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My First Night In the Mines

By Buddy French

I guess because of my heritage, I was always fascinated by the coal mines. Even as a young boy I played near them. Many times I heard miners say, "Coal mining gets into your blood," or "Once a coal miner, always a coal miner."

I know now that only by experience can one really understand what that means. On the surface, there is certainly nothing appealing or attractive about working in a coal mine for it is one of the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous jobs in the country. One must go deeper – no pun intended – to discover the real draw or lure that keeps a man in the mines.

The following story is an actual account of my first night on the job at Gary No.9. There may be many things about the second night or second week I do not remember, but the images in my memory of that first night will never be forgotten.

Miner in a mine
On a warm summer afternoon in August 1966, I wheeled my 1965 Comet Cyclone into the parking lot at the Gary No.9 mine. This was the moment I'd been waiting for after completing three months of a six-month training program at United States Steel Corporation's No.6 overhaul shop. The company had assigned me to work here in the repair shop on the evening shift. I wanted to believe they transferred me to the mine ahead of schedule because I'd done so well in my training. Actually, there was a high demand for coal and the company was willing to send me on early in hopes that one of the old-timers would take me under his wing and help bring me along. The No.9 mine had recently been re-opened after being shut down for several years, and the company was pushing hard to get it back into production.

United States Steel's Gary mining complex in McDowell County consisted of a large group of coal camps, each one identified by its mine number. They stretched along several miles of railroad branch lines radiating out from the main operation at Gary. These now-small coal camps have names like Alpheus, Thorpe, Elbert, Wilco, and Venus in addition to their mine numbers. The No.9 operation was located at Filbert. These were considered model coal mining communities at the time and the mines here were said to be some of the safest in the industry.

After parking my car, I reached into the back seat for my hard hat, dinner bucket, and miner's belt. Attached to the belt was a self-rescuer – a device to breathe through for up to 30 minutes in case there was a fire and you were trapped in smoke. The belt also had a place to attach the large wet cell battery for the lamp mounted on your hard hat. I was given a round brass tag about the size of a half dollar, with the number 49 stamped on it. This was my check number and I had been instructed to attach it to my miner's belt with rivets and was soon to find out the chilling reason why.

You can read the rest of this article in the Winter 1999 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.