The Little Cities Archive

Shawnee, Ohio


Posted by JRW on May 23, 2011


  C.M. Thompson—October 2010


                  I, like so many others, have a lot of stories to tell. These are the memories stored from the past and we like to recall them and share them with others.  Unfortunately many of those bits of information are allowed to go with us when we leave this world. However, these accounts of the past most of the time are of great interest to our families and others. I am making an attempt to record some of what I have heard and remembered about coal mining over  the years and hope to be able to shed some light on what it was like for my father and other miners in their experience working underground most of their lives to earn a living. I hope to share some information that will be of interest to family members in future generations.

Coal mining was the occupation of many of our fathers, uncles, and neighbors. My father and Edna’s father were both coal miners as were many other men in the communities where we lived. Dad like many others started in the coal mine at a very young age. Some were only thirteen or fourteen years of age. I think my father may have been around sixteen. Although I never was inside a coal mine more than a few yards I heard it talked about so much during my childhood that I can picture what it was like inside. I always had a fear of going inside a mine because of the way my father and others talked about them. I heard my father say many times, “No son of mine will ever work in a coal mine.”

There were coal mines scattered everywhere it seems when I was growing up.  I remember peddling newspapers when I was a boy in school. I had a morning route and when I was on my paper route early in the morning there were men heading in different directions out of town with their dinner buckets under their arms to work in small mines around Shawnee.  When I was quite young Dad worked in a mine in Lathrop, in Athens County. It was called “The Black Diamond Mine.”  This was in the nineteen thirties and early forties just before our country got into WWII.  When he first started there the mine cars were loaded by hand into mine cars and pulled out of the mine by ponies or small mules. Later the cars were pulled out by a “motor.” A motor was like a small railroad engine that was powered by electricity. It had a kind of box-like shape. The operator of the motor was, of course, called the “motorman.” There was a trolley cable overhead carrying DC current which was low voltage (somewhere around 24 volts as I recall) and the track acted as a ground to complete the circuit. The mine cars, called “bank cars,” were still hand loaded though. Each miner carried a supply of brass checks with his assigned number stamped on it to attach to the car when it was loaded so he would get credit for his work. A miner was paid for the number of cars of coal he loaded. The brass checks were about the size of a quarter and were carried on a large safety pin designed especially for that purpose.

The miners were expected to supply their own tools. These were: a shovel, a pick, a carbide lamp, a hand saw (for cutting posts for top support) and other items used in their daily routine.

The mine had a main entrance or “main entry” as it was called. This was the long tunnel that went deep into the hill.  Off of the main entrance would be many “entries” then off of those entries were the “rooms.”  The miners would work in one of the rooms, sometimes alone but often in pairs.

I recall hearing Dad talk many times about “shooting down the coal.”  The way the coal was broken up and dislodged from the seam was by setting charges in it and exploding those charges causing the coal to fall out into the room.  The way it was shot down years ago was with black powder.  A hole would be bored into the “face” of the coal with an auger powered by hand. It might go in several feet deep. A “charge” of powder would be placed in the hole then coal dust and clay tamped in behind the charge around a “needle” ( a brass rod perhaps 3/16 inch in diameter) leaving a hole for a squib  to set off the charge. When the needle was withdrawn the miner would put a squib in the hole and light it.  When it began to burn down to a certain point it took off like a miniature rocket and would travel back to the powder causing it to explode. The miner would shout, “Fire in the hole!”, when he was ready to set off the charge, warning the other miners , and run from the area before the explosion. They would then go back into the room after the dust and smoke had settled and load the coal that was brought down by the explosion. The bigger lumps of coal would be handled by hand and the rest shoveled into the car.

Dad used to save old newspaper to use in the mine to make the powder charges.  He explained how the newspaper would be wrapped around a dowel and when the dowel was removed from the paper there would be a cylindrical container for the powder.  The powder would be poured into the newspaper containers and the ends twisted to seal each charge. These charges would be shoved back into the bored holes when the miner was ready to shoot down the coal. The end of the charge that was toward the outside and connected to the hold formed by the needle of course would be left with the powder exposed to that when the squib made its way to the powder the powder would be ignited.

I remember asking once about the use of dynamite instead of powder and was told that dynamite was much too “fast” and would never do to shoot coal down. Black powder was a much slower explosion and would dislodge the coal so it would fall out into the room.

Sometimes Dad would bring a few squibs home with him and would put one on a log or a rock and light it to show us how it worked. With no hole to guide it the squib  would fly around like a  balloon that has been let go and flies in every direction as the air escapes. It naturally was exciting to any small boy but could be a dangerous toy if he were not supervised, Left alone with something like that a boy could burn the house down or set the woods on fire. The way the black powder was set off later on was with “electric blasting cap.”  The miner would string the wire out of the room and set off the charge by battery.

The way the mine was kept from caving in was to support the “top” with posts. Posts, or “timbers” as they were usually called, were cut by hand saws and placed throughout the mine to shore up the roof. There would b e a post on either side with a support timber placed across the two posts to form the support. Often there would be “cave-ins” when the posts did not support the top. Many miners lost their lives when the top would cave in and either crush them or trap them inside. Dad’s brother was injured severely a couple of times form cave-ins.

I remember how the miners used a carbide lamp for their light inside the mines. Therese were always a fascination to me. The miner wore a special cap that had a fixture to hold the carbide lamp so their hands were free. He was responsible to supply his own lamp and carbide. Dad had a special flask that he used to carry his carbide to the mine. As time went on, electric lamps were used and the miner carried a battery on his belt to power the lamp while he was in the mine. The soft  cap was replaced by a hard cap which of course was a safety feature in case something fell from above. The mine owner supplied  the battery and lamp and was equipped to recharge the battery each day. I believe the miner still had to buy his own hard cap.

The mine, called The Black Diamond Mine by all the locals in and around Lathrop, was closed in 1944 and our family had to move.  Dad got a job in a mine in Essex Hollow between Hemlock and Shawnee and we moved to Shawnee. That is the same mine where Edna’s father worked in 1944 I believe.  At that time, if my memory serves me correctly, the coal was brought out of the mine by  “shuttle cars.”  Shuttle cars were like small trucks that were specially built for mines. They were built very close to the ground so they could maneuver under the low clearance in a coal mine. They were powered by electricity like the motors used  before them, but with the shuttle car there was no need for a track. The mine in Essex Hollow was more modern in other ways too. There were “cutting machines” that removed the coal in place of shooting it down by explosives and automatic loaders that gathered up the coal and loaded it into the shuttle cars. Dad drove one of the shuttle cars for a short time but the ride was rough and jolted him so much that it caused him to have kidney problems and he had to take another job. Later on the mines went to a conveyor system to bring the coal to the surface ..That was probably around 1950 or so.

Coal mining is pretty much a thing of the past here in this part of Ohio now. There are still a few mines in operation. What mining is being done is often with the strip mining method or high-tech underground mining with modern machinery.  Even that is rare now in this area. Coal mining was a tough  way for our fathers to earn a living but that was all that was available for most of them it seems , or that was all they felt they were capable of. Later on Edna’s father got a job in a machine shop when he was in his mid-fifties and my father went to work at a brick yard near Somerset.  The years in the mines had taken its toll on them and they both died in their sixties. Dad had breathed so much coal dust and powder smoke over the years that his lungs were in bad shape and it had a definite effect on his health.

C.M. Thompson—October 2010


  1. cinda lewis anderton said

    my family from both Wales and Scotland had their American starts here!!! The Lewis family and the Gibson family. thanks for the article. Nice to hear old stories…

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