Today’s post is fifth in a series written by Ron Stephens about his father-in-law Harvey E. Corder and the Blue Heron Coal Camp located in Kentucky. You can see the previous posts here:
My job was tending to the main belt the first mile or so inside. The work was not too hard, most of the time anyway. If any section of the belt stopped, the coal still coming would spill over and I would have to shovel that up. The hard jobs were splicing the belt when it broke, replacing bad rollers and changing out the drive motors. It was bitter cold in the winter though. The air was high humidity and fast-moving, pulled by the fans to suck it through the whole mine. It was a wind tunnel. I would be wet with sweat or dripping water and the chill cut right through me, especially out near the mouth. Those winter nights I sure was glad to get into clean, warm and dry clothes. I always did that at home. I don‘t recall a bathouse at the Justus.
I had my two narrowest escapes and my three greatest scares at the Justus. I was alone for one of them and I kept it secret. The other two affected us all. They each made a story in the paper.
That first brush with death was my own fault. I needed to get across the main belt line. The rules said I had to go to a safe crossing but I knew it was a long trip to go and come back. The belt was not quite three feet wide anyway. I thought I would step across. I did – all but my heel. Quick as thought, the moving belt threw me down and carried where there was not enough clearance to roll off. If I didn’t find a place quick, I would be ground against the top in the next low place. I guess I rode it thirty feet or more before I could get off. I never told anybody about it for a very long time.
The second narrow escape was worse. The mine began filling with smoke up at the face. I never knew anything about it for a while until I was a mile or more inside. That’s where I met the men running out. Many of them already had their respirators on, the smoke was that bad at the face. I started out with them, trying to stay calm. My heart was in my mouth. There wasn’t suppose to be gas but I couldn’t help expecting a gas explosion to blow us out the drift mouth any minute like happened to those men at Barthell way back. It is mighty hard to turn your back on that kind of danger. I felt the cold chills up my backbone, worse than driving through the river. There was panic, worse than I ever expected to see from trained men, hollering and running. We got over into the fan way where fans pulled the fresh air in so we could see and breathe a little better. We stayed together which meant the weakest man set our pace. As quick as it came the smoke thinned and cleared. One of the bosses found an electric cable burning at the connection to the main hot wire. He unhooked it and that was all it took. What happened was strictly against the rules. Someone left his or her post because that connection required someone to be there. If the air had been bad, there would have been an explosion. We never did know who left it that way.
The other great scare was when we almost broke into the old Worley works. Probably the maps were not quite as good as they needed to be. All I knew was we started getting water at the face, lots of it, way more than normal ground water. The regular pumps couldn’t keep up. Nobody knew where the water was coming from or how much there might be. The water pressure might blow out the wall. We had to stop it quick or the Justus would be flooded. Someone was smart enough to put dye in the old Worley works and it came out in the Justus. I am not sure what all was done. I think they put a kind of industrial-strength stop leak in at Worley and backed it up with plugs in the Justus. It was a desperate fight for a while but in the end, we saved the mine.
Then suddenly, after nearly seventy-five years of continuous operation, the Company sold out to another coal company. It was all hush-hush until they closed the deal. We did not even know they were considering a sale. We did not expect them to ask us if it was all right, but it was a shock. We knew changes were coming. We wondered just what they would be.
The United Mine Workers of America came in because of that sale. The old Company had pretty much kept unions out through the years, especially the UMWA. They did it in large part by decent treatment of the men but also by determination. Back in the 20’s they had even burned their own hotel to run union organizers out who were holed up in it. We did have a union but it was not a very strong one. The UMWA was the biggest and strongest in the country. I think the new Company had other UMWA mines over in eastern Kentucky. Anyway, they were not going to tolerate any union but themselves. They were naturally pressing us hard to vote them in. We knew it probably would mean a strike and strikes in coal country tend to last a long time. We also knew it could turn bad. There was a lot of campaigning both ways but it was pretty clear what the majority wanted. I tried to stay out of it as best I could because of fellowship in the churches but it was hard not to let myself get caught up in it. In the end, we trusted the UMWA to stand by us and the majority voted for them at contract time. There are only a very few, trusted people who have ever known how I voted. I did what I thought was best but I wasn’t going to give opportunity for trouble.
The Company said “No” to their demands.
UMWA called for a strike.
So we walked out.
The strike lasted somewhere around eighteen months, I think it was. I never thought then that I would ever forget any of it. Our minds were full of little else while it was going on. I tried to keep my mind on when it was over to help me not say or do anything that would be a problem later on. Church will teach you that, if nothing else does.
We did not go to work. We went to the picket line, day after day. The union paid us, getting-by money anyway, some better than cutting bugwood. By that time there was a new mine entry over to the east on Journey’s End road. We just called it ’the elevator’ because an elevator carried the miner’s down but there was no coal beltline. We picketed the access road but it was not too long before scabs began crossing the line. At first, they were all new-hires. Gradually old hands who gave up on the drawn-out strike drifted back. Some of them were the loudest talkers and the strongest for striking to begin with, at least in private. A lot of us were surprised and disappointed in each other. Among us miners, feelings ran high. Those feelings naturally spilled out into the county. I worried about anger and resentment turning into bitterness and tearing the churches and even families apart. The anger broke out into shooting. Miners and company guards fired probably thousands of rounds back and forth, aimed not to kill but just to harass and let off steam. Once there was even a fight with the Kentucky State Police. There was no shooting in that fight but it was first by the grace of God and second because the KSP were determined not to let it come to that. It was a dangerous time.
I never took any part in the shooting nor the fight with the KSP. I never carried a gun to the picket line. My assigned place was mostly the old road into the Coffey Holler entry, there by the house. Hardly anyone ever came that way. If they did, it was on some kind of routine maintenance work like maintaining the pumps. We didn’t try to stop that. We wanted a mine to go back to. I got that duty because I was a preacher and they knew I did not want any part of fighting. The fellowship in the churches was more important to me than my job or winning a fistfight in the road. I never would have lived that down. As a man, I was bothered some by my unwillingness to fight. Was I too afraid? I have never been certain either way. I just knew my duty.
How the strike ended was sudden and unexpected. Two scabs, local men, were on their way home after work when somebody shot the passenger from ambush. He did not live to reach a doctor. They were on a lonely stretch of road on Rock Creek just above Mine 16. There were no houses for miles. As soon as I heard about it, I knew the place. It was near perfect for an ambush, a short, straight but descending section with a low cliff above the road on the west end. They were traveling west and there was a clear line-of-sight. The shot came from the top of that cliff. There were no clues left there. They never found the gun. They never arrested anybody. There were plenty of suspicions with wild tales of a paid hit, a cover up and speculations of motives completely unrelated to the strike. None of them led anywhere.
We had thought the UMWA would stand by us no matter what. Within days, they pulled out, leaving us high and dry without a union, without a job and without any money. In the old days our names would have gone on a blacklist without any prospect of ever getting a job back in mining. As it turned out later the most publicly outspoken never were hired back. We met to talk about what to do but we knew we didn’t have much choice. We voted our old union back in. In many ways, it was a relief to have it over. But it was also a bitter disappointment, in the UMWA, in the company but worst of all among each other.
Things slowly returned to a sort of normal. We all wanted that, to put the bitter past behind us. I went back on the belt line but it did not feel the same. Only a handful of us still went in at Coffey Holler. Nearly all the miners went in at the elevator. Our new company started to build a big new coal washer and a second belt line on the CSX main track out at Mud Cut along old US 27. That was all the way over on the watershed divide between the Big South Fork and the main Cumberland Rivers. It began to feel like we were getting a new lease on life and a bright future once again.
I had made a shower down in the basement of the new house for when I came in late. That was where I hung my miner’s coveralls, my hard hat with headlamp and my mining belt with my tool bag, battery pack and respirator. After my last shift, I thought it was a night like any other when I hung them there. I even had the copy of my work orders for the shift stuck in my tool bag. It was just like hundreds of other shifts, nothing special. Or so I thought.
I was camping over on Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee when my son, Glen, came over to tell me.
“The mine is closed.”
Just like that and just that simple, thirty some odd years of coal mining were finished. I thought that surely it was a mistake, a misunderstanding or just another wild rumor.
But it was not. It was cold hard dollars and cents. The Justus coal was on a long-term contract with Georgia Power for their power plants. The contract price was about seventy dollars per ton. The Justus with its bad top was an expensive mine to operate. I knew that. I had seen the roof bolts close-spaced and the ribs side-by-side. I did not doubt the Company needed seventy dollars to recover costs and make a profit. Even then, they had to make a sophisticated blend of coal from the three seams to keep the sulfur content down into the acceptable range for air quality standards. Meanwhile, the open market price of coal had dropped to near forty dollars a ton. When the savings from buying open market coal offset the cost of buying out the contract, Georgia Power paid for the contracted amount for the remaining contract time just as if delivered in order to end the contract. In a way, it was a windfall for the Company because it cost them nothing to produce nothing. It was all profit. But for them and us there was suddenly no market for Justus coal. Unless the price per ton went back to around seventy dollars, there was not going to be one.
Once I knew for sure it was true, something inside me did like those motors on old Eighteen tipple, went click and clunk and spun down to a stop.
I went back to the Coffey Holler one more time with my son-in-law. It was a gray and drizzling, slate-colored November day. There was nothing there but browned-out grass and weeds. There was no motion, no color and no noise. It looked like an old strip pit. Somebody had shoved the entry full of dirt and rock. Out front, the empty bench carved into the side of the hill was the only sign. Grass grew on the fill in the holler. Only the hole through the cliff where the belt line had run hinted at what once was. It was as if the Justus had never been, as if we had never been. It was what Eighteen would have been, without the Park. It is probably growing trees now, going back to woods. I have not been back and unless my mind changes I am not ever going to go.
I have heard about the Justus since. Somebody went in to see how practical it might be to go back. Seam numbers one and one and a half were reported flooded. The water was coming up ‘the slope’ toward number two, the top seam. Nobody will ever afford going back in there. I don’t think it can be pumped out. I remember how it was with the water from old Worley. In normal times, we had kept a six-inch line running constant just to keep enough water out when we were working. I guess you could say nature drown any hopes. It made me think of what happened back in ‘62, when the Company was trying to figure out how to keep using Eighteen tipple. They sent three men into the old closed Worley works. They were trying to decide if the old mine fire was out and mining could start back. They knocked a hole through the wall sealing off the old works and let the gas out. They could not see it, smell it, or even hear it. Only one of the three made it out alive but he did not live long. He died hard. After that, there was no more hope at all for Eighteen tipple.
I never did work in the mines again. I closed that book and put it on the shelf. I made do the rest of my working years. I did cabinetwork for a while, mostly finishing. I did light construction, painting mostly because I had more patience than my co-workers did. I was a campground host at Dale Hollow Lake for several seasons. I was a janitor at a fast food place that got in legal trouble and had to close. I battled cancer and won physically but lost financially. Because of that, I fought to avoid bankruptcy and lost. The house on Worley Hilltop went to the same man that bought Howard‘s old place next door. I physically lost my wife of fifty-nine years after losing her mentally years before. Along with all the other changes, I stepped down from being a pastor, one of the burdens I lay down.
Be on the lookout for the next part of the series “Reflections.”