Coal Mining

Early Coal Brook Breaker and Yards, Carbondale, PA
New Coal Brook Breaker
Erie Breaker, Carbondale, PA


You were introduced to mining culture, if you were a young man, about at the age of eight or nine when you went into a place called a "breaker", which is a huge factory for the processing of coal. And there, the boys would sit in a step-like manner and coal would come down in chutes underneath them. They'd wear high boots and they couldn't wear gloves because they had to go into the coal by hand and pick out the slate and the rock from the coal as it came roaring down under them. And they have overloads, or bosses, working behind them with bull whips. And there was so much dust in the breaker that the kids would wear bandannas across their faces and they'd take them off and all you would see was just the little whites of their eyes there. And that was their introduction to the world of work.

Later on, when miners had worked in a mine, say, for 20 or 30 years and contracted black lung and couldn't work underground any longer, they returned to the breakers. So there was a miners' slogan that "Twice as a boy and one as a man, that's the poor miner's lot." They're a boy when they start. They work as a boy when they end and they're a man in between. Your next step up, you moved in and became a door boy. You controlled these huge doors in the mines that controlled ventilation there. John Mitchell began work in Illinois as a door boy. Then you moved up and became a mule boy at about the age of 15, where you took care of the mules. You'd comb them and clean them and fed them. The mules never came above ground. The mules always stayed underground and you went in there and worked with those mules. It's an apprenticeship process where you're learning the ways and manners of being a miner. And then you're ready to go underground about the age of 16 or 17 and you go in as a helper. You might work as a helper for two or three years and then you graduate to a full-scale miner where you control an entire crew of usually yourself and two other men.