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  • "They Don't Dig for Coal Here Anymore"North Carolina's Coal Glen Mine
  • Forest Hazel (bio)

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The rusty iron mine rails that once guided the sturdy mine carts filled with tons of coal up into the sunlight, descended from the entrance and vanished quickly into the watery depths. Coal Glen was a "slope" mine, meaning the tunnel declined at an angle, rather than a vertical shaft like the one at the Old Egypt coal mine two miles west. It was possible to walk out of the Coal Glen mine, unlike at some of the other mines where a man could only reach the sunlight by means of the cage that ran up and down the dark narrow shaft. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs of the Coal Glen Mine disaster, ca. May 30–June 3, 1925, Chatham County, North Carolina, by Ben Dixon MacNeil, courtesy of the Ben Dixon MacNeill Photographic Collection (P0078), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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When Sam Hall arrived for his morning shift at the Coal Glen coal mine on the morning of May 26, 1925, it was just another day on the job. He had been employed for some months as an underground miner, laboring thousands of feet from the sunlight every day, extracting the Deep River's "black diamonds" for the Carolina Coal Company. The work was hard and dangerous, but the pay wasn't bad, so Sam didn't mind. At least, not until he saw the rats.1

On this particular morning, the rats were leaving the mine. For Sam, this was a sure sign of impending disaster. He refused to enter the long, narrow slope that stretched down into the blackness, and quit that very morning along with a handful of other miners. His older brother Henry laughed off the notion that a humble rat could predict an accident in the mines, and went to work as usual. The next morning, May 27, 1925, shortly after the morning shift began, the Coal Glen mine exploded, killing every living soul who was underground at the time of the blast—at least fifty-three men, including Sam's brother Henry. Sam worked for several days almost without a break in the rescue efforts to no avail.

Driving down through the quiet backroads on the border of Lee and Chatham, North Carolina, the dogwoods and redbuds that border the ever-present pine forest sway in the spring breeze. The Deep River winds lazily along on its way to connect with the Cape Fear en route to the Atlantic. There is little left today that would indicate to the casual observer that this area was once a busy industrial region, home to brick factories, stone quarries, and coal mines.

If you know where to look, you can see traces of the past, lurking just barely concealed by the bushes, young pines, and kudzu vines. The spur line of the railroad that once served the Coal Glen mine still is visible as it rambles through the wooded hills and sandy fields, a ghostly tunnel passing silently now where years ago the little steam engine "Penelope" rumbled back and forth along the three-mile track from the main line to the tipple near the mouth of the mine, shuttling its loads of soft, dusty coal to the main line and returning with empty ones, a continuous cycle that ended shortly after the disaster in 1925.

No one knows for sure how many men died that May morning deep underground, although the official record shows that the Chatham register of deeds issued fifty-three death certificates. Newspaper accounts report more. The whole shift amounted to nearly seventy men. Some, like Sam Hall, were spared because they felt an ominous warning in the scurrying of the rats who shared their dark, lonesome abode with the human toilers. Others, like Claude Holshouser, who ran home to get his dinner pail shortly after the start of his shift, survived to wonder at the reason they were saved while their friends and neighbors perished. B. H. Garner, who stopped on the way to work to round...


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