FATALITIES IN WEST VIRGINIA COAL MINES 1883-1925
REPORTS OF MINE INSPECTORS, printed in Charleston, West Virginia, were begun in 1883. Until the year 1900, they were not printed annually. After the year 1925, fatalities were not listed by name in the statistical reports.
A few copies of these original REPORTS exist today in hard cover editions. They may be found at the West Virginia Department of Archives and History, Capitol Complex, Charleston, West Virginia 25305, or at the West Virginia University Colson Hall Library at Morgantown, West Virginia.
Because the original REPORTS were scattered in numerous volumes, and no master index was provided to assist those who knew not the year or county of death, the enclosed materials were photocopied and completely indexed by surname. This has been done with the permission of the W.Va. Department of Mines.
The value of these reports lies in their being a source of identification where civil records do not exist. Though the Virginia Legislature, in 1853, decreed that all births and deaths would be reported to the respective county clerks, compliance was often erratic. Tombstone records for miners, until recent years, often do not exist. Temporary or hand made markers did not often withstand the test of time.
After the Civil War, many foreign-born laborers came to West Virginia to work in the coal mines. Most of the enclosed REPORTS indicate the nationality and age of the deceased, his marital status, number of dependents, and the cause of his death. Because the county and name of the mine is listed, this will provide a clue as to the possible residence of the miner.
The format of the REPORTS will vary from time-to-time, becoming increasingly more detailed in later years.
A large mine disaster may have received extensive coverage in local newspapers (county or larger towns) to "flesh out" the historical background of individuals. Many newspapers since 1900 have been preserved on microfilm for the benefit of researchers. Inquire at any Branch Genealogical Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for the procedures involved in ordering these films, or see newspaper films at West Virginia University Colson Hall Library and some at WVA Dept. Archives and History. Some genealogical and historical societies have preserved scrapbooks of major local events. (Marion County, especially, has a nice scrapbook collection at the Public Library in Fairmont).
A BRIEF HISTORY OF COAL MINING IN WEST VIRGINIA
The existence of coal deposits in "Western Virginia", as it was commonly called before it became a separate state on June 20, 1863, was well known to early explorers and to early residents, but there was no vast commercial market for it due to transportation problems common to hilly terrain with secondary roads which were often little more than trails.
The development of any industry requires a substantial outlay of capital, and those with capital to invest are concerned with getting a product to market. Therefore, until after the Civil War, coal was mostly mined for domestic purposes, such as providing a source of heat to boil the brine in the salt making industry in Kanawha County.
Railroad construction had begun prior to the Civil War, and had reached the present borders of West Virginia. All railroad building activities had to stop until after the cessation of hostilities in 1865, after which time the construction resumed until the railroads had reached the Ohio River. Now the Eastern investors were ready to develop the dormant coal industry.
They sent in representatives to purchase the n rights" to the timber and minerals on the land for an average of $25 or $3 per acre. After the harsh financial deprivations of the Civil War, this seemed a magnificent windfall to the owners of the land. Their experience had not prepared them to appreciate the great wealth contained in their natural resources.
The investors, from their point of view, had made a sound investment at a fair price. It was they who risked capital to develop resources which, until they were developed, were practically worthless.
A comparison of surnames of miners (excluding the foreign-born) with land records of early settlers indicates that but a few generations had passed before those who once had owned the land were now employed by outsiders to dig the coal, and to live in rental housing provided by the coal company.
Before the Civil War, slave labor was used to work the mines but slaves did not work willingly underground. For a long time after this, coal miners were almost always white men. By 1913, for example, of the more than 70,000 miners in the state, only 14,506 of them were Negroes. (REPORTS OF MINE INSPECTORS, 1913, pg. 15). Of the more than 70,000 miners, 32,612 were white Americans.
Their wages, as of 1913, were 48 cents per ton of coal. The annual wage for a pick miner was $737.62, an increase of $119.10 over the previous year's earnings.
The feudal system (coal companies being the "Barons of the Manor" and coal miners being the serfs) made it possible for the miner to live in housing consisting of rough lumber with no indoor plumbing and to do his necessary shopping at the company store where he might purchase on credit. He was paid in a "play money" called "scrip" which was exchangeable only at the company store. He was required to furnish his own tools and blasting powder, which he purchased at the company store.
If he were married, the needs of a growing family usually outstripped his ability to provide for them on the wages he earned, thus most of them were perpetually in debt to the company store. Most married miners had a little kitchen garden to produce some of their food needs. When his wife had need of obstetrical attention, or if there were family illnesses, the company doctor was called in, and the miner had that expense deducted from his wages. more than one miner, at the end of a pay period, would pick up an empty pay envelope because his indebtedness had taken all he earned.
A miner's sons would often follow him into the mines. The sons had grown up with mining and it was all they knew. It is not uncommon in these MINE REPORTS to see not only fathers and sons killed in a mine explosion, but to see many brothers perish, too.
The daily living conditions of coal miners "pre-Unions" is so well known that historians need only consult older family members for more details. Mr. William O. Williams, now deceased, had worked in the mines of Logan, Boone, and Kanawha Counties, also in Pittsburgh, Pa., for 40 years and spoke of coal mining, as he had known it, as being "The meanest life in the world". He spoke of bad air, miners being trapped behind smoke and being Unable to get out, pins not holding and causing the slate to fall, water seeping into the mine shafts making working conditions damp and cold, and the sheer physical agony of working in a narrow seam of coal all stooped over, or laboring on his knees in a puddle of water for the entire duration of a shift.
Deadly methane gas, being odorless, was a silent killer °ree;of many miners" but far more miners died of black lung, a disease where the air sacs of the lungs are destroyed from breathing coal dust- Mr. Williams said that the coal companies for many years, until legislation forced some changes, refused to recognize black lung as a valid medical disability caused by working conditions. Many company doctors would diagnose respiratory disorders as nearly anything but black lung. One coal company doctor had told Mr. Williams, "Breathe coal dust! It's good for you!". At the time of his death in 1983, he was receiving benefits for black lung.
In many instances, miners were trapped by economic conditions into this particular vocation and, once in it, few could see their way out of it. Mouths had to be fed, bodies had to be clothed and housed, and the wage earner must do what he must to accomplish this.
As the reader will note from these REPORTS, many miners who perished left widows and orphans. It was the rare miner who had or who could afford, life insurance policies.
Harsh working conditions, and inability of miners and coal companies to negotiate and make changes, led to militant unionizing efforts, which were eventually given the stamp of approval by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before unions became "acceptable", there were many harsh skirmishes between opposing factions. To this day, in Kanawha County, one may still find bunkers where gunfire was exchanged in this deadly struggle to improve working conditions for coal miners.
Even with improving working conditions, mining was still dangerous work. Experienced miners learned to be cautious, and the REPORTS OF MINE INSPECTORS indicated that experienced miners were far less likely to die in an accident than novices. Not so surprisingly, more mining accidents happened on Monday than on other days of the week. Those statistics, and many other interesting facts, are not included in the enclosed materials, but the reader is encouraged to see the original books if he wishes to learn more.
Each death reported herein is a story in itself, whether it be the story of the son of a former landowner who becomes a serf, or whether it is the story of an immigrant who has come to America to seek a better way of life, only to meet Death face to face in the bowels of the earth.
Many miners trapped underground during explosions did not have their bodies recovered. The mine shaft was sometimes Permanently sealed off, and somewhere inside another "statistic" sleeps until the resurrection. An in-depth look at these REPORTS reveals that some miners were not even known by name. "Italian #14 , for example, perished in a Kanawha County coal mine, and only those who spoke his native tongue might have known who he was.
The story of coal mining in the early days of this century is in many ways a solemn one, but the relentless desire of the miners for a better way of life has borne fruit as we see safety features in mines rigorously enforced, children of miners receiving university educations, and the miner himself being paid a living wage so that he might enjoy some of the fruits of his labors.