Saturday, November 10, 2012

"He said, 'Son, you go to school and learn your letters, don't be no dusty miner like me.'"

There's a darker side to the beautiful Cumberlands, along with the rest of the mountains in this part of the country. Coal companies. The coal companies had a nasty habit of paying in script which could only be redeemed at the store the company owned. Fires and cave-ins were common and people were often both broke and broken-down. Blue Heron was a mining community run by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, starting in 1937.
At the base of some of the escarpments is exposed coal. My son, who does some blacksmithing and was intrigued, broke off some pieces to bring home.
Although the coal companies have long since shut down here, there are still interesting reminders that it was an industrial area for a quarter of a century.
Sulphur? I know coal contains sulphur (which becomes poisonous sulphur dioxide when burned), and that was my son's guess.
But we had absolutely no idea what this orange goo was oozing from the coal. I've had several patients over the years whose fathers were coal miners, most of them dead now from black lung disease. All of these people grew up in poverty in the coal-rich portions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Along the trail there were cave entrances gated off, apparently after some of the rock collapsed. I didn't need that warning - the place looked decidedly treacherous. In 1962, the company shut down Mine 18 and Blue Heron became a ghost town, with only foundations of old buildings remaining. There are re-created shells of the buildings now, with recorded voices of the miners and their families telling their stories.

"For I was born and raised at the mouth of the Hazard holler, 
coal cars roarin' and rumblin' past my door. 
Now they stand in a rusty row all empty 
And the L & N don't stop here anymore. 

 I never thought I'd learn to love the coal dust, 
I never thought I'd pray to hear the tipple roar. 
But Lord, I wish the grass would change to money 
And them greenbacks fill my pockets once more." (Jean Ritchie)

30 comments:

  1. Was this part of a museum that you visited? The photos in the video are heart-wrenching. To think of families living like that.....

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    1. No, those are all photos from the hike I took last weekend with my son - the loop was through an old mining community. And yes, very sad and very common around here.

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  2. So very interesting with the history of the coal mines and the miners who worked hard in it and their families trying to live in conditions they did.

    My grandfather on my mom's side came over from Poland in the early 1900s and settled in a coal mine town in Pennsylvania and worked the mines for many a year but as his boys started growing and reaching manhood, he decided he didn't want them in the mines so moved the family to a town that had steel mills. Only one of four brothers went into the mines, the rest into the steel mills.

    The house I grew up in, in Pennsylvania before we moved to California when I was sick, had a furnace that ran on coal. I remember coal being delivered and the coal room. My mom eventually had the furnace converted to a gas one because she grew weary of having to stoke the furnace with the coal (she was a young widow, my dad died when I was 18 months old, leaving three young children five and under for my mom to raise).

    Thanks for sharing this with us! Enjoy your day!

    betty

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    1. I have patients now how grew up in coal town houses with no indoor plumbing. It's a hard life.

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  3. It seems these places are haunted by the short lives of the miners.

    And the land speaks their stories.

    XO
    WWW

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    1. And the families who then struggled on without the breadwinner.

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  4. Fascinating and informative post and video!

    I love to read about where other people live it the world (especially its history) because it opens your eyes and mind to how others live/lived. That's one of the things I like about Philadelphia, its deep history. You can actually FEEL the past while walking through the cobblestone streets, looking at all the old homes which still stand.

    Thanks for sharing. Really enjoyed!

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    1. Thanks! I like that, too. I think it helps me connect to other experiences and to be thankful for my own situation.

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  5. scary some of the towns left to die after mining left...been in a few in KY and actually been down in the mines as well...really interesting place to visit though...

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    1. Very interesting to visit. This town was so ghostlike hardly any of it remained.

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  6. we live quite close to the coal regions in eastern PA where the mines have long been shut. my grandmother grew up in one of the communities when the mines were still active. some very sad stories.

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    1. Indeed. In my own town there are active zinc mines, with tunnels running up under my neighborhood. But since the town isn't run by the mines, it's not the same desperately poor situation.

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  7. Reminded me of the movie "Matewan" of some years ago. Nice informative post, thanks.

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    1. I never saw that. I just looked at the IMDB review and think I'd like it, but it's not on Netflix. :(

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  8. Coal mining's still a pretty filthy, nasty business. You need to be damn tough to endure it. And as you say, you can end up with some horrible diseases.

    That's a great song. The version I know is by Michelle Shocked.

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    1. Yes - I know I'd never make it!

      I looked up the Michele Shocked version. This one (that I posted) seems truer to the sort of music that is played in the mountains around here.

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  9. I always enjoy visiting places like that. Of course here in California we see a lot of places where they went gold mining.
    Pretty sneaky to pay in script and then get it back. That is really sad for the miners. Besides all the accidents the lung disease breaks my heart.

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    1. Those coal companies were absolutely corrupt - and didn't care that they were keeping people in poverty.

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  10. A very sad life for so many who came to America for a better life. The orange goo reminds me of formations such as dripstone or flowstone found in caves. Or I guess it could be some funky bacteria!

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    1. I think in this area, the miners were all locals and became dependent on the very companies that were destroying their land and ruining them. I din't touch the orange goo so I don't know if it felt fungus like or more rubbery.

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  11. Yep, that's sulfur. We get some around here, too. I don't know about the orange stuff, but I'll bet there's a little iron mixed in.

    Love the song.

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    1. Iron would make sense for the color. I need a geologist.

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  12. Did you ever read "How Green Was My Valley", about coal mining in Wales? A hard life no matter where. When I was growing up we didn't have central heating. Everyone heated their houses with coal fires. I loved when it got cold enough to light up the fire for the first time in the Fall and I could curl up with my book, so close that my shins would get crazy shapes on the skin from the heat. I also remember the miserable job some men had, delivering our coal and hauling it in burlap sacks on their backs to the coal shed in our back garden.....The coal got into every pore so that their faces were black.

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    1. No, I'll have to look for that. I suspect the mining culture is pretty universally hard. I can't imagine how back breaking that delivery job was.

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  13. Replies
    1. Thanks - I think the singer does a particularly nice job with it. It's a song I first heard sung by some friends of mine who sing Americana music.

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