Posts Tagged ‘Upper Big Branch’

Gary Quarles made the front page of the Wall Street Journal a week ago.  Unfortunately, he had to die in the process, but he also put a face to an occupation that is largely unknown to most people.

Gary Quarles, Miner

Gary Quarles was a underground miner, a job which is out of sight and out of mind for most people.  Yet the job that he did was vital for our modern society.  The underground mine environment can be a dangerous place; not as dangerous as it once was, but still dangerous today.  It is a place where people uniquely trust each other to do the right thing, and even if you do everything right, you can still die.

As long as there has been coal mining, there have been disasters.  The biggest in the United States was at Monogah, a little over 100 miles away from Mr. Quarles’ mine.  362 miners lost their lives there, and there were others.  Cherry, Illinois, 259 dead.  Dawson Mine No. 1, 263 dead.  Dawson No. 2, 123 dead.  The list goes on to modern day.

Dawson, New Mexico. Every white cross is a dead miner.

And because most mines are in remote locations, a large number of people in the community are affected, making the disaster even worse.  On average, seven miners die each day in China.  Our statistics are better, but they are just statistics, numbers toted up on a sheet.  The numbers are improving, but if it is your friend or family member, mining will never be completely safe; it can’t be because of the nature of the work.

Underground mining is like eating the bottom layer of a chocolate cake.  There are a number of ways to bore into that cake.  You can go in from the top (shaft mine), go in from the top at an angle (slope mine) and come in from the side (adit mine).  There are usually several tunnels and shafts, used to not only access the coal but also to provide the necessary air flow to keep methane gas levels low.  As you dig out the bottom layer, you know that there are other layers above you just waiting to fall.  The Upper Big Branch Mine was no different.

After the Upper Big Branch disaster, there were the usual condemnations of the coal industry, but many misunderstood what type of coal that the Upper Big Branch was mining; Upper Big Branch mined metallurgical coal, not steam coal.  The Upper Big Branch mine produced high value coal that was processed further.  This coal was “coked“, then transported to blast furnaces to be used in the production of steel.  At the furnace, this coke was mixed with limestone and iron ore to produce iron; there is no substitute.  And since a lot of steel manufactured in the United States is remelt, it is possible that the coke produced from the Upper Big Branch coal would eventually end up on a ship, exported to other countries.

It has been said that businesses get the union that they deserve.  In its time, the United Mine Workers was led by the late John L. Lewis.

Lewis, after visiting Orient No. 2 mine in West Frankfort, Illinois where a mine explosion killed 119 miners in December 1951.

You can take one look at this guy and know that he knew the mining business.  He had grown up in a mining community, worked in the mines and then became the powerful, if not controversial, leader of the UMW.  He was a tough customer, perfect for dealing with the mine owners, but times change.

After the Upper Big Branch disaster, the UMW posted a gratuitous statement that if the mine had been unionized, that this accident might not have happened, but it also pointed out an interesting fact.  Part of its website mission statement:

The United Mine Workers of America is a growing union with a diverse membership that includes coal miners, clean coal technicians, health care workers, truck drivers, manufacturing workers and public employees throughout the United States and Canada.

In other words, the UMW is not just for miners any more, which points to the declining numbers of miners in relationship to a growing amount of coal being produced.  The current leadership of the UMW certainly are not as colorful as John L.; for the record, today’s president of the United Mine Workers is Cecil Roberts.

This is not to say that there wasn’t a reason for the mine workers to unionize.  Left to their own devices, more than a few of the mine owners would still be using slaves, which they did in parts of the South.  They also enslaved others with high prices for housing and food in the company stores.  Likewise, they used prisoners in other parts.  Anything to keep the costs down.

The Molly Maguires were part of early resistance to the mine owners; if you don’t want to read, check out the movie of the same name.  There have been numerous “wars” in the coal fields, too.  They include, but are not limited to, the Mingo War, the Colorado Coal Field War (including Ludlow) and numerous smaller skirmishes.  Ludlow, in particular, remains controversial, with some saying that 14 people died and other sources saying that it was 21.  Regardless, the mine owners had a squad of thugs driving around southern Colorado in an armored and armed vehicle called the “Death Special.”

The site of the Ludlow massacre is along the front range of the Sangres de Christo mountains in southern Colorado, just off of I-25.  Further up the hills is the abandoned town of Berwind, along with countless abandoned coal mines.  The Ludlow monument was paid for by the United Mine Workers, and it is a place that has been visited by many.  The guest register includes many union cards left by visitors.  This is just one of many monuments placed as a result of wars between owners and miners, regardless of whether a particular mine is unionized or not.  These being modern times, it now seems less likely that the mine owners will act with direct violence, but at the same time, there is a dynamic between owner and miner that will not easily die.

Likewise, people come into mining in a different way.  It is still largely a family business, where sons follow fathers into the mines; now daughters, too.  In the early days, the children got their start working in the breakers, sorting out slate from coal.  It was hard brutal work.  Later they worked at the mine doors, opening them as mine trains entered and left the mines.  This regulated the necessary air flow for the mine workings.  Later, they would work inside the mines, first as helpers and then later as miners.  Eventually as their physical condition deteriorated, they would return to working the breakers, if they could.

Going to work in a coal mine is different now.  The potential miner has to take an 80-hour training course.  Once allowed to work in the mine, they are identified by a red hard hat.  They were a “red-hat miner” until they completed a specific number of shifts, typically 84.  Any safety infraction was dealt with by fines, and if a red hat appeared to not be qualified to work the mine, they were drummed out.

Some of the old-hand miners would stick near the red hat, helping him learn the trade, while others kept their distance, just in the event that the red hat screwed up.  There was hazing, sending the red hat out to the mine boss for a “left handed roof bolt” and other such nonsense.  There were a variety of colorful names for the inexperienced; a more polite one was “Worm”.  Conversationally, they would look at the beginning miner, saying: “You are new here,  We call people like you worms, because they are blind and dumb and burrow around in the ground.”  A smart Alec coworker was likely to add “And they are both sexes, too.”  You knew that you were making progress when you were addressed as “Your Wormness” and such.

The miners that I knew were closer to John L. Lewis than to a suit like the current UMW leadership.  One of my favorite pictures comes from the Alabama archives, and neatly sums up those that I knew:

An Alabama Coal Miner

One look and you know.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but I know that he was a hard worker, an honest man and profane.  Heavy on the profane; the job does that to you.  But this guy is the sort of guy that you want to know in the mines, because his is the voice of experience.  They’re at the beginning of the shift because everybody is still clean, but that matchstick in his mouth will have to go before they go in.  Everybody gets patted down by the shift leader, looking for cigarettes & matches, stuff that will set up an explosion underground.  Safety, always safety, because if you don’t take care of it, you can die.

One would think that coal mining is a young man’s game, but that’s not the case any more.  Where once physical strength was a basic requisite for the job, now it is an understanding and respect for machinery.  The Upper Big Branch is a longwall mine, where large swaths of coal are cut out in one continuous operation.  Where once there had been rooms & pillars, now there is a systematic recovery of all of the coal.  Where once trees were cut down to make sets, now chain link fence and special epoxy bolts hold the ceilings up.  As with so much else about mining, technology has improved things; at least from a production standpoint.

The coal is ancient, deposits of compressed debris from eons ago.  As it is mined, little traces of its plant origins show up from time to time.  Outlines of ancient fern fronds and occasional ossified tree limbs turn up during the mining process.  They are the physical remnants of the plant vegetation that is the foundation of coal.  To the miners, it is a reminder of the timelessness of things but one which is quickly swept up by the machinery.  It is proof that the coal was formed over a long period of time and there are those who say that this is proof that there is no God because it could not have been done in six days.  The notion of time is such a human thing; I view those ancient ferns simply as an insight into how God did it.  There is no answer there as to why.

The coal mining environment is unlike others.  While many use products from Dell and HP, the miner’s world is filled with Gardner-Denver, Joy and MSA.  While others fill out expense reports, the miners fill out Yardage & Dead Work reports.  While most commute by car or train, the miner commutes in a man-trip, often many miles inside the mine.  Headgates and tailgates keep their vital air supply flowing.  It is like no other work environment on this earth.

The ultimate hazardous work environment is outer space, and yet there have been few fatalities.  Most have occurred while traveling to or from the job-site.  This safety record has come at a high cost, but one that is considered to be worth it.  In every work environment, it is always a calculation between costs of production and the value of the produced work.  There are a hundred and one ways that costs can be cut and a hundred and one ways that someone will be hurt by the wrong cost cut.  And no matter what the balance sheet might say, there’s still a human being attached.

Take a look at the late Gary Quarles. He was a hunter and fisherman, a family man and a miner.  His work was out of sight and yet made a difference in many people’s lives.  He wears his black miner’s hat proudly, for he earned it.

Perhaps in some future time, coal will be regarded as a curio of humanity, something remembered but not necessarily loved.  Whatever you might feel about the product, the people that produce it are a special group worthy of respect.  Until the day that coal is but a memory, there will be those who work in the mines.  And some will die there.

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