The War on Coal: Coal History

With so many people supporting the coal industry the question must be asked, have the people of Appalachia forgotten their history?
The Coal Camp Way of Life
Clinchco, VA Coal Camp
Starting in the late 1800’s large coal companies began building “coal camps” to mine coal after the land companies had successfully purchased mineral rights and land from the Appalachian people. The coal camps generated egregious profits by forcing their employees and their families to live a company life. Employees were paid in company currency forcing them to purchase company food, company tools, and company housing. Some would argue these early coal mining families had the choice to leave the coal camps and find work elsewhere. Could they though? Without US currency how could they afford to move a hundred miles away–and what then? Where would they live without a dime to their name?  Could they find work in time to keep the family from starving? All these dark uncertainties kept people trapped as laborers in the coal camps.

Coffins at the Monongah , WV Mine Disaster
Safety slowed production during the peaks of the industrial revolution. That slow down cost profits. Companies only sought to improve their bottom lines and pushed men and children to work in deplorable conditions or risk losing their jobs. Disasters were commonplace including the Fraterville, TN Mine Explosion which killed 216 men and children in 1902 and then the Monongah, WV Mine Disaster in 1907 which took the lives of 362 men and children. Many believe those figures are low estimates and remain fairly certain many more men and boys were thought to be in those mines when the disasters occured. To put those numbers in perspective, next time you go out in public count how many men and young boys you see. When you get to 216 or 362 stop a moment to ponder the amount of life lost because the upper echelon of coal companies thought laborers were expendable. Then realize these conditions did not change as a result of companies finding their hearts. They were forced to adopt safety because of labor movements and public outcry that forced the hand of a government they lobbied heavily. Also realize there are only two of many other disasters. Thousands more died in Appalachia leaving behind wives and children. If coal companies had only cared for the people of Appalachia.
Child Labor

In the early 20th century children were employed by the coal industry to do jobs such as picking slate out of coal chutes. Children worked to supplement the family income. Sadly corporate America still utilizes child labor in foreign countries. We believe companies have developed better ethics but in truth they’ve only developed better public relations.

Coal miners who finally had enough death and suffering started unionizing. They faced company hired “security agencies” like Baldwin-Felts who recruited thugs from the slums of major cities, armed them, and told them to harass union men and their families (women and children). Blood was shed time and time again as coal companies poured money into guns and thugs. They met honest hard working men on every front including the historic Matewan Massacre in 1920 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921.

The unions eventually prevailed. Coal miners continued standing against the coal companies winning battle after battle. Coal miners began having an equal voice in their State Capitols and in Washington DC. They be heard over the coal associations with their full time well paid lobbyists. Still, the most most comprehensive safety laws did not come until after such disasters as the Farmington, WV Mine Disaster in 1968 which killed 79 men and the 1976 Scotia Mine Disaster which killed 26 men. The blood of coal miners was still needed to bring change.

Even with the new laws and advances in technology, profit and production still killed working men and women. It still took the blood of the Appalachian coal miner to amplify his or her voice over the almighty coal associations.  Communities continued to suffer from coal company greed…
1968     Farmington, WV              Consol No. 9                    79 men killed
1970     Hyden, KY                       Hurricane Creek              38 men killed
1972     Buffalo Creek, WV          Buffalo Creek                   118 men, women, and children killed
1976     Oven Fork, Kentucky       Scotia Mine                     26 men killed
2006     Tallsmansville, WV          Sago Mine                       13 men killed
2010     Montcoal, WV                  Upper Big Branch            29 men killed         

These are only the headliners, the few which made it into the national news, but every year more than a dozen coal mining families are forever changed by the loss of a loved one in the mines.
Despite the spilled blood coal associations still put profit over people. Even now the West Virginia Coal Association scoffs at the costs associated with the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s proposed “End Blacklung Now” rule. Why  not just pay the price and help coal miners to have healthier happier lives? Can’t they spare even the smallest portion of profit? 
Those tied to their mining jobs would argue in favor of the now “friendly” coal corporations, assuming they have turned the other cheek. It would certainly appear so, especially with the millions of dollars being spent on public relations and media firms to build a better image of coal. While it is certainly true the violent bloodshed has ended in coal communities and safety within the mines has come a long way (thanks to the Appalachian people) can we really assume the coal companies have become a friend to the coal miner and his family? History teaches us much and so far I have not seen anything in history–even recent history–that would tell me the coal industry has the betterment of Appalchian people on their minds. If we are left without our lungs, our joints, or clean water to drink, it is not of their concern.  It’s a cold calculated business and they know how to run it.

4 thoughts on “The War on Coal: Coal History

  1. Are you aware of any documentation available, especially available on-line, about the date the UMWA was organized for the Clinchco, VA coal mines? I think it was in the mid-1930's. I'm interested in any available details. Thanks!


  2. I am not exactly sure of the date but I believe you a correct in the mid 1930's. My great grandfather attended the first UMWA meeting and joined the union. My great grandmother said he came home that night excited they were going to unionize. The next day he and everyone else who had been at the meeting were fired.


  3. The March on Clinchco was in the spring of 1939. I believe it was april.
    “The United Mine Workers entered Clinchco to organize the local mine workers' union and brought about a coal strike in the spring of 1939. A detachment of 40 troopers was called to preserve peace for six weeks in these troubled counties by prohibiting unlawful “parades” involving thousands of miners. Boulders were rolled off mountainsides, and one destroyed a State Police patrol vehicle. Rifle bullets fired by snipers penetrated police and civilian vehicles”-


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