- West Virginia Coal Mine Fatalities: The Subculture of Danger and a Statistical Overview of the Pre-enforcement Era
The human drama conveyed by continuous televised coverage of the Sago mine disaster in January 2006 may have seemed a novel occurrence to a much younger generation of West Virginians. Yet, in reality, those who watched much of the twenty-four-hour coverage of events at Sago may have found themselves virtually participating in a historical pattern of emotional trauma all too common among earlier coalfield generations. Tearful families gathered in crowds near a mine awaiting news regarding missing loved ones underground represented a scenario played out all too often in coal industry history. Before 1969, death and injury in the mines had been so frequent that it became part of the cultural thinking of coal communities.
Historically, residents of coal mining areas knew the risks and realities of the coal mining work environment. Stories of men killed in roof falls, crushed by machinery, or trapped after massive explosions remained a part of the folklore as well as contemporary events. In fact, most miners died or received injuries not in the more publicized disasters, but in individual mishaps. These day-to-day accidents coupled with the cycle of disasters provided the basis for the formation of a subculture of danger.
The miner of the earlier era was also more visible to the coal community than those of today. Although the automobile resulted in an exodus from the older coal camps, most miners could not afford a second “work vehicle,” and paid for transportation to work, usually in the pickup trucks of other miners. Thus, it was not uncommon into the 1960s to see a coal miner dressed in “bank clothes”1 waiting at the side of the road for his ride. Holding a round, silver-colored dinner bucket and covered with the grayish-black residue of coal and rock dust, this miner provided a visible sign of an individual headed into a world where death and injury were common. No doubt, in the minds of the more impressionable coalfield residents, the solitary miner waiting by the roadside symbolized a subculture that had come to accept the dangers of mining. Residents of mining areas knew all [End Page 1] too well that there existed the real possibility that the waiting miner could be someone who might be seeing the light of day for the last time. In many ways, the miner's working life represented something akin to a soldier about to enter combat. Although it served as combat with Mother Nature rather than opposing human armies, the potential of death and injury remained high for many decades.
Catastrophe, both individual and collective, existed as a real component of the mining community experience and memoirs of life in the coalfields invariably contain references to accidents and disasters. In his reminiscence of life in West Virginia's southern coalfields, W. P. Tams painted an overall positive portrait of operators and miners, but did not refrain from describing the horror of the 1907 Stuart explosion or to remind his audience that “coal mining has remained a hazardous occupation.”2 In the minds of some, coal mining, death, and injury were synonymous. Recalling his early years in a Maryland coal town, Raymond Densmore observed that “anytime coal mining is mentioned in my presence, immediately there comes to mind a picture of a horse-drawn hearse carrying a dead or injured miner.”3
This conceptualization of a dangerous occupation permeates scholarly studies as well. Anthony Wallace's comprehensive analysis of Pennsylvania's nineteenth-century Schuylkill region includes a lengthy description of the dangers of coal mining. Although Crandall Shifflett portrays twentieth-century coal towns in a rather positive light, he cannot ignore the inherent dangers of the mining occupation. Drawing from the earliest history of the nation's coal mines, Ronald Lewis relates that the fear of death and serious injury underground proved stronger than a slave coal miner's fear of punishment for escaping. Lewis reminds us that as late as 1968 the general public accepted the “truth” of coal mining as an inherently dangerous occupation in which people die.4