Sunday, January 9, 2011
Working in a Coal Mine
Newsletter of the Wayne County Historical Society
By Brenda DeVore
One of the interesting exhibits in the 20th Century Wing in Prairie Trails Museum tells the story of coal mining in eastern Wayne County. Covering the time from 1870 to 1960, when the last mine in Wayne County closed, it is a story of hard work and many men toiling away in dark dangerous underground mines.
When the pioneers began to arrive in eastern Wayne County they found coal near the surface of the ground. Some of the early pioneers dug out coal for heating their cabins.
Wayne County was officially organized on Feb 13, 1851 and by 1855 practically the entire county was settled. The 1850 census reported county population at 340. By 1860, just ten years later, the population had jumped to 6,409, and it continued to grow until it reached a peak of 17,491 in 1900.
In 1855 the only mine in operation was in Wright Township a few miles north of Promise City. By 1875 Wayne County had nine coal mines open, which employed 49 workers and put out more than 4,000 tons of coal, valued at $9,068.00. As the population grew so did the number of coal mines. All operation coal mines were located in the eastern townships of Wayne County continuing east into Appanoose. As rail service grew in importance some of the larger mines were owned by railroad companies.
A vein of coal twenty-five to thirty inches thick was found within the city limits of Seymour and extended about eight miles west of town and an unknown distance eastward. The first coal mine in Seymour was in 1883; it was owned and operated by L. F. Thatcher. Called the "Sunshine" mine, it was located directly east of the railroad which was convenient for shipping coal. In 1884 another mine, the "Occidental Coal Mines" opened at the west edge of Seymour, thus there were two mines within the city limits.
The Big Jim Mine, one and one-fourth miles east of Seymour was the largest mine in Wayne County. At its height it employed 500 men and put out five hundred tons of coal daily. With so many mines around Seymour it was known as a Coal Camp. With a need for more miners the Coal Companies hastily erected rows of small cheap houses to rent to the new immigrant miners. Even today a few of the small square houses remain in Seymour, Centerville, Cincinnati, Exline, Brazil, and Mystic.
In The Past and Present of Lucas and Wayne Counties published in 1913 it was stated, "The coal in Seymour is of superior quality producing white ashes and comparatively free from clinkers. A little mountain of cinders and debris within the town limits, removed from the mine, is about one hundred feet high and has been burning for several years. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company has built a track to this debris and is using it for ballast."
In 1900 Seymour boasted a population of over 2,000, the largest town in the county, mostly due to the many miners living and working there. Immigrants came from Croatia, Italy, France, England, Sweden, Lithuania, Ireland, and Wales to work in southern Iowa coal mines in search of a better life in America. Descendants of those early immigrants are still part of the community today.
In some of the communities, not only did the mines rent housing from the coal company, there was a company store where they shopped. In the classic Tennessee Ernie Ford song the chorus line was - You load sixteen tons, what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go; I owe my soul to the company store. Interviews of retired miners show many felt this way as the prices at the company store were inflated and they had no choice but to shop there. One retired miner reported that if your wife shopped elsewhere the mine might suddenly no longer need you.
Where the coal deposit lay near the surface and was visible from a hillside, a drift mine was dug horizontally. If the coal deposit lay not more than a hundred feet from the surface, a sloping tunnel could be cut to the coal. If the vein was deep but the materials above could be easily removed workers stripped off the overburden and formed a strip mine.
If the deposit was too difficult for a slope or strip mine then a vertical shaft was sunk down to the coal vein. From this shaft horizontal tunnels were cut into the deposit forming a room and pillar mine. If the mine was large there would be tunnels leading out in different directions. The mine entry averaged about eight feet in width, keeping the entry as narrow as possible to allow stronger roof support. Tunnel height was usually about five feet.
Transporting the coal from the mine involved building a rail system for small coal cars to be pulled by ponies or mules. Shetland ponies were the choice in many mines due to their short stature. Sometimes the ponies remained in the mine for extended periods and were blind when finally brought out to the surface.
Coal mining was a dark, dusty, dirty job and the men came from the mine covered in coal dust. The miners felt they were cleaner than others in the community because they had a daily bath while others at the time bathed weekly. Of course many former miners suffered from black lung in later years.
Mining was, and still is, a dangerous occupation. The miner worked in cramped dimly lit conditions with only a carbide lamp attached to his helmet and, at times, on his side swinging a pickax into a dark dusty wall of coal. Looking through clippings from early Seymour newspapers there are numerous stories of men injured or killed while working in the mines.
The miner who "shot" the coal had one of the most dangerous jobs. He entered the mine at night after other miners had gone home. Using a large hand crank drill he would burrow a hole in the wall and then set a charge of dynamite. The resulting explosion loosened coal to be picked and loaded the following morning.
Each miner had a unique set of brass or metal tags with a number stamped on each. Once the rail car was filled with coal the miner attached his tag to the front so when the car was pulled to the surface he would get credit for that load. There are three of these tags on displayin the coal mine exhibit at the museum.
Pictured above is a plat of the Confidence High Test Coal Company mine. This plat was determined by a survey done on Jan 18, 1937 by engineer M. S. Hall and updated in 1940. Constructed as a slope mine, it was on the east side of the roadand the entrance opened toward what is now highway S56. This mine was just south of where Sunny Slope Church now stands. This map is on display in the coal mine exhibit and was donated by Larry Martley.
In 1926 an article in the Times Republican reported, "Prospecting for coal near Promise City was rewarded by finding a vein 32 inches thick at a depth of 122 feet. The vein was struck by the drilling outfit Saturday evening on the Noble Brothers farm 1-1/4 miles eat of Promise City on the south bank of Walnut Creek. This became known as Noble Coal Company and was an underground mine. Evidence of this mine can still be seen today on the south bank of Walnut Creek, south of Highway 2 on the route to Seymour.
Enterprise Coal Mine north of Promise City was owned and operated by Maurice and Mary Maddaleno from 1933 until it collapsed in June 1960. The mine had the distinction of having a woman as engineer, Mary Maddaleno; her husband drafted her for the job after son Joe joined the Navy in 1943 during World War II. "I didn't have a bit of trouble learning," said Mary. "Easier than working around the house."
As the demand for coal decreased and the coal veins played out, mines began to close down. The collapse of the Enterprise Coal Mine in 1960 brought an end to coal mining in Wayne County.
To learn more about Wayne County's coal industry check out the coal mine exhibit in the 20th Century Wing of Prairie Trails Museum.
The editor sincerely appreciates the permission of the Wayne County Historical Society to publish in The Jerome Journal the article "Working in a Coal Mine" written by Brenda DeVore and the accompanying pictures from the Newsletter of the Wayne County Historical Society of December 2010. The Wayne County Historical Society operates the Prairie Trails Museum of Wayne County and the Historical and Genealogical Library, 515 East Jefferson Street (State Route #2) Corydon, Iowa.