The Productive System
Operators viewed the anthracite industry as a source of profit, but profit was simply the reward for fulfilling a socially defined function. Sociologically providing a clean and uniformly sized fuel was the industry’s raison d’etre. Social demand dictated the industry’s two major operations, mining and preparation, and thus outlined the structure of work.
Dominated by the culm pile, a huge black mound of coal, slate, and dirt spewed out by the breaker, the surface plant housed the preparation operation. The breaker was the heart of the operation; inside the tall unsightly building freshly mined coal underwent cracking, screening, and cleaning processes. A cluster of drab smaller buildings housing boilers, pumps, and hoisting machinery surrounded the breaker and completed the surface plant.1
Mine workers penetrated the earth through four distinct types of opening: “drifts,” “slopes,” tunnels, and shafts. The “drift” was an inclined plane driven into the coal at an upward angle from the outcrop. “Slopes” followed the coal seam’s dip from the outcrop. Divided into “lifts” of approximately 100 yards each, the “slope” was an inclined plane driven through both coal and strata. The tunnel provided entry to coal beds lying above water level which failed to outcrop. The shaft reached coal seams lying 200 or more feet below the surface.
Once inside the mine, the miner was confronted by a bewildering maze of gangways and airways. Heavily timbered and laid with railroad track, the gangways were the mine’s haulage routes. Airways ran parallel to the gangways and were connected to them at regular intervals by cross-headings. Furnaces located at the bottom of an upcast shaft rarefied the air to insure circulation. During the late 1870s, however, fans began to replace the furnaces. The gangway and the airway met at the miners’ working place, the mine face.
Most anthracite mines followed the pillar and breast method of mining. Rectangular working compartments (breasts), usually five to twelve yards wide and from four to six hundred yards long, opened from the gangway. A thick block of coal (the pillar) stood between each breast and supported the mine’s overhead burden (“overburden”).
Miners worked one of three types of breasts, depending on the coal seam’s dip. “Wagon breasts” opened at full width at the gangway in seams dipping less than six degrees. “Buggy breasts” were used to work coal beds dipping from six to twelve degrees. Since the grade was too steep for the heavy mine wagon, smaller cars—“buggies”—brought the coal to the gangway where it was reloaded into the regular wagon. “Shute breasts” were needed for coal seams inclining from 12 to 90 degrees. Freed coal slid down the grade of the breast into a shute which extended into the gangway. Wooden barriers, the “battery,” held the coal back until an empty wagon was to be filled.2
The mine contained two separate plants. The surface plant, built around the breaker, was for processing freshly mined coal. The subsurface plant, a confusing complex of gangways, airways, and breasts, was used to retrieve coal from underground. Mine owners had to integrate work in such a manner that the two plants would operate smoothly and thereby realize the industry’s social function.
Operators naturally divided their employees according to plant, and organized each unit functionally. Comprising roughly 36 percent of the total personnel, the outside force, those working above ground, contained three major classes. Skilled artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, machinists, and stationary engineers formed the first class. Mule drivers, common laborers, and other unskilled employees who did not work in the breaker made up the second group. The third and largest class may be labeled the breaker division, and contained everyone who spent most of his working day in the breaker.
Management organized the inside, or underground, force into four functional divisions. Miners and miners’ laborers were the only employees engaged in the actual digging of coal. Mule drivers, runners, stable men, and stable bosses constituted the transportation group. Door and fan boys concerned themselves with ventilation. Both skilled and unskilled workers functioned as the maintenance group.
Technological innovation only slightly altered the structure of the various functional groups. Slate pickers felt some pressure from technological advancement. During the late 1870s many collieries began adopting mechanical slate pickers such as the jig which separated coal from dirt and slate by specific gravity. Mechanization of the cleaning process, however, did not completely destroy the slate-picking occupation, for in 1886 the anthracite mines still employed 19,995 slate pickers.3 Outside mule drivers suffered a small displacement with the introduction of conveyor belts, but the job itself was never jeopardized.
The inside transportation group also experienced some changes. Locomotives, first steam and after 1887, electric, replaced mules in the larger gangways. Subsidiary haulage routes, however, continued to use the mule’s power well into the twentieth century.
Neither was machinery a threat to the miners. Some miners did trade their hand drills for crank-turned boring machines, but the use of machinery that would displace miners was almost nil. Operators knew of coal-cutting machines as early as 1866, but both management and miners agreed that the hardness of anthracite and the distorted horizons of the coal seams made the use of such machines impractical.
Unlike most other industries, anthracite mining remained immune to sweeping technological changes. The inability to apply machinery to the mines not only gave the mine workers a sense of security but allowed the social relations derived from organization of work to remain untouched.
Organization of work into functional operations created a status hierarchy for the anthracite mine workers. The contract miner, who was paid by the piece, was at the top. Working for definite wages, the “day miner” ranked directly below. Highly skilled employees were next, with the miners’ laborers next below. The remaining employees were assigned to their jobs on the basis of skill and/or the importance of jobs. Job location ascribed status differentiation within each position; inside mule drivers, for example, enjoyed higher status and wages than their colleagues above ground.
The mine workers’ hierarchy was not rigid; men passed freely from one level to another. Age was the chief determinant of mobility. The mine worker usually began his career as a slate picker between the ages of four and ten. Between 12 and 14 he graduated into the “nipper” class, a kind of puberty rite which provided the errand boys in and around the mines.4 At 14 he was old enough to enter the mine, usually as a door boy. From door boy the budding mine employee progressed to mule driver, laborer, and finally, miner.
In many respects the functional hierarchy resembled the age-skill hierarchy found in the New England shoe factories. But the miner’s hierarchy was not a vertical ladder; one did not remain a miner after he grew old. Instead he found that age closed the circle; when too old or infirm to perform the miner’s arduous tasks he returned to picking slate. It was just as the saying went, “twice a boy and once a man is a poor miner’s life.”5
Not all mine workers entered the mines through the breaker. Immigrants usually began their careers as mule drivers or laborers and worked their way up to the rank of miner. As can be surmised from Table 6, many immigrants experienced opposition as they moved up in the ranks; but the continuous increase in production, combined with the lack of mechanization in the mines, tended to cause the breaking down of ethnic barriers.
Operators were adept at organizing work according to function, but they were surprisingly inept at defining the relationship of the diverse groups. Some companies wrote detailed job descriptions (see Appendix II). Other operators, however, delegated the authority to compose work rules to individual mine superintendents, and at least one major employer published rules which defined only the working day and the mine boss’s function.6
The apparent disregard for work rules reflected the impossibility of enforcement rather than professional ineptitute. Mine inspectors repeatedly called for greater discipline in the mines. Working in the labyrinth of a mine, many employees escaped continuous supervision, and the use of the piece rate reinforced the freedom gained by being far from the source of supervision; many miners refused to assume a subordinate position to the foreman. One miner explained how he instructed his immigrant laborer (who loaded the coal) in the “etiquette” of the mines: “Here’s the boss. Don’t work. Always sit down when the boss is around.”7
Nationality of Certified Miners in the Western Part of the 7th Inspection District
Source: Daily Republican, October 30, 1889.
Although anthracite mine workers enjoyed freedom from supervision to a degree rarely experienced in other industries, they were not completely without discipline. Custom dictated certain procedures. It was customary for the contract miner to quit work whenever he felt he had freed enough coal for the day. In the northern basin by tradition four men worked a breast, while in the two southern basins there were only two.
Because of the interdependence of the groups, each group had to fulfill its obligation to the others. The anthracite mine was operated in much the same way as an assembly line; a break at any point caused the entire operation to stop. If the slate pickers quit working, for example, the mine had to shut down. Interdependence, combined with shared working conditions, overrode normal intergroup conflicts and made for a common identity.
By modern standards working conditions above and below ground were abominable. Inside the breaker, young boys found it difficult to sit through the day, and “picker bosses” used whips and switches on mischief-makers. Corporal punishment formed only part of the deleterious working conditions. The slate pickers’ compartment was choked with dust, which necessitated open windows. Open windows and poor heating made it impossible to keep warm during the winter months, and some boys sabotaged machinery in order to go home and get warm.
Weather was not a problem for the workers inside. The temperature remained fairly constant throughout the year. Water, however, did cause trouble. The mines became giant cisterns which collected huge amounts of subsurface water. In some mines men worked knee-deep in water. Also, the water soaked the workers’ clothing, making coal dust adhere to it.
The mine’s atmosphere teemed with dirt. Anthracite could be broken loose only by blasting; the combination of powder smoke and coal dust made air even in the best-ventilated mines filthy. Coal-burning locomotives contributed their share of soot to an already dirt-laden air. Sometimes the dust and smoke inside the mine became so thick that the laborer had to feel his way through the tunnels.
Light was a problem even in the cleanest mines. Inside workers got their light from oil lamps measuring less than three inches in height. Required to furnish their own oil, many employees contributed to their gloomy circumstances by using as little oil as possible and thereby cutting costs. Rather than use more expensive fuels which burned with a clean bright light, many mine workers bought poorer grades of oil such as “Wild Fire Jack.” Cheaper fuels had a tendency to cake on the wick, which reduced the light so much that it “would require another light to see it.”8 Some mine workers mixed kerosene with cheap oil to avoid crusting, but the mixture usually gave off more smoke than flame.
For safety as well as tolerable working conditions, adequate light was mandatory. Danger was always present in the mines (see Table 7). Blasting was a common cause of accidents. Gas was equally dangerous—and invisible. Anthracite coal seams contained pockets of carbonated hydrogen—“fire damp”—which was explosive. After an explosion the burning gas rolled down the mine’s gangways singeing everything and everybody in its path. Suffocating “black damp” (carbonic acid) usually followed the fire damp. Penetration of abandoned mines often released water that had collected; in 1891, for example, 17 men drowned when miners at J. C. Hayden Company’s Slope Number 1 at Jeansville broke into an old mine. Miners worked under the constant threat of the overburden caving in on them. In 1896 there was such a cave-in at the Twin Shaft Colliery near Pittston, which killed 58 men. Above ground, unguarded machinery and inquisitive boys who worked around the mines often proved a fatal combination.
Causes of Fatal Accidents in Schuylkill County, 1869 to 1874
Source: Mine Inspectors, Report, 1874, 17.
The accumulated dangers in the mines took a frightful toll in fatalities and injuries. Between 1876 and 1897, 7,346 men were killed in the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania (see Table 8). indeed, the hard coal mines were among the world’s most dangerous. Although there were approximately 1.9 anthracite mine workers for every bituminous coal miner in Pennsylvania during the decade 1887 to 1897, roughly 2.7 hard coal miners died for every soft coal miner killed, while 2.6 men received injuries in anthracite mines for every injury in the bituminous mines (see Table 9). A comparison of fatal accidents per 1,000 employees in the world’s coal mines during the period (Table 10) reveals that the anthracite mines deserved their unenviable reputation.
To some degree the operators were responsible for the high accident rate in the anthracite mines. Not willing to bear the added costs of extra openings, they provided only one opening to the mine—which made every mine a potential deathtrap. One of the most terrible accidents occurred on September 6, 1869 at Avondale, when a breaker above a shaft caught fire, suffocating 110 men and boys. “Robbing the pillars” and mining the pillars after the breasts had been worked increased the likelihood of a cave-in. Failure to keep adequate maps of abandoned mines and their positions vis-à-vis mines in operation contributed to accidents such as that at J.C. Hayden’s Slope Number 1.
The anthracite industry’s basic weakness also contributed to a high accident rate in the mines. Frequent suspensions caused by overproduction (mentioned above) made the mines “so often idle that, from standing gas, decay of timber, the absence of proper ventilation, and standing water [they became not only] unsafe but virtually dangerous.”9
Comparison of Accidents in Pennsylvania’s Anthracite and Bituminous Mines
Source: Mine Inspectors’ Reports.
But mine workers also must share the blame. Many of them were guilty of “rushing into danger without using the proper precautions.”10 Eager to blast coal free in the shortest time possible, and thereby leave the mine early, some miners would not take the precious minutes needed to timber their breasts. During the winter months they would not go out into the cold to secure the necessary props. Some mine workers were guilty of gross carelessness. One miner blew himself up when he mistook a keg of powder for oil, and poured the powder into his burning lamp. Lack of discipline contributed to the high accident rate. Also, mine inspectors blamed most of the mine accidents on employees’ refusal to obey normal safety rules.
Both management and labor were thus responsible for the excessive accident rate in the anthracite mines. The operators’ eagerness to cut costs, failure to keep maps, and desire to recoup the coal in the pillars, plus the frequent suspensions induced by overinvestment, contributed to the hazardous working conditions. But many, if not most, accidents were attributable to the mine workers’ “inexcusable negligence, or the most stupid disobedience of orders.”11