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A day in the life of a Black Diamond miner

Black Diamond miners ride the car down into the mine. The car was lowered by a cable.  - Courtesy photo
Black Diamond miners ride the car down into the mine. The car was lowered by a cable.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

A typical “day at the office” for the 820 or so men who worked in Mine 11 in Black Diamond at the turn of the century involved darkness, potential disasters and long hours of hard work thousands of feet beneath the surface.

The morning shifts started at 7:30 a.m. Work shifts ranged from eight to 10 hours, six days a week.

As Miners Day — which is set for this weekend — approached Don Mason and Don Malgarini of the Black Diamond Historical Society reflected on what the average day was like for a coal miner.

“There wasn’t a lot of office jobs,” Mason said. “They worked their butts off.”

At the beginning of their shift, the miners would get into a specialized coal car on the surface and then lowered into the mines by a cable. If the cable for any reason broke or snapped, the car wheels were designed to rise and effectively stop the car to prevent it from crashing.

The typical miner’s standard equipment included a leather belt, a headlamp and a handkerchief to keep out coal dust. Their attire consisted of dungaree overalls, flannel shirts, hard hats and thick rubber boots. Before battery-powered lamps, miners used ones powered by calcium carbide which, combined with water, creates acetylene, a high temperature flame.

The supervisor, called a fire boss, would check the gas levels before the miners were allowed inside. Mason stated that fire bosses would bring a cage with a small canary inside to the entrance of the mine. Canaries, which have weaker lungs than humans, would die if there were toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, methane or carbon dioxide. Later on, miners adopted a more humane and more practical method using a lamp that would brighten if there was too much methane in the air and dim if the air contained too much carbon dioxide. Surface fans helped circulate fresh air into the mines to prevent this.

A miner’s work was contingent upon his position and job title, according to Mason. The average miner spent his day shoveling coal from the broken seams onto the carts, which were then hauled out to the surface tipple. The engineers had more technical responsibilities such as the layout and direction they would mine. Various surveying instruments, such as a Gurley Transit, helped maintain proper alignment in the mines. They also had to ensure as they mined deeper and deeper into the coal seam that they left necessary pillars of solid coal to support the ceiling, but even then they required wood beams for reinforcement. To meet the demand for wood, Mason said, workers spent their entire shift hauling lumber down from the yards on the surface and into the mine.

As per policy, miners always had a partner with them. Incidentally, Mason explained, the temperature in the mine could be a relief, as it tended to be hotter during the winter months and cooler during the summer.

Despite the stereotypical portrayal of miners hacking away at coal with pickaxes, Mason stated the Black Diamond mines resorted mostly to blasting in order to break apart the coal seams. This role was entrusted to the blasting crews, who operated under highly precarious conditions. Not only did they have to worry about being buried alive if the ceiling collapsed, but they had to ensure that gas levels were sufficiently low. Coal dust, which is highly flammable, would easily ignite and in turn ignite the methane.

For small blasts, Mason stated the crews drilled into the coal seam and inserted sticks of dynamite, tapping it into place with the end of a broomstick.

The situation could prove lethal, however, if it seemed to be a dud, only to explode while being inspected by one of the crew. Later on in the century, they used wires and machines to set off explosions from a safe distance.

Mason explained the explosives were arranged in such a way that they would blast away at the seam from an angle so the loosened coal would slope down towards the miners by the tracks. This made it easier for them to load it onto the carts.

The coal company had several options for these miners in order to create incentives for them. They could be paid either by the hour or the volume of coal they produced.

To keep track their coal, the miners had brass disks with their specific number on it. After they loaded up a cart, they would place one of their disks onto a nail attached to the cart. When the cart was unloaded at the tipple, their number would be recorded with the load. Naturally, the most productive miners formed small work parties to maximize their profits.

“The best guys worked together,” Mason said. “Because they made about 10-20 percent more (than the other miners). They were allowed to progress at their own pace.”

Despite the precautions they took, there were everyday dangers inherent in coal mines, Mason stated.

“Even the best system didn’t guarantee it,” he said.

Every mine had rescue teams that would respond to emergencies. To hone their skills, rescue teams held competitions with other towns and cities, with the winners awarded a trophy. Among their equipment were gas masks, respirators and chemox oxygen generator canisters to provide air.

Lunch breaks occurred at the same time for everyone in the mine. Mason said a miner’s lunch generally consisted of a sandwich, fruit, soup and water. There were no restrooms or any sort of sewage or plumbing, so they used empty sections of the mine to relieve themselves.

Communication proved tricky, Mason said, as they have no phones or telegraph wiring and the mines could be miles long. To deliver a message, a volunteer had to bring it themselves. Many mining accidents occurred, such as the one in Franklin in 1894 that killed 37 miners, were due to poor communication between the surface and the miners down below.

The end of their shift concluded on different terms. The single miners lived in hotels, boarding houses or with a relative, while others worked to save enough money to bring their whole family to town.

But no matter what background they came from, the first thing a miner did when they arrived home was take a bath in a small shed located outside of their residence. On Saturdays, it was a tradition for the men to celebrate the end of the week at the saloon or tavern. Sunday, the only day they had off, was reserved for church and sports.

Malgarini, who hauled mining supplies at the Franklin-Landsbury mines during the 1950s, said homes were always quiet when their fathers came back from work.

“They told us kids not make any noise,” he recalled.

 

 

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