George relays mining experience in book

PARIS – Kerry George was 19 years old when he went underground for the first time in 1966.

“When I was young, you weren’t expected to go to college,” he said. “You were expected to go and work where your father and uncles worked. When I got out of high school, you went to the mines, the mills or the railroad if you wanted to stay here.”

George would spend almost 35 years as a miner and federal mine inspector. Drawing on his experience as a miner and growing up in a mining family in the tiny hamlet of Dun Glen in southern Jefferson County, Ohio, he wrote a novel, “Black Damp Century.” The novel spans three generations over the course of a century, moving across three states and exploring the history of mining, including violent labor clashes and tragic accidents, through fiction.

“I spent 13 years underground,” he said. “The rest were on the surface. I always enjoyed writing for my own amusement. Thirty years ago, I wrote a screen play, and my friends and my wife wanted me to expand on it. Two years ago, I sat down to do it. Black damp means no oxygen, and at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the mine owners, then the labor unions, and, by the end of the century, the government was suffocating them all.”

George spoke about his book and the history of the mine labor struggle during a Coffee With the Author at the Paris Presbyterian Church’s The Gathering Place Coffee Shop.

He spoke about the courage of the mothers and wives of the early miners.

“When they sent their husband or their son to work in the mine, they had no idea whether they were coming back,” he said. “Explosions and fire were commonplace.”

George spoke about several mine disasters, including the Monogah Mine disaster of 1907 in Fairmont, W.Va., in which at least 362 men were killed following an explosion. The death toll could have been as high as 500, because the miners did not check-in on entering the mine and many recent arrivals had no family members in the area.

“Foremen hired people right off the street,” said George. “Some of the foreign-born miners had no one to report them missing.”

Following that disaster, miners were required to check-in on coming into the mine and check-out on leaving.

In 1930, 82 men, including the Sunday Creek Coal Co. president and four top executives, were killed in an explosion outside of Millfield, Ohio.

In 1940, 72 men were killed in a mine explosion at the Hanna Coal Co.’s Willow Grove No. 10 mine in St. Clairsville, Ohio – after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the mine and declared it one of the safest mines in the country.

Over the first 100 years of mining, 103,000 miners were killed in mine disasters, George said.

“Their second problem was ruthless employers,” said George. “They were paid in script that was only good at the company store, where the prices were exorbitant in an effort to keep the miners indebted. Some owners hired guards, not to protect their mines, but to protect them from the miners.”

The labor struggles between miners and mine operators stretch back to the 1920s in the southern West Virginia coalfields, near Matewan, W.Va.

In 1920, a group of Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency employees arrived in Matewan to evict families who had been living at the Stone Mountain Coal Camp. Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield arrived to intervene on the behalf of the miners’ families, producing an arrest warrant from the Mingo County sheriff. In return, the detectives produced a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest – one that Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman declared fraudulent.

“Hatfield was a protector of coal miners in Mingo County,” said George. “He was a living legend.”

During this exchange, armed miners surrounded the group, watching from the windows and doorways of downtown Main Street businesses. The cause is unknown, but a shoot-out took place, leaving seven detectives, two miners and Testerman dead. Hatfield was later tried – and found not guilty – for the murder of Albert Felts.

Hatfield wouldn’t escape vengeance; in 1921, he and his Chief Deputy Edward Chambers arrived in Welch, W.Va., to answer charges of conspiracy to dynamite a coal tipple at the McDowell County Courthouse.

“As they were walking up the steps, unarmed, they were gunned down in front of their wives,” said George.

Hatfield’s killers were never charged, and his death sparked outrage among miners. They gathered in Charleston and began to march to Logan County in protest. The governor, with no National Guard and only 200 West Virginia State Troopers, was nearly powerless to stop them, said George.

“There were 16,000 coal miners marching on Logan and Mingo counties,” said George. “It was the biggest insurrection since the Civil War.”

As the group approached Logan County, the miners badly outnumbered the defenders, made up of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 townspeople and strike breakers.

“They (the miners) would have slaughtered and overrun the counties,” said George.

However, President Warren Harding declared martial law and authorized a military intervention, threatening to send bombers and federal troops and using aerial surveillance against the miners. The Battle of Blair Mountain raged for a week, but after nearly 100 miners were killed in skirmishes, union leaders withdrew. In the fall-out 985 miners were arrested for murder.

“Nothing would change,” said George of the short-term effects.

However, in the 1930s, things began to change slowly for the miners, including laws governing child labor passed in 1938.

Following a mine explosion in 1968 outside of Fairmont, W.Va., that killed 72 men, the United Mine Workers President Tony Boyle appeared on television, claiming Consolidated Coal Co. wasn’t responsible for the men’s deaths. Coal miners rebelled against his leadership, and a new election for union president was held.

Boyle won, but his opponent, Joseph “Jock” Yablonski filed suit and a federal labor relations board judged the election to have been rigged in Boyle’s favor. A new election was ordered, but, in the meantime, Yablonski, his wife and his adult daughter were shot dead in their home on New Year’s Eve 1969.

The struggle between miners and coal mine operators continued through the 1970s, until 1978, when a recession intersected with the first emission standards imposed on industry.

“1,300 men lost their jobs,” George said of the fall-out. “If you saw what life was like, 30 years ago, when the towns and mines were thriving … we still haven’t recovered.”

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at