State University. Tenney lives in Tallmansville, and his father and uncles all worked in the mines. "They look around and if they want to get into the work force, they try to find the highest-paying job."

"For some, it's just in their blood," said Joe Tallman, Tallmansville's fire chief, whose great-great uncle is the town's namesake. His grandfather, uncles and father worked in the mines, and Tallman was on call at the fire station when the page came in on Jan. 2 that there was an emergency at Sago Mine.

Mining has been a part of this community's life for a long time, and people know the risks, Tallman said, but no one was prepared for this.

"I've never went through anything like this before," he said. "I can't remember. Older people probably can."

Mining continues to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, but it once was much worse. Last year, there were 21 coal-mining deaths. Compare that to 1907 when more than 300 people died in one explosion.

Company Control

In addition, the companies often underpaid the miners by altering the car that held the coal they loaded. So if a miner actually loaded 2 tons of coal, he might only get paid for one.

"At one time, they [the workers] were just a number," Tenney said, referring to the tags that mine companies used to identify the miners. "Then the person died, [and] the company gave the number to another person. At one time, it was more important if you lost the number than if you lost the man."

By the early 20th century, miners, lead by labor leaders like the infamous Mary Harris Jones or "Mother Jones," began organizing. Jones is the namesake for the liberal magazine.

In 1912, the West Virginia Mine Wars broke out, pitting miners against mine guards -- hired by management to make sure the workers did their job. The union, the United Mine Workers of America, sent arms and supplies. Those suspected of organizing labor meetings were often abused and harassed -- even evicted -- by the forces hired by the companies. These kinds of battles continued intermittently until the 1930s, when New Deal legislation increased federal regulations of the industry. Rules were strengthened again in 1969.

A Good Job

Mining communities modernized as highways brought in more settlers, who helped loosen the companies' grip on communities. Today, more coal mining is done in strip mines, which are safer but destroy the environment as they remove the surface of the Earth, Fishback said. According to U.S. census data, the average coal miner can expect to make around $40,000. Those with supervisory positions can make between $50,000 and $60,000. For places like West Virginia, Kentucky and rural Pennsylvania, this is a very good wage.

"These areas are really poor by American standards," said Dan Black, an economics professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. Even though the job of a coal miner is "off-the-charts" dangerous, Black said it made sense that generation after generation returned to the mines.

"It is a very, very good job for people with not very much skill," he said. That means people can work in a mine and make a decent wage without a college, or even high school, education.

But Tenney said there was something about tackling those mines that was uniquely West Virginian.

"Culturally we have always been a rather feisty, independent people," Tenney said. "The mountains contributed to that."