East Kentucky's "Dirty" Coal 


By Truman Fields - 2000

Over 200 million years ago, nature's forces dealt veins of the world's best coal to Eastern Kentucky. The Appalachian mountain range possesses nearly half of the world's "black gold." Eastern Kentucky had the cream of the crop of all coal on the planet.

This valuable fuel was discovered in our part of the state only about 100 years ago. Near the turn of the century, "Harper's" and "Geological Survey" magazines began running articles concerning the vast qualities of coal and virgin timber in the Appalachian parts of Southeastern Kentucky. Superior timber covering the landscape and the undisputed best coal seams anywhere in the world ran all through the hills. In some places as many as nine seams of coal ran through the hilly land.

Just after the "Harper's" and "Geological Survey" reports were published, powerful companies of timber and coal came by to purchase all the rights for these treasures. Approximately four out of five times, they were successful in making fraudulent deals for a price of approximately 50 cents per acre.

Our forefathers knew little about coal, but even less about large business deals. They did know, however, there was more than enough coal and wood to meet all of their needs; and there was plenty of each to meet the needs of their great-great-grandchildren as well. Fifty cents an acre was big money a century ago. Most farmers owned 100 acres or more. Nearly all of them had little or no cash.

Coal mining was slow to develop in our region, until World War I. Most local farmers dug just enough to supply their home needs. During the war, and just after the war's completion, coal mining took off at a startling pace.

Perry County, one of Kentucky's 19 coal counties, was at the exact center of the coal boom, extremely rich in both coal and timber. According to the local newspapers and national articles, our county had 257 coal mines operating at full till. Many of the tunnel mines were working three shifts a day, seven days a week.

Strip-mining got started, seriously, in the late 1940s. The methods of digging coal from a mountain stepped up coal production at an astounding rate. The large steam shovels could scoop up tons of the precious fuel in one quick swipe. Forty-inch auger steel bits were run back into the coal seams, beyond the stripped part of the mountainside. The large bits were often forced over 100 yards into the mountain to get every possible pound of available coal.

There was work and prosperity for anyone who helped rip up the landscape or go deep under the hills in the dark, damp, and dangerous tunnel coal mines. In 1947 Hazard, Kentucky, was reported to be the fastest growing city in the entire United States. Private automobiles, buses, and taxis were constantly busy moving folks around. People were so thick on the streets of Hazard it was difficult to get from one place to another. Then coal and money caused times in Perry County and Eastern Kentucky to change quickly and drastically.

During the late 1940s, electricity came to Big Creek. This new form of power replaced kerosene lamps overnight. When it came to our homes, we stored the kerosene lamps in the barn loft. They were never to be used again. The strong, invisible, and nearly unbelievable power came into our homes, barns, and worksheds through small wires. It brought refrigerators, washing machines, and even light to every room in the house and barn.

Many customs died during these changing times of fast prosperity and easy living. Some of the old traditions were killed, never to live again. Many tradesmen's skills were no longer needed; asphalt shingles replaced the white oak handmade shingles that had always been used to cover homes, barns, and sheds; plastic handles pushed aside local hickory wood that had been used for tool handles, ever since the first settlers came to Appalachia; wooden supplies were no longer the only materials available; we no longer needed to depend solely on home-produced vegetables, fruits, or meat; gardening and farming slowed down, drastically; and orchards nearly dried up. Orchards that had been producing apples, peaches, grapes, and pears began to grow weeds and underbrush. All necessary supplies, groceries, and materials could be found in many local places of business.

My Aunt Eliza didn't like all the change that was coming. She said, "Store-bought stuff is no account, and it should all be throwed in the creek."

She would always add, "Money does nasty things to good people; you jist wait and see." Sometimes she would remind us children, "You can mark my word on that, too, you yungins!"

Few people listened to my aunt or anyone else who was against the new, easy way of change. They liked the money and the supplies it brought with it. There were cinder blocks and red brick, along with various new building materials, readily available at local hardware stores. It seemed as if no one needed to go into the ever-supplying woods for anything; everything needed was shipped in from the North, the West, or from Europe.

Harry "Rock" Bates, a stonemason with unusual stonecutting abilities, was put out of work completely, because the store-bought red brick was more prestigious than the local old-fashioned white stone.

Billy Ray Smith and his mule, Barney, were no longer needed to haul coal in a homemade sled, as they had done for over 40 years. More and more, we saw sleds and wagons replaced by trucks and trailers.

Prosperity came like a siren at midnight, and it came with a capital "P." The entire county was jumping with change. Coal money wasn't talking. It was screaming. Most people listened, because they liked the sound.

The city of Hazard got brand new parking meters to decorate the crowded streets. Locals complained that if one makes money, the government surely would find a way to take it. Several people refused to put nickels in the parking meters.

The county seat got WKIC, a new radio station. The call letters stood for "We're King In Coal." The broadcasting way of home entertainment led to new electric radios, which replaced the large, bulky battery-operated ones that had been purchased a few years earlier to receive war news. Electric radios were a must in every home. If a family was of the upper crust (the place where everyone wanted to be), it bought a Philco radio. Some new Philco radios even had a built-in record player. Living was large for families employed by a coal company. Many families bragged of their new Philco radio-record player. Coal caused the work to be steady and the money to flow freely.

About this time, the Catholics came to Hazard with a new, different kind of religion. They ran a much-needed hospital in an efficient, impressive manner that favorably impressed most people in the county. Of course, some individuals did make fun of their different ways of worship and the dresses the nuns wore. Times were changing, and times were good during that fast-living period. At least, most people thought they were good.

Money was flowing, more and more, as new mines opened in several different places. Living was easier for nearly everyone involved in the "black gold" business. This new prosperity was also easy money for haulers, repairmen, crosstie producers, and mine suppliers. It was great economic news for all businesses. There was honey in the horn and plenty of it. Nearly everyone who could, got involved in the "black gold" dollar. Small fortunes were made for many business people.

However, there were no fortunes made by the men deep in the mines; the places where my father and his close friends earned a hard living. The coal miner, the poor hard-working devil himself, was fundamentally at the start of all the economic success that touched thousands of working individuals.

Before daybreak, the struggling laborer would don a hard plastic helmet with a carbide lamp. Then he would go far into the unforgiving, dirty, dusty coal seam to work an eight or ten-hour shift, which had him loading dirty coal by a handshovel. In poor light, more often than not, the miner loaded coal on his knees, because the coal seams were not tall enough for him to stand up. Many coal seams were only 40 inches high, and some were even shorter than that. Each miner was expected to shovel about 16 tons of the "black gold" in a single shift.
The labor was pure misery, lonely, and extremely dangerous. After the long shift ended, the laborer would come home to take a bath in a washtub, in a place that had no running water and no indoor sewer system. My father worked this job for years.

It didn't take long for greedy mine owners to push the miners far beyond safety. They wanted production at any cost, regardless of the life-threatening working conditions. Eventually, the miners balked and were determined to do something about the dangers they faced daily. Miners started to demand fair wages and safe working conditions. That was fair and reasonable, the miners figured. They soon bonded together and decided to stand up and fight for their rights.

The coal czars wanted no part of the bonding or union talk. They demanded that everyone do things their way or no way. Scheduled talks went nowhere, and many miners were let go, fired, expelled from the premises, and left without a job; because they were brave enough to stand up for reasonable rights.

Miners were also blacklisted, if they didn't do things the company way. If the miner and his family lived in a coal camp, they had less than 24 hours to vacate the company-owned property.

When an employee was blacklisted, no other coal company would hire him. The miners thought that was unfair, and they decided to strike and not go to work at all, until some kind of decent agreement was settled on. They formed a union and refused to go to work. Everyone figured all hell would soon break loose, and it didn't take long.

The greedy owners bonded together and formed a union of their own. Their union was a little different. They didn't hire mountain farmers this time, like they did before. They hired thugs and bullies from Chicago and Cleveland to help straighten out some attitudes the mountain miners had developed.

Tense and dangerous times spread throughout every mine in the area, after the miners attached themselves to John L. Lewis, president of the coal miner's union. The coal operators and owners didn't particularly care for Mr. Lewis. As a matter of fact, they hated and despised the man with a passion. The coal miners' president was strong and demanding. The big, aggressive man looked and acted the part well. He looked tough, talked tough, and his cold steel eyes had thunderstorm eyebrows that caused some mine owners to think twice and hate even more.

Coal miners and their families loved and respected John L. Lewis. While many homes had two pictures on the wall, one of Mr. Lewis and another of Jesus Christ, some had only one. That single picture was the picture of the man who said all miners should always have a safe place to work, and it should be a respectable place of labor that pays fair wages. He insisted on fair wages and safe working conditions.

Mr. Lewis gave his support, 100 percent, to the newly-organized union. The owners vowed they would have no part of John L. Lewis or any kind of a union. They decided to fight the union, inch by bloody inch. Hell did break loose, and it had more than an ugly, nasty attitude. The rough, hired hands from the North knew precisely why they were hired. They were ready and willing to do anything the coal operators wanted them to do for the right kind of money.

The mountain miner was no stranger to violence. He would do whatever it took to right the situation, damn the consequences. At first, arguing and threats went nowhere. However, they soon led directly to hand-to-hand combat. These conflicts led to clubs and guns in many places. Several people were maimed for life, and many lives were snuffled out in the bloody, treacherous coal wars in Eastern Kentucky. Shotguns and rifles came out of the closets with boxes of ammunition.

I remember hearing some of my father's union buddies say that they would fight as long as they had a bullet left to fire, and guns were used often. One time, 16 bodies were laid out in a row, in nearby Harlan, for coal war-related violence. Six of the dead were brothers.

Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones, a boy during these troubled times and a legendary athlete from Harlan, witnessed much of the action. He told me about the time when the union men stormed the company commissary. The coal company placed a butcher block behind the closed double doors of their store, then mounted a machine gun on the block. When the union men charged the store, the company thugs swung open the doors and began firing. A number of people were shot, and some were killed.

Eventually, a union was formed and the miners went back to work. The thugs went back to Cleveland and Chicago.

My father was fully involved in the violence, but he got through the turbulent times with only a few visible scars. He would never talk to his three sons very much about the union troubles, saying only that all that stuff was over and done with, and everybody should try to forget it. When I pressed for more information, all he would offer was that I should always stand up for what is right, no matter what. He did exactly that for a lifetime. For my lifetime, I knew I could never be that strong.

My dad didn't get through the black lung problem very well. Black lung, the disease that denies its victims sufficient oxygen to sustain normal exertion, haunted and caused him to suffer a miserable, prolonged death. Many times during the night, our family was awakened by his coughing, gasping, and wheezing. In his later years, he couldn't walk at a normal pace or do any kind of light physical chores.

The hated black lung disease finally added him to its large number of hard-working, honest, brave coal miners, who had spent too many days deep in the dark, dangerous coal mine.

The few years of drastic change and easy money took its toll on all the people and their land. Coal ran through the veins of the mountains and mountain people. It cursed the people and the land. It cursed often, and it cursed hard in our neighborhood. Coal took away many things that were good, and it brought little real value.

The deep scars attached to the "black gold" will be a burden on all the people of Eastern Kentucky, as long as there is time. 


Truman Fields, 137 Lorraine Court, Berea, KY 40403, shares this story with our readers.