CAPTURES COAL MINE CONDITIONS
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.
This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
The writer was searching
for more "coal mine" stories and came across this excellent
write-up written by Stephen Crane and placed in "McClure's Magazine,"
dated, August, 1894. I certainly cannot improve upon the writings of
Crane and so it shall be as he wrote it. It is entitled, "In The
Depths Of A Coal Mine."
The"breakers" squatted upon
the hillsides and in the valley like enormous preying monsters, eating
of the sunshine, the grass, the green leaves. The smoke from their nostrils
had ravaged the air of coolness and fragrance. All that remained of
vegetation looked dark, miserable, half-strangled. Along the summit
line of the mountain a few unhappy trees were etched upon the clouds.
Overhead stretched a sky of imperial blue, incredibly far away from
the sombre land.
We approached the colliery over paths
of coal dust that wound among the switches. A "breaker " loomed
above us, a huge and towering frame of blackened wood. It ended in a
little curious peak, and upon its sides there was a profusion of windows
appearing at strange and unexpected points. Through occasional doors
one could see the flash of whirring machinery. Men with wondrously blackened
faces and garments came forth from it. The sole glitter upon their persons
was at their hats, where the little tin lamps were carried. They went
stolidly along, some swinging lunch-pails carelessly; but the marks
upon them of their forbidding and mystic calling fascinated our new
eyes until they passed from sight. They were symbols of a grim, strange
war that was being waged in the sunless depths of the earth.
Around a huge central building clustered
other and lower ones, sheds, engine-houses, machine-shops, offices.
Railroad tracks extended in web-like ways. Upon them stood files of
begrimed coal cars. Other huge structures similar to the one near us,
upreared their uncouth heads upon the hills of the surrounding country.
From each a mighty hill of culm extended. Upon these tremendous heaps
of waste from the mines, mules and cars appeared like toys. Down in
the valley, upon the railroads, long trains crawled painfully southward,
where a low-hanging gray cloud, with a few projecting spires and chimneys,
indicated a town.
Car after car came from a shed beneath
which lay hidden the mouth of the shaft. They were dragged, creaking,
up an inclined cable road to the top of the "breaker."
At the top of the " breaker,"
laborers were dumping the coal into chutes. The huge lumps slid slowly
on their journey down through the building, from which they were to
emerge in classified fragments. Great teeth on revolving cylinders caught
them and chewed them. At places there were grates that bid each size
go into its proper chute. The dust lay inches deep on every motionless
thing, and clouds of it made the air dark as from a violent tempest.
A mighty gnashing sound filled the ears. With terrible appetite this
huge and hideous monster sat imperturbably munching coal, grinding its
mammoth jaws with unearthly and monotonous uproar.
In a large room sat the little slate-pickers.
The floor slanted at an angle of forty-five degrees, and the coal, having
been masticated by the great teeth, was streaming sluggishly in long
iron troughs. The boys sat straddling these troughs, and as the mass
mover slowly, they grabbed deftly at the pieces of slate therein. There
were five or six of them, one above another, over each trough. The coal
is expected to be fairly pure after it passes the final boy. The howling
machinery was above them. High up, dim figures moved about in the dust
These little men were a terrifically dirty
band. They resembled the New York gamins in some ways, but they laughed
more, and when they laughed their faces were a wonder and a terror.
They had an air of supreme independence, and seemed proud of their kind
of villainy. They swore long oaths with skill.
Through their ragged shirts we could get
occasional glimpses of shoulders black as stoves. They looked precisely
like imps as they scrambled to get a view of us. Work ceased while they
tried to ascertain if we were willing to give away any tobacco. The
man who perhaps believes that he controls them came and harangued the
crowd. He talked to the air.
The slate-pickers all through this region are yet at the spanking period.
One continually wonders about their mothers, and if there are any schoolhouses.
But as for them, they are not concerned. When they get time off, they
go out on the culm heap and play baseball, or fight with boys from other
" breakers " or among themselves, according to the opportunities.
And before them always is the hope of one day getting to be door-boys
down in the mines; and, later, mule-boys; and yet later, laborers and
helpers. Finally, when they have grown to be great big men, they may
become miners, real miners, and go down and get "squeezed,"
or perhaps escape to a shattered old man's estate with a mere "miner's
asthma." They are very ambitious. "A few projecting spikes
and chimneys indicated a town."
Meanwhile they live in a place of infernal
dins. The crash and thunder of the machinery is like the roar of an
immense cataract. The room shrieks and blares and bellows. Clouds of
dust blur the air until the windows shine pallidly afar off. All the
structure is a-tremble from the heavy sweep and circle of the ponderous
mechanism. Down in the midst of it sit these tiny urchins, where they
earn fifty-five cents a day each. They breathe this atmosphere until
their lungs grow heavy and sick with it. They have this clamor in their
ears until it is wonderful that they have any hoodlum valor remaining.
But they are uncowed; they continue to swagger. And at the top of the
"breaker' laborers can always be seen dumping the roaring coal
down the wide, voracious maw of the creature.
Over in front of a little tool-house a
man smoking a pipe sat on a bench. "Yes," he said, "I'll
take yeh down if yeh like. " He led us by little cinder paths to
the shed over the shaft of the mine. A gigantic fan-wheel near by was
twirling swiftly. It created cool air for the miners, who on the lowest
vein of this mine were some eleven hundred and fifty feet below the
surface. As we stood silently waiting for the elevator we had opportunity
to gaze at the mouth of the shaft. The walls were of granite blocks,
slimy, moss-grown, dripping with water. Below was a curtain of ink-like
blackness. It was like the opening of an old well, sinister from tales
The black, greasy cables began to run
swiftly. We stood staring at them and wondering. Then of a sudden the
elevator appeared and stopped with a crash. It was a plain wooden platform.
Upon two sides iron bars ran up to support a stout metal roof. The men
upon it, as it came into view, were like apparitions from the center
of the earth.
A moment later we marched aboard, armed
with little lights, feeble and gasping in the daylight. There was an
instant's creak of machinery, and then the landscape, that had been
framed for us by the door-posts of the shed, disappeared in a flash.
We were dropping with extraordinary swiftness straight into the earth.
It was a plunge, a fall. The flames of the little lamps fluttered and
flew and struggled like tied birds to release themselves from the wicks.
"Hang on," bawled our guide above the tumult.
The dead black walls slid swiftly by.
They were a swirling dark chaos on which the mind tried vainly to locate
some coherent thing, some intelligible spot. One could only hold fast
to the iron bars and listen to the roar of this implacable descent.
When the faculty of balance is lost, the mind becomes a confusion. The
will fought a great battle to comprehend something during this fall,
but one might as well have been tumbling among the stars. The only thing
was to await revelation. It was a journey that held a threat of endlessness.
Then suddenly the dropping platform slackened
its speed. It began to descend slowly and with caution. At last, with
a crash and a jar, it stopped. Before us stretched an inscrutable darkness,
a soundless place of tangible loneliness. Into the nostrils came a subtly
strong odor of powder-smoke, oil, wet earth. The alarmed lungs began
to lengthen their respirations.
Our guide strode abruptly into the gloom. His lamp flared shades of
yellow and orange upon the walls of a tunnel that led away from the
foot of the shaft. Little points of coal caught the light and shone
like diamonds. Before us there was always the curtain of an impenetrable
night. We walked on with no sound save the crunch of our feet upon the
coal-dust of the floor. The sense of an abiding danger in the roof was
always upon our foreheads. It expressed to us all the unmeasured, deadly
tons above us, as if the roof were a superlative might that regarded
with the supreme calmness of almighty power the little men at its mercy.
Sometimes we were obliged to bend low to avoid it. Always our hands
rebelled vaguely from touching it, refusing to affront this gigantic
All at once, far ahead, shone a little
flame, blurred and difficult of location. It was a tiny, indefinite
twig, like a wisp-light. We seemed to be looking at it through a great
fog. Presently there were two of them. They began to move to and fro
and dance before us.
After a time we came upon two men crouching
where the roof of the passage came near to meeting the floor. If the
picture could have been brought to where it would leave had the opposition
arid the contrast of the glorious summer-time earth, it would have been
a grim and ghastly thing. The garments of the men were no more sable
than their faces, and when they turned their heads to regard our tramping
party, their eyeballs and teeth shone white as bleached bones. It was
like the grinning of two skulls there in the shadows. The tiny lamps
in their hats node a trembling light that left weirdly shrouded the
movements of their limbs and bodies'. We might have been confronting
From this tunnel of our first mine we
went with our guide to the foot of the main shaft. Here we were in the
most important passage of a mine, the main gangway. The wonder of these
avenues is the noise-the crash and clatter of machinery as the elevator
speeds upward with the loaded cars and drops thunderingly with the empty
ones. The place resounds with the shouts of mule-boys, and there can
always be heard the noise of approaching coal-cars, beginning in mild
rumbles and then swelling down upon one in a tempest of sound. In the
air is the slow painful throb of the pumps working at the water which
collects in the depths. There is booming and banging and crashing, until
one wonders why the tremendous walls are not wrenched by the force of
this uproar And up and down the tunnel there is a riot of lights, little
orange points flickering and flashing. Miners stride in swift and sombre
procession. But the meaning of it all is in the deep bass rattle of
a blast in some hidden part of the mine. It is war. It is the most savage
part of all in the endless battle between man and nature. These miners
are grimly in the van. They have carried the war into places where nature
has the strength of a million giants. Sometimes their enemy becomes
exasperated and snuffs out ten twenty, thirty lives. Usually she remains
calm, and takes one at a time with method and precision. She need not
hurry. She possesses eternity. After a blast, the smoke, faintly luminous,
silvery, floats silently through the adjacent tunnels.