The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Midwest Coalfield Adventures of an Old Coal Dog

By Ernest F. Reynolds © 1990

Issue: June, 1990

After an "interesting" career in Appalachian coal mining and after attempting every rear guard action known to military strategists, and industrial retrenching, in the mid-1930's, I hit the bricks. There just was no justice, and no place for me in the eastern mining field. The hard pressed coal baronage tightened belts, and succumbed to Texas gas, residual oil and high-lift-long-stick stripping shovels, electric drag lines, and the articulated loaders. I signed on as enforcement agent for the Guffy Coal Act which fizzled in 1947, with congressional sanction.

Eventually, a group of coal exporters, 120 Wall Street, Standard Ore and Alloy, employed me to prospect strip minable coal. Contour stripping was in embryo, as was Johnny Compton's coal auger. Taking advantage of coal mine savvy, I leased a small tract in Laurel County, near East Bernstadt, Kentucky, and was soon as rich as Jay Gould. An inferior seam, the Horse Creek was shipped under UNNRA through L & N coal docks at Pensacola, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina's Portland shipping pier. The bubble burst, leaving me up the creek, and wiping out my edge overnight. Big rental purchase machines had to go, and I couldn't go far on what remained.

In the old Cumberland River town of Williamsburg, Kentucky, were remnants of a once proud coal baronage: Mahons, Ellisons, the Cricillises and more. I had been moving my strip coal through Davis Coal Company of Williamsburg. They sent me south to plead for coal orders from the shrinking Ice and Fuel outlets, known as coal yards. Coal and Ice venders were falling domino-like to the electric refrigerator and Texas gas en route through the "Big Inch" gas line to Oak Ridge.

Ante bellum coal dealers were slowly twisting on the gibbit. Some were shooting themselves in the foot, as big heating oil tankers replaced coal trucks. The greater Louisiana, Kentucky area supported 90 coal yards. The once proud coal dealers doubled up. They moved in with one another, several on one yard and expired slowly. Upon the arrival of the "Big Inch" (in reality it was 36" in diameter), 100,000 Stoke-Hole-Davids bit the dust.

I walked into Davis Coal Company, in Williamsburg and denounced all Southern coal merchants. C.L. Davis slipped me a few quid, saying, "Take a week or two in Harlan and Bell County and find us a mine that needs an agent, then go north."

Cutting a deal with Davis, everything north of Corbin, Kentucky, was my bailiwick.

To sell large coal sizes that had formerly been sent south was a mountainous chore. Northern buyers were used to smaller coal. Recalling buyers to whom I had shipped from McDowell and Harlan counties, I called on Indiana Farm Bureau and the tall Ohio and Indiana grain/coal elevators.

I admit I knew nothing of the history of Indiana coal but felt at home around Terre Haute, Linton, Dugger, Sullivan and smaller bergs. The predominant Dutch supported my drive to keep mines running. They gave me spot orders when they could have done better elsewhere or by waiting.

At night I often saw flames shoot high above many Indiana buildings, but could learn nothing of the cause. Over a jug of Sneaky Peet, I discussed flames and coal market trends with a manager of tall silo complexes. I got my first clue. He informed me that immediately below were the depleted numbers 5 and 6 Indiana coal beds, and that methane gas was in abundance at 60 to 600 feet below. The thin over-burden could be churndrilled by hand. A perforated pipe with a well point let into old workings freed up gas for domestic heating. The excess had to burn to keep it drawing, flue like. The flame was supposedly hidden by a hood to prevent prying investigations.

Another method of the more affluent was to drill for water through the coal bed, perforating the well casing where it passed through the old mine's room and pillar section. Methane gas surfaced through the casing, water through smaller pipes.

Herb Shriner, a great comedian, grew up in Coal Town, Indiana or Dugger. Theodore Dreiser, author of The American Tragedy cut his teeth in Sullivan County, Indiana.

In the heyday, Old Ben and Peabody Coal companies deep mined No. 5 and No. 6 seams all the way to the blackberry roots.

Crossing U.S. Highway 41 into Illinois, I bought coal in Saline and Bloody Williamson Counties, where in 1922 the mine war's bloodshed exceeded that in the southern mine fields of West Virginia. I probed the interior field, where giant stripping shovels fueled lone light and electric power plants. (And were probably the biggest reason for huge surface eyesores in this nation - and consequently for surface mining legislation during their grandchildren's generation.)

Farmers who spoke coal language had gone through the boom and burst coal era and reverted to agri-pursuits. We were amazed at similarity of conditions in East Kentucky, southwest Virginia and the Southern Appalachian region of Tennessee. Few of the deep mines of Indiana had coal camps. Few camp houses remained in '38. The dwellers in those remnants resembled my people from Pawama, Lick Branch, Kallarney, Jenkin Jones and Algonquin in West Virginia; Yokums Creek, Wallins Creek, and Kildav in Harlan, Kettle Island and Kay Jay in Bell and Knox Counties. Some were as bedraggled as Tennessee's Jelico miners.

I knew the coal market was on retreat, and while reading the deathbed remarks of Stonewall Jackson, I decided that I too must, "Cross over the water, and rest in the shade." I probed the Great Lake's shores: Ashtabula, Erie, Sandusky, Buffalo and more. Like the Israelites I sought passage. Under Detroit's shipping lanes, a tunnel led to Windsor, Ontario.

I was earning barely enough to feed a family; however, I might support my new love's drinking. She had an unquenchable thirst, never reducing her guzzling, her night escapades were unexcelled. She was a bit lower, a tad plumper than main-stream lovelies; her endurance was far beyond mine. When I was zapped, she cradled my head and let me recuperate in the pines, along the Maumee, and St. Lawrence rivers, on lake shores; Superior, Michigan, Huron, Georgian Bay, and once amid the sycamores of the Wabash. She didn't eat, egad, how my Goldie drank!

We jousted with smokestacks, grain elevators and flirted with Michigan's Jackson Prison, skirted the Canadian side of the lakes. I was hawking coal from five states; sold it in ten, plus four Provinces of Canada. From the Brimstone Railroad junction at New River, Tennessee, with the Southern Railroad, to Sault St. Marie, and east to Montreal we searched for coal users. Never tiring, my love flitted, drinking, drinking, her fiery thirst soon slacked.

Goldie, my pet, became so jaded the strongest drink couldn't bring out her old fire. Like the yellow dog I am, I abandoned her. In a shady compound under Louisville's third Street Bridge, on the Jeffersonville, Indiana, side of Ohio, I dropped her amid used and abused travelers. Giving neither funds, nor farewell kiss, this old coal dog took leave of her.

I've had trimmer travelling companions since, but none have measured up to Goldie. She debuted in '49, Centennial of the western gold rush. Goldie was appropriately named; she out-shined the brightest. No knight of the road ever missed his Lady Fair, like I have missed Goldie, my golden, guzzlin' Hudson Super Six sedan.