Learn about the history of coal mining in Appalachia, the growth of mining towns, and the resulting poverty in a changing world.
The Southern Appalachian region has long been one of the largest sources of coal in the world. For generations, miners have been digging and blasting their way into the rugged mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama to unearth thousands of tons of what are commonly called “black diamonds.” An explosion in mining operations near the turn of the 20th century enriched the coal companies. But this growth also brought destruction and poverty throughout Appalachia.
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When did Coal Mining Start in Appalachia?
Reports from early Appalachian explorers mentioned fine veins of coal throughout the region. Thomas Jefferson even referred to the abundance of coal in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there was little use for coal, other than in blacksmith fires.
But when the Civil War ended, the United States entered a booming industrialization period. Coal was desperately needed to feed the factories and railroads spreading across the country like wildfire. Throngs of urban capitalists descended into rural areas such as Southern Appalachia to tap into its human and natural resources.
Small local operators ran the first coal mines in Southern Appalachia with little financing. After the Civil War, however, independent coal barons from outside the region set up shop throughout the hills, with better equipment and deeper pockets. Many independent operations consolidated into larger ones. This set the stage for the growth of large mining corporations (such as United States Steel) in later years.
War and the Demand for Coal
As World War I escalated around the globe, demand for coal from Southern Appalachia grew to unprecedented heights. Mining companies recruited large numbers of European immigrants, as well as Black migrants from the Deep South, to join the workforce of Appalachian farmers turned miners. At the height of the coal boom, there were nearly 12,000 mines operating in the region, employing over 700,000 men.
Coal mines in the early days were more crude and dangerous than the more mechanized mines of today. Miners would blast their way into a hillside, shoring up the walls and ceiling of the tunnel with heavy wooden timbers cut from the surrounding forest. They used hand drills to prepare holes for explosive charges to dislodge the coal. Mules, and later mining cars, pulled the coal from the depths of the mine shaft.
As valuable as mules were, however, they were occasionally sacrificed for the safety of the miners. As mining operations would shut down for the evening, methane gas would sometimes build up in the mine shaft overnight. To ensure that there was no gas inside, a mule would be sent into the mine first thing in the morning with an open flame (carbide or oil) strapped on its body. When the men would hear an explosion or see a smoking mule running out of the shaft, they knew the coast was clear.
Life in Appalachia Coal Mining Towns
Coal mining towns were built throughout Appalachia to handle the influx of workers. Miner homes were typically simple clapboard structures with a single drop light on the porch. Coal was supplied for cooking, and food was either purchased in the company store or grown on the hillsides.
Mining companies issued their own currency called “script” to purchase goods. Companies rarely extended credit to the workers, and any large purchases were taken out of each day’s wages. To this day, the remains of many old coal mining towns can be seen throughout Southern Appalachia.
Although life in the coal mining towns was a step up for the more impoverished Appalachian families, most found it to be a meager existence. Miners were typically paid $3-$5 a day for a 12-hour work day. Many young boys went into the mines with their fathers to perform “dead work” for which the miner wasn’t paid. Expenses such as tools, blasting powder, blacksmith services, basic utilities, or health care services were all taken out of the miners’ already meager wages.
The Dangers of Coal Mining
And then there was the fear that every miner’s wife had: that her loved one wouldn’t come back from the mine at all. Coal mining has long been one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. In the early days, it was even more so, with cave-ins commonplace. If a miner survived a mining accident, the company offered him little support if he couldn’t return to work.
In addition, many miners developed a horrible respiratory affliction, known as pneumoconiosis or “black lung,” from countless hours working in cramped, dark tunnels.
Many miners chose to fight back by joining the main miners’ union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Some companies responded with intimidation and violence to keep their workers in line. Companies employed thugs from so-called “detective agencies” to discourage any union activities. Many violent clashes followed, including the infamous battles in Harlan County, Kentucky and Matewan, West Virginia. In fact, the term “redneck” originated from red bandanas worn by striking miners as a sign of solidarity.
Coal Mechanization and Appalachia Poverty
But it was an over expansion of the coal industry in the early part of the century that led to its collapse. When World War I ended and European mines reopened, the demand for American coal fell sharply. Prices dropped, and coal companies slashed wages to compete and protect profits. Thousands of mines went bankrupt, closed completely or were consolidated into larger mines.
Although World War II brought a temporary boom to the coal industry, the companies began using more efficient mining machines instead of manpower. Large national industries replaced coal with natural gas and fuel oil, while railroads replaced steam with diesel-powered locomotives.
As a result, mine workers migrated out of the region in droves, while other Appalachia miners and their families returned to a life of farming, falling into poverty and malnutrition. The U.S. Government offered financial aid to these displaced miners and their families. This federal assistance program has become an ever-present reality in Appalachian life to this day.
Coal mining in Appalachia continues to this day, though nowhere near the intensity of the past. The physical scars of mechanized strip mining can easily be seen throughout the hills. But it is the social and economic scars on the region itself that often remain below the surface.
All Photos Courtesy of Gem Publications, Glen Jean, WV