Digital History>Voices>Social History>A Miner's Story
The Independent, LIV (June 12, 1902), 1407-10.
I am thirty five years old, married, the father of four children,
and have lived in the coal region all my life. Twenty three of
these years have been spent working in and around the mines. My
father was a miner. He died ten years ago from "miners' asthma"
Three of my brothers are miners; none of us had any opportunities
to acquire an education. We were sent to school ( such a school
as there was in those days) until we were about twelve years of
age, and then we were put into the screen room of a breaker to
pick slate. From there we went inside the mines as driver boys.
As we grew stronger we were taken on as laborers, where we served
until able to call ourselves miners. We were given work in the
breasts and gangways. There were five of us boys. One lies in
the cemetery fifty tons of top rock dropped on him. He was killed
three weeks after he got his job as a miner a month before he
was to be married.
In the fifteen years I have worked as a miner I have earned the
average rate of wages any of us coal heavers get To day I am little
better off than when I started to do for myself. I have $100 on
hand; I am not in debt; I hope to be able to weather the strike
without going hungry.
I am only one of the hundreds you see on the street every day.
The muscles on my arms are no harder, the callous on my palms
no deeper than my neighbors' whose entire life has been spent
in the coal region. By years I am only thirty five. But look at
the marks on my body; look at the lines of worriment on my forehead;
see the gray hairs on my head and in my mustache; take my general
appearance, and you'll think I'm ten years older.
You need not wonder why. Day in and day out, from Monday morning
to Saturday evening, between the rising and the setting of the
sun, I am in the underground workings of the coal mines. From
the seams water trickles into the ditches along the gangways;
if not water, it is the gas which hurls us to eternity and the
props and timbers to a chaos.
Our daily life is not a pleasant one. When we put on our oil
soaked suit in the morning we can't guess all the dangers which
threaten our lives. We walk sometimes miles to the place to the
man way or traveling way, or to the mouth of the shaft on top
of the slope. And then we enter the darkened chambers of the mines.
On our right and on our left we see the logs that keep up the
top and support the sides which may crush us into shapeless masses,
as they have done to many of our comrades.
We get old quickly. Powder, smoke, after damp, bad air all combine
to bring furrows to our faces and asthma to our lungs.
I did not strike because I wanted to; I struck because I had to.
A miner the same as any other workman must earn fair living wages,
or he can't live. And it is not how much you get that counts.
It is how much what you get will buy. I have gone through it all,
and I think my case is a good sample.
I was married in 1890, when I was 23 years old quite a bit above
the age when we miner boys get into double harness. The woman
I married is like myself. She was born beneath the shadow of a
dirt bank; her chances for school weren't any better than mine;
but she did have to learn how to keep house on a certain amount
of money. After we paid the preacher for tying the knot we had
just $185 in cash, good health and the good wishes of many friends
to start us off.
Our cash was exhausted in buying furniture for housekeeping.
In 1890 work was not so plentiful, and by the time our first baby
came there was room for much doubt as to how we would pull out
Low wages, and not much over half time in those years, made us
hustle. In 1890 91, from June to May, I earned $368.72. That represented
eleven months' work, or an average of $33.52 per month Our rent
was $10 per month; store not less than $20. And then I had my
oil suits and gum boots to pay for. The result was that after
the first year and a half of our married life we were in debt
Not much, of course, and not as much as many of my neighbors,
men of larger families, and some who made less money, or in whose
case there had been sickness or accident or death. These are all
things which a miner must provide for I have had fairly good work
since I was married I made the average of what we contract miners
are paid; but, as I said before, I am not much better off than
when I started.
In 1896 my wife was sick eleven weeks. The doctor came to my
house almost every day. He charged me $20 for his services. There
was medicine to buy. I paid the drug store $18 in that time. Her
mother nursed her, and we kept a girl in the kitchen at $1.50
a week, which cost me $15 for ten weeks, besides the additional
In 1897, just a year afterward, I had a severer trial. And mind,
in those years, we were only working about half time. But in the
fall of that year one of my brothers struck a gas feeder. There
was a terrible explosion. He was hurled downward in the breast
and covered with the rush of coal and rock. I was working only
three breasts away from him and for a moment was unable to realize
what had occurred Myself and a hundred others were soon at work,
however, and in a short while we found him, horribly burned over
his whole body, his laborer dead alongside of him.
He was my brother. He was single and had been boarding. He had
no home of his own. I didn't want him taken to the hospital, so
I directed the driver of the ambulance to take him to my house.
Besides being burned, his right arm and left leg were broken,
and he was hurt internally. The doctors there were two at the
house when we got there said he would die. But he didn't. He is
living and a miner to¬day. But he lay in bed just fourteen
weeks, and was unable to work for seven weeks after he got out
of bed He had no money when he was hurt except the amount represented
by his pay. All of the expenses for doctors, medicine, extra help
and his living were borne by me, except $25, which another brother
gave me. The last one had none to give. Poor work, low wages and
a sickly woman for a wife had kept him scratching for his own
It is nonsense to say I was not compelled to keep him, that I
could have sent him to a hospital or the almshouse. We are American
citizens and we don't go to hospitals and poorhouses.
Let us look at things as they are to day, or as they were before
this strike commenced.
My last pay envelope shows my wages, after my laborer, powder,
oil and other expenses were taken off, were $29.47; that was my
earnings for two weeks, and that was extra good The laborer for
the same time got some $21. His wages are a trifle over $10 a
week for six full days. Before the strike of 1900 he was paid
in this region $1.70 per day, or $10.20 a week If the ten per
cent. raise had been given, as we expected, his wages would be
$1.87 per day, or $11.22 per week, or an increase of $1.02 per
week. But we all know that under the present system he doesn't
get any eleven dollars.
Well, as I said, my wages were $29.47 for the two weeks, or at
the rate of$58.94 per month My rent is $10.50 per month. My coal
costs me almost $4 per month. We burn a little over a ton a month
on an average and it costs us over $3 per ton. Light does not
cost so much; we use coal oil altogether.
When it comes down to groceries is where you get hit the hardest.
Everybody knows the cost of living has been extremely high all
winter. Butter has been 32, 36 and 38 cents a pound; eggs as high
as 32 cents a dozen; ham, 12 and 16 cents a pound; potatoes away
up to a dollar, and cabbage not less than a cent a pound Fresh
meat need not be counted Flour and sugar did not advance, but
they were about the only staples that didn't. Anyhow, my store
bill for those two weeks was $11. That makes $22 per month The
butcher gets $6 per month Add them all, and it costs me, just
to live, $42.50. That leaves me $17 per month to keep my family
in clothes, to pay my church dues and to keep the industrial insurance
going. My insurance alone costs me 55 cents a week, or $2.20 a
The coal president never allows his stable boss to cut the amount
of fodder allotted to his mules. He insists on so many quarts
of oats and corn to the meal and so much hay in the evening. The
mule must be fed; the miner may be, if he works hard enough and
earns money to buy the grub.
Company stores are of the time that has been Their existence
ended two years ago. But we've got a system growing up that threatens
to be just as bad Let me explain. Over a year ago I was given
a breast to drive at one of our mines and was glad to get it.
My wife took her cash and went around the different places to
buy. When I went to the office for my first pay the "supee"
met me and asked me if I didn't know his wife's brother George
kept a store. I answered "Yes," and wanted to know what
that had to do with it." Nothing, only I thought I'd call your attention it it,"
No more was said then. But the next day I got a quiet tip that
my breast was to be abandoned This set me thinking. I went to
the boss and, after a few words, told him my wife had found brother
in law George's store and that she liked it much better than where
she had bought before. I told him the other store didn't sell
the right kind of silk waists, and their patent leather shoes
were away back. Brother in law George had the right kind of stuff
and, of course, we were willing to pay a few cents more to get
just what we wanted. That was sarcastic, but it's the cash that has the influence.
I have had work at that colliery ever since. I know my living
costs me from 10 to 15 per cent extra. But I kept my job, which
meant a good deal.
Now you must take into consideration that I am a contract miner
and that my earnings are more than the wages of three fourths
of the other fellows at the same colliery. It is not that I am
a favorite with the boss. I just struck a good breast Maybe next
month my wages would be from two to six or seven dollars less.
In the days of Pardee, Coxe, Fagley, Fulton, Dewees, Paterson,
Riley, Replier, Graeber and a hundred others, men were better
paid than they have ever been since the centralization ideas of
the late Franklin B. Gowen became fixed institutions in the anthracite
counties. It may be true that in the days of the individual operation
the cost per ton of mining coal was less than it is to day. But
it is not right that the entire increase in the cost of mining
should be charged to the miner. That is what is being done, if
you count the reductions made in wages.
We miners do not participate in the high prices of coal. The
operators try to prove otherwise by juggling with figures, but
their proving has struck a fault, and the drill shows no coal
in that section One half of the price paid for a ton of coal in
New York or Philadelphia goes into the profit pocket of the mine
owner, either as a carrier or miner.
We all know that the price of coal has advanced in the past twenty
years. We also know that wages are less, that the cost of living
is higher. I remember the time, when I was a wee lad, my father
used to get his coal for $1 per ton. Now I pay $3. In those days
we lads used to go to the dirt banks and pick a load of coal,
and it cost our parents only a half a dollar to get it hauled
home. We dare not do that now. Then we did not need gum boots,
safety lamps or any such things as that; and for all of them we
must now pay out of wages that have been reduced.
Our condition can be no worse; it might and must be better. The
luxuries of the rich we do not ask; we do want butter for our
bread and meat for our soup. We do not want silk and laces for
our wives and daughters. But we want to earn enough to buy them
a clean calico once in a while. Our boys are not expecting automobiles
and membership cards in clubs of every city, but they want their
fathers to earn enough to keep them at school until they have
a reasonably fair education.