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.

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