This is the beginning of Chapter 2 of Carla Rising, describing a system that turns all of us into production machines, or cheap labor. — T.S.
The miners use a special lamp to test the air for gas. When gas is present in large quantities, the flame of the ordinary Davy lamp detects it and burns blue. If the flame continues to burn blue with the wick turned to its full extension, the miner knows the proportion of gas is dangerously high. A good miner tests for gas by poking his lamp into all the corners of a room before he sets to work.
– Warden James, The Miners Handbook (1920)
A t the start of the day, as they went into the mine, the men looked different from one another. Even from a distance, each back and set of shoulders appeared alternately long or short, or broad or skinny; black or white.
After ten hours of drilling and shoveling coal, however, they all were changed. A man might be twenty or sixty, but he came out of the mine as if from the same mold as his neighbor, the coal dust having coated every shirtless torso in the same dull cast. Coming up from the tunnels at the end of the day, every thigh and arm and chest seemed to have been reforged – every miner, dark and angular, wrought from the same vein of iron.
They spent their days in the lamp-lit dark, blasting coal and filling an endless line of trams. Mule drivers hitched and unhitched cars, relaying them to other teams. Eventually, a string of two-ton buggies emerged into the daylight and moved across the brief landing to be secured to a chain line for the trip downhill, down the cowled track into the tipple, the preparation plant where all the coal was screened by size and dumped into the waiting rail cars.
Then began the trip that a miner could only envy – a ride into Logan and beyond, to the power plants and factories of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York where a ton of the precious fuel brought fifteen dollars, unheard-of wealth to the men who’d risked their lives to blast and move it for less than one.
Three rows of houses – more than a hundred-fifty identical pasteboard cabins – marched up the angular right-hand fork of Wolfpen Branch. Truman Bryant’s place was one. Like all the others, the house was four rooms, wrapped in slate-gray siding and topped by a green tar-paper roof. A lone electric bulb put out just enough light to read the newsprint that covered his kitchen walls. Truman and his wife had been lucky, he said, to get a place on the lower end of the row, one with an indoor toilet and kitchen water that rose to the basin after just four pulls on the pump. Truman told his boys – Gibbs and his older brother, Todd – that the rented house had been “custom-made, just for us,” right down to the peeling paint and split window panes he had no time to fix.
“You’re living in the lap of luxury,” he’d told his sons in better times. “Just like kings in Sovereign.”