by Polla Horn for
The Frostburg Express
Coal Miner Job Requirements: Tools and Bravery
by Jim Race
Our coal miners were proud of their independence. A skilled miner did not require supervision. He relied on his knowledge of geology, and was keenly aware of the sights and sounds of danger. A miner used his own tools and bought his own blasting powder, squibs and lamp oil from local grocers. The miner was required, however, to use the services of the company blacksmith for tool sharpening and repair, and a small fee was withheld from his pay to cover that service. A young man had to work through an apprenticeship to learn the skills of underground mining, and many were killed during their training period.
Before the advent of the “mechanical miner,” a miner had to get “up close and personal” with the coal. Miners did not stand and whack away at the coal face with their picks. They had to lie down and cut a narrow slot at the base of the coal with the pick, as far back as they could reach, approximately four feet or so. Next, they would stand, and, while using a breast drill, drill a two-inch diameter hole back into the coalface, at a distance equal to the depth of the undercut slot. A charge of black blasting powder would be made up, using newspaper rolled into a short tube and filled from the miner’s powder can. With the ends tied shut, the charge resembled a large fire-cracker. This would be inserted into the hole and pushed back with a wooden tamper. Next, a pointed copper rod, called a needle, would be inserted into the hole far enough to pierce a hole in the powder charge. Leaving the needle in place, the drill hole would be packed with clay. The clay tamper had a copper end with a little “U” shaped notch. It followed the needle to pack the clay in tightly. The needle and tamper were both made of copper to eliminate sparking near the powder charge. Once the drill hole was packed full of clay, the needle would be carefully drawn out, with the hope that nothing was blocking the empty space leading back to the powder charge. An igniter, known as a squib, would be inserted into the needle hole. The squib resembled a small soda straw, and was filled with fine black gun-powder. Attached to this was a short, slow-burning fuse, which was supposed to allow enough time for the miner to walk away from the blasting area. After lighting the fuse with his lamp, the miner would retreat to a safe distance while the fuse smoldered away. Eventually the powder in the squib ignited, which would shoot back through the needle hole like a rocket, igniting the main powder charge. The slightest defect in this operation could spell trouble for the miner. A small crumb of clay or rock might block the squib’s passage. A defect in the squib might interrupt its travel, either temporarily or permanently, and the miner would have to rely on his experience to correct the problem. If all went well, the blast would drop the face coal and it would break into lumps, which could then be hand-loaded into the coal car. It was the practice in many local mines to prepare the blasting charges as an end-of-day event, so that any hang fires had all night to settle. I can remember hearing all of those charges going off at quitting time.
It is not hard to imagine how a miner could be killed, as quick as a thought, and with no time to react. While lying down and under-cutting, the face coal could let go and fall onto the miner. At any time, the rib coal, to the left or right side, could collapse. The overburden of rock and slate could fall, as it would not yet be propped up. The top coal, still hanging above the blast hole, could drop. There were many ways for a miner to meet his Maker. Perhaps the worst deaths were those caused by coal dust, breathed in over many years of exposure. Ironically, the old-fashioned hand-mining method actually produced less dust than the mechanical mining machines, which came into use during the 1940s. The geology of the Georges Creek and Jennings Run Valleys is such that, being a basin, almost all of the coal is on a slope. Mechanical mining would have been a challenge, and would never have been used in many of those mines. Skill and bravery, however, were put to the test.
Our committee thanks Frostburg resident Jim Race for writing this insightful article.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of state Route 36 and the National Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor all of our Georges Creek miners and name those who perished while mining.
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to the
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF
P.O. Box 765
Frostburg, MD 21532.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation.
Contact either Polla Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com
to share your thoughts and stories. Be on the lookout for future Miner Recollections.