Appalachian Coal Mining

Hubert Crowell

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I sat there in the dark alone listening to the drip of water in the distance. Dad was ahead at the face of the mine setting the black powder charges before leaving the mine for the night. I heard a creaking sound above my head, and I moved to another waiting position a few feet away. Suddenly a huge bolder about twice my size fell on the spot that I had been setting just a moment before. Dad had told me to listen to the rocks and that they would warn you before something happened.

Black powder was used for the last shot of the day, it was cheaper and the smoke would have time to clear out before the next day. During the day we used dynamite made from nitroglycerin and sawdust that did not produce as much smoke. The miners hated the round boulders that stuck to the roof between the coal seam and the sandstone ceiling. You were always bumping your head on them or when you least expected it they would fall, blocking the road way or tracks in the mine. These boulders consisted of a very heavy rock unlike the sandstone or the fossils found in the border area of the ceiling. They are black like the coal and smooth like something left over from the past when the coal was still exposed to the surface. They could be fossils like the thousands of bamboo looking rocks that have to be picked out of the coal.

That was one of my jobs to lean over the moving belt line and pick out the rocks and fossils as the coal passed by. I was about thirteen when dad starting taking me to the mine during the summer months. He said it was to give me something to keep me busy and out of trouble while school was out. On Friday he would give me ten dollars for the week and I would spend it on the Saturday movies. Once he gave me a hundred-dollar bill by mistake and I did not realize it until I paid for my movie ticket. Of course I brought him the change back.

Being a boy, I played around the mine more than I worked. As long as I made up a good pile of dummies, paper bags about a foot long and the size of the dynamite sticks, and was around when the belt started running, I was free to roam and play on the tipple or explore the mountain side.

I must have some attachment to the coal mines of the Appalachian mountains. I was born in a small coal mining community in the eastern Kentucky coal fields. Dad was a supervisor in charge of one of the mining crews. He started mining in western Kentucky and had taken a job near Seco, Kentucky in 1941. I was born that year in a coal mining town. On December 30, 1970, I awoke after having a nightmare about a coal mine disaster and I shared the vivid dream with my wife. I had never dreamed about mines or disasters before and was quite surprised. Later that day we heard on the news about the Finley Coal Co. , explosion in which 38 were killed. The location of the mine was given as eastern Kentucky near Hyden, Kentucky, only a few miles from Seco where I was born. The explosion was caused by excessive coal dust and other combustible materials, insufficient rock dust, and other violations. The coal dust explosion was so extensive that dust and other materials were expelled from all eight openings of the mine.

Thirty-four widows and 103 children were left to mourn the loss. I do not know what possible connection other than being born so close to the disaster could cause me to have that dream. I only lived there a short time and had no relatives in the area.

During the spring of 1954 we moved to Hale Town, Tennessee on the Tennessee river near the Alabama and Tennessee state line. Hale Town was no more than post office and a trailer park found up Hicks Hollow Road. A few miles north, Aetna Mountain Road winds up Aetna Mountain where dad leased coal on the side of the mountain. Claude Cain, a close friend and mining partner built the tipple and assembled the belt line that ran from the mine to the hill side for loading the coal onto trucks.

We only stayed in Hale town a few months and then moved to South Pittsburgh, Tennessee across the river and on the border with Alabama. That summer when school was out, dad started taking Larry Cain and me to the mines. Larry was Claude's son and they lived just down the road from us in South Pittsburgh, dad always said that one boy was half a boy and two boys was no boy at all. I think that he was referring to the work that he could get out of us.

The mine on Aetna Mountain was created by cutting the side of the hill away to expose the coal seam and then just tunneling into the side of the mountain. The lease that dad had was between two other mines and no one knew where the mine operators would go once they got underground. Dad soon found out that each time they would move to the right or left then would break into the old workings of the other mines. The older mines used ponies or donkeys to move the coal out on tracks for the coal cars. The coal seams were too low for the animals so the rock had to be cut out of the ceiling for head room. This slowed the forward progress of the mines. Dad and Claude used electric mining cars and cutting equipment, with a belt line following along to quickly move the coal. They pushed ahead of the other two mines by driving strait back into the mountain to get ahead of the competition.

I recall one evening when I was alone on the outside that I decided to go into the mine and meet dad as he was coming out. All I had was a flashlight, but I knew that all I had to do was follow the belt line and the electric car tracks until I reached them. On the way I noticed one of the openings into the adjacent mine and had to take a look. I was shocked as I stepped over into the other mine. I could see the main haul line with the cut out roof and then row upon row of props for as far as I could see. I did see a wall of coal along one side and as I peered around the side it turned out to be a very thin wall with more rows of props and no pillars. The wedges at the tops of the props were pushing out from the weight of the mountain. I sure was glad when I got out of there. A common practice in taking out coal in the mountains, is to tunnel through the mountain leaving pillars as you go to support the mountain. When you reach the far side, you then start retreating removing the pillars as you go. The mountain then drops down closing off the mine. I had never seen props left in the mine to hold it up. Dad and Claude used roof pins along the main route to support the roof. Claude had even invented a wooden roof pin that work great in areas were there was water seeping in through the ceiling.

At the end of the day we would all gather below the tipple and bath in the pool created to hole water for washing the coal. When Larry was with me we would quit early and go swimming. As we were in the mountains and the road was hardly ever used we did not bother with swim suits. Larry and I were taking our usual swim one evening when two girls and a boy showed up. They must have lived somewhere on the mountain and they looked very rough. They started making fun of us and throwing rocks. We would not come out of the water as we were nude. Then one of them hit Larry in the head with a rock. Before I knew it I was all alone, Larry was out of sight chasing them down the road, naked as a jaybird. He did not catch them and I am glad he did not because he sure was mad and I had seen him in fights before.

Coal mining in the mountains is quite different from level country. You never know how high the coal seam will be. Dad told me of one mine he visited that the seam was so high that they had to use telephone poles for props. However, it did not last for long and closed back down to only inches. As long as the coal remains four too five-foot high the equipment can clear and you can make a profit. However if it gets lower and you have to take out rock to move ahead, it gets very expensive. Walking in five foot high coal can be quite interesting. Coal miners walk bent over with their hands grasped behind their backs. This saves the back from strain. I have found this to be helpful in caving also.

In the summer of 1955, the mine on top of Aetna Mountain played out, so we moved to Spring City, Tennessee where dad leased coal on the mountain just west of Spring City. Shut in Gap Road heads up the mountain then turn of onto Hard Rector Lane that runs along the top of the mountain until you reach the mine. I was traveling along this road one morning with dad on the way to the mine, when he stopped the truck and jumped out running into the woods. About ten minutes later he returned and asked me if I had seen the bobcat run across the road! Dad said that he wanted to get a better look at him and chased it through the woods.

In the place of a belt line, we used a three-wheel electric car to haul the coal out in trailers attached behind the car. Dad had two-twin brothers working for him and they were experts at driving that car. They would come out of the mine at top speed, whip around and back a string of three trailers out onto the tipple. That always amazed me the way they could keep the trailers strait backing up like that. We had a big electric generator for powering the equipment in the mine and it required a can of ether in the morning to get it started. It also charged the batteries on the electric car. The speed control for the car was a line of contacts on a lever with each contact slightly offset from the next. As you pushed the lever forward, it engaged more of the contacts to bring more of the batteries into the circuit for the motor. There were no brakes, and you just reversed the power to the motor to stop. With one front wheel you could turn on a dime, this may be why they could control the backing of the trailers so easy.

I think that dad tired of mining after opening these two Tennessee mountain mines, so he took a break and opening a gas station in Englewood, Tennessee.

I have started writing as a hobbie and plan to write about my life, work, hobbies, region and many other things of interest to me and maybe others will enjoy also.

For more information on caving, improving your service department and many other subjects, Please visit my web site at:

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