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Folklore in Southwestern Pennsylvania
Bituminous Coal Mining

Aaron Marcavitch, Introduction to American Folklore

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Background and History

Types of Folklore

Conclusions Reached

Glossary

References/Bibliography

Folk: N. ethnic group of people forming a nation or tribe.

--Webster's Dictionary & Thesaurus

Occupational Folklore

As Webster's would have us believe, the only type of folklore is that of traditional ethnic groups. However that could not be further from the truth. Certainly traditional ethnic stories and oral transmissions are folklore, however there is much more to folklore. Jan Brunvand explored the limits of folklore in his work The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1988) with "urban legends."

Still others are children's rhymes or songs. But the group I explored is occupational folklore. Occupational folklore deals with the jobs people do and the legends that are built up around them. These legends can be simple beliefs or complex rituals. Perhaps the most easily understood are the beliefs of fishermen in New England. They hold the mystique and tradition that they have held for three hundred years. John J. Poggie, Jr. and Carl Gersuny worked with these fishermen to explore a theory put forward by Brownislaw Malinowski in 1954 that "situations of uncertainty and risk foster magic and ritual." They found that the higher the risk in a fisherman's job, the more folklore they produced. As with this group, there is a high amount of risk for men, and now women, that work underground; as coal miners.

 

Mining: N. the act, process, or industry of extracting ores, coal, etc., from mines.

--Websters Dictionary and Thesaurus

 

Coal Mining and Folklore

The History

Coal mining's history is one that is fraught with death and labor trouble. Basically before the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was only pit mining and was done at quite an expense. When long-wall mining was discovered and developed in Shropshire, England near the end of the 17th century, it became the predominant method for obtaining coal. But coal mining was an British creation. Coal mining did not appear in the United States, in force, until the late eighteenth century. Coal was discovered in 1663 in North America, but it was not utilized until 1755. By 1830, there was numerous small mining operations. Coal mining soon spread over the eastern United States and was quickly utilized for the new processes in iron making.

One of the richest veins of soft coal was found in the hills of south western Pennsylvania. Coal has been a part of south western Pennsylvania since the early Nineteenth century. But it only came to prominence when steel began to be produced in Pittsburgh in the later part of the eighteen hundreds. The production of steel required the coal to be used to fire the furnaces. From that point, companies began to be formed to obtain this precious mineral and land was bought out from under the ground that was being worked by the farmers. The work force was small and mostly Scotch Irish or Welsh. But the work force constricted as more people learned of the dangers of working underground. Then the immigrants arrived and the new life of coal was born. They were paid little, worked hard, and had to live in company towns, called patches.

The Patch Town

The National Park Service's monograph on two coal towns states that "[b]between 1880 and 1930, America witnessed the dramatic expansion of its coal mining industry. The success of this industry, like its glass and iron manufacturing work force, and consequently upon the establishment of mining camps or villages in the often isolated coal regions." As quoted in the Patch/Work Voices web site, "The coal industry begot a culture that lives on today. Patch towns, built for immigrant workers, provided lodging, a company store, schools and other community resources for living. Industry and home life intermingled: the workers sometimes lived so close that the beehive ovens that fired the coal into coke were literally in their backyards." Towns such as Marianna, Daisytown, Coal Center, and others became company, or patch, towns . Within these towns lived the ethnic families that were the coal miners.

"A company town is designed for efficient housing. It is often built all at one time, has identical housing units, and includes services built and operated by the company, such as the company store, an infirmary and some recreations facilities...." states a small book about one of the patch towns, Daisytown. Daisytown is an ethnic community with strong bonds. This was the case with many of the patches. But they were still centered around one person, the coal miner.

The Coal Miner

Coal miners as a rule tend to be a tougher breed of man, usually larger hands and tougher skin. They had to be tough to be ready for the uncertainty of the mine.

"In the morning the miner walked from his home to the mine. He would enter the drift mouth or go down the slope to his working place. If the crew was doing first mining, it would be room, if they were finishing coal removal it would be an area of the rib line....On approaching his place, the miner held his safety lamp high to check for explosive methane gas that might have accumulated during his absence and occasionally lowered his lamp to check for black damp (which signifies an oxygen deficiency)....During this period the miner had to watch that the ribs of coal or the coal face did not roll on him. He was often lying in water..."

The difficulty of the mine sometimes ended in an explosion or other accident. An article from the United Mine Workers' Journal in 1892 told of a mine explosion that resulted in the death of twenty three men. It demonstrates some of the fears these men had:

"Dunbar, PA March 24--The dead have been wrested from their untimely tomb and all that remains now is to accord a Christian burial to the miners who met their fate in the Hill Farm mine at Dunbar, June 16 1890 (Author--Almost two years earlier.). Yesterday the bodies of twenty three of the miners were found and today they will be brought to the surface for burial...The struggle for life of the entombed miners was as terrible as it was brief. They were suffocated--not burned or starved--and it is improbable that any lived longer than a half an hour. There is an unwritten law of protection among miners by which they rush together at the sound of an explosion, impelled by a common instance of self preservation, for together they stand a better chance of fighting for freedom. So it was with the Hill Farm victims. When found they were huddled in Flat No. 10, showing that they had rushed deeper into the mine and that a moment later a scorching breath of death filled the flat, choking their lungs, bursting their veins, and striking them to earth to linger in horrible torture a few moments and then to die..."

It can be seen how much of a tough life the miners could live. Even though this is over one hundred years old, the risk is still as present as that time. Accidents happen and men get killed. This is a life in which many do not want to be involved. But as many of the miners say, once the "coal is in your blood" there is no way out.

Mechanization slowly came into the mines after the 1930's. But the danger was not gone. The men had to have a better education but the work was still dirty. Still a question remains. If the men are better educated, but the danger lurks, does the folklore still follow?

The Project

I explored the folklore of the bituminous underground coal miner in southwestern Pennsylvania. There were four informants in this project. Three were miners at Maple Creek Mining Company in Bentlyville, Pennsylvania; while one was an employee of Emerald Mine in Greene County.

Mr. Richard Marcavitch, is the Director of Safety at Maple Creek Mine and has over twenty years of experience in the mine. He has a bachelors in Mine Engineering but also holds a bachelors and a masters degree in Business. He lives in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Vic Benco, a long wall support in the mine with twenty two years underground is also at Maple Creek. He has completed high school and attended some college. He currently lives in New Salem, Pennsylvania. Nick Massini, of Fredericktown, Pennsylvania is the plant supervisor at Maple Creek and has twenty years of experience. He attended high school and has had some college education. George Monas is the most experienced of the participants. He is now retired from the mining industry at Emerald Mine. He has forty two years of experience as well as five years as an employee of the Lee Norse Mining Equipment company. He lives in Jefferson, Pennsylvania and completed high school.

This work was completed during Thanksgiving of 1998 and was done through a survey process. (Fig 1) The reason for choosing these men was based on availability and cooperation with the survey. In the following documented items of folklore, the layout is to show the found folklore followed by a personal viewpoint and any confirming or contrasting views from researched material.

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