My dad was twenty-five years old when he saw a man die. He didn’t hear or see the slate roof fall, but he heard Bonsell Robinson scream. It happened in 1967 inside the Beatrice Coal Mine in Keen Mountain, Virginia, where my dad worked. He was just starting out, five years into a job he would do for the rest of his work life.
At the time of the roof collapse, my dad was a buggyman. His job—to make sure the buggies, or shuttle cars, that carried coal to the beltline were full. He had just moved up to buggyman from stoper (“stow-per”), one of the deadliest jobs in an underground mine. The stoper stands up wooden posts and drills bolts into the slate roof to keep it from caving in, so the excavation can advance deeper into the seam. It takes two men to do the work. Together they auger into the rock above them using a tool that looks like an upside down jackhammer.
My dad was glad to get off the stoper job. Not only is it one of the most dangerous, it’s also one of the hardest. It’s the position given to miners newly hired, or new to a mine, to see if they’re tough enough to survive.
To survive in the mine, Dad had to get used to working deep inside the earth. He had grown accustomed to crouching in dark, narrow tunnels and listening to the rumble of bedrock, like distant thunder, as it shifted and settled around him. He was used to sloshing through cold, standing water and breathing in air dirty with coal and rock dust. What he wasn’t familiar with was the primal sound of a man dying.
The day the roof caved in, midway through the third shift, Dad had been spelled out by another miner so he could eat his dinner. Mom used to pack his bucket with an Armor Treet meat sandwich, a thermos of black coffee, Vienna sausages, a Little Debbie snack cake and a tin of Del Monte fruit cocktail. That day, he found a dry place to sit and ate with three other miners, 100 feet away from where the stopers were setting timbers, when Bonsell Robinson screamed—an animal sound, like the yelp of a dog when it’s been kicked.
Dad and the other men rushed over to find Bonsell pinned to the ground, his chest and waist crushed under a rock the size of an armchair and weighing thousands of pounds. The other stoper wasn’t touched.
The entire Beatrice mine shut down for twenty-four hours so state and federal authorities could investigate. All the miners climbed into the mantrip, the railcar that carried them back to the surface, and the machines sat idle. Dad drove home on barren, pre-dawn roads unable to stop thinking about what he had seen. And heard.
Beatrice reopened the next day for business as usual. Because somebody had to do Bonsell Robinson’s job, the foreman tapped the last man to work as a stoper—my dad. It was one of the hardest shifts he ever pulled.
Fifty years later, I ask him why.
He sighs. How do you describe how it feels to step into a dead man’s shoes?
I imagine the fear he must have felt. I wonder if he prayed to God to keep him safe. Did he bury himself in the work until it was over? Did he feel like he was playing Russian roulette?
My dad is not a man who talks easily about his feelings, but the death has never left him. He can still see Bonsell Robinson crushed under that big slab of slate. He can still hear him scream.
There’s something else my dad won’t ever forget. A few days before he was killed, Bonsell Robinson got religion. When the men ate their dinner together, deep inside that dark mine, all Bonsell wanted to talk about was getting saved.
As if he knew death was coming for him any minute.
Like his coal-mining grandfather and father, my dad was born and raised in the ancient mountains of central Appalachia, where western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia come together above a vast buried treasure of bituminous coal.
The Pocahontas coal seams, named after the Powhatan princess, were discovered in 1873 when an explorer stumbled upon a pioneer blacksmith fueling his fire with coal from a thirteen-foot-tall outcrop. Miners began harvesting Pocahontas coal in the early 1880s, and its riches fueled the industrial development of America and powered U.S. Navy ships during World Wars I and II.
From the earliest days, death lurked in the mines.
Coal dust and methane gas trapped in coal deposits are highly combustible. The first Pocahontas mining disaster occurred on March 13, 1884, when a gas explosion rocketed through a mine. The blast hurled men against the coal, pummeled them with flying timbers and shot loaded cars and rail tracks out of the mine opening like bullets from the barrel of a gun. All 114 miners working that day died.
Growing up in central Appalachia, my dad learned at an early age that coal mining can kill a man. He was nine when his grandfather died in 1951. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported it this way:
GRUNDY, Va., Nov. 14 —Jack Burris Bingham, 58, local resident, was instantly killed this morning in a slate fall in the D.J.B. Colliery (an old British word for a coal mine), Feds Creek, Ky., where he had been employed as a mine foreman for many years.
Bingham was struck by a piece of slate weighing several tons, suffering crushing injuries to the head and chest. The accident occurred at about 10:00 a.m.
Dad remembers being taken out of school early and people bringing food to their house for the wake. He recalls how the death spooked his own father, who also worked at the D.J.B. mine. After the coal company paid the family $5,000 in death benefits, my dad’s dad used some of the money to escape.
On a gamble, he bought half ownership in a boat dock. But the venture failed after a few years, and he returned to the coalfields and the only other work he had ever known. My dad was fourteen the year his father gave up the dock. He and his sixteen-year old brother helped their dad open a truck mine for a businessman.
There were two kinds of coal mines in central Appalachia in the late 1950s. One was a shaft mine owned by a corporation.Those employed hundreds of miners and provided benefits and union pay. The other was a truck mine, or a drift mine, which is a small operation with a dozen men on the payroll.
My dad and his brother cut timbers for the stopers. They patched a dirt road to the tipple by plugging potholes with red dog—the refuse slate, shale and rock separated from coal during the cleaning process—from a nearby mine. The slate dump where they filled their shovels towered above them, steamed with sulphurous fumes and stank like rotten eggs.
A year later, my dad was living in the small community of Bishop, West Virginia, when a blast there killed thirty-seven miners. Another explosion roared through the same section of the mine a year after that, killing another twenty-two.
By the time my dad went to work in his first truck mine, at the age of twenty, he had seen enough death in the mine to know the job could kill him.
The truck mine in Grundy, Virginia, where my dad first worked, was too small to have a bathhouse, so he showered at Muncy’s Grocery Store on Slate Creek in a rented basement stall. He used to bathe with Joy dishwashing liquid. It was the only soap strong enough to get rid of the grime. Even with Joy, it was nearly impossible to scrub away the grit from under his fingernails and around his eyes and eyelashes.
Dad met the woman who would become his wife at Muncy’s. My mom was just out of high school, cashiering at a Ben Franklin Five & Dime, and still living in the mountaintop farmhouse where she had been born and raised. Because she didn’t have a car, she rode to work with her brother and his wife. Her brother worked at the same mine as my dad.
One day my dad came out of the bathhouse and saw a young woman sitting in a car with another woman. I’ve seen photos of my mom from those days and I can picture her in the car: wavy black hair and dark eyes; so shy she is probably looking off at the bare trees on the looming mountains instead of gazing back at the man staring at her.
Dad, invigorated from his shower and smelling of Joy, asked the miner headed to the car, “Who’s that good-looking woman in the back seat?”
“That’s my sister.”
“How about you get me a date with her?”
“We’ll see what she says.”
A few days later the four of them went on a double date to the Grundy bowling alley.
Not long after they started dating, my dad broke both bones of his right forearm in the mine, when his arm caught between the slate roof and a shuttle car. It was Christmas Eve, 1964. A month later, he married my mom—with his arm in a plaster cast.
They weren’t married long when my dad heard about a new shaft mine opening. The Beatrice mine would pay $18 a day, compared to the $16 he earned in the truck mine, and it would provide health care benefits and holidays off. He was drawing just $37 a week in compensation for his broken arm, when my mom learned she was pregnant.
Because he knew he wouldn’t pass the physical wearing a cast, he did what he had to do to get the better-paying job. He sawed off his cast.
Dad started in the Beatrice shaft mine as a stoper. The odor of hydraulic oil from the jackhammer smelled so bad it made my pregnant mom nauseated. He had to strip to his underwear before he could come inside the single-wide trailer they rented, even after showering at the bathhouse.
When my twin brother and I were born on Halloween of 1965, my mom needed help caring for the two of us. My dad had just moved up from stoper to buggyman and was working the hoot owl shift, from midnight to 8 a.m. To help my mom with the 2 a.m. feedings, he had to switch to the second shift.The only man willing to swap jobs with him had one of the deadliest in the mine.
My dad took the trade. He went back to being a stoper.
The tunnels inside a coal mine are cold and dark, and the size of the work space is determined by the height of the coal. Although the average is around five feet tall, my dad worked in seams as short as thirty-two inches.
The walls inside a mine, which are sprayed with a pale dust to prevent gas explosions, often drip. It was not unusual for my dad to walk—or crawl—through six inches of standing water. Although the shaft is damp, the coal itself is dry. When miners and machines tear into the seam, it stirs up coal and rock dust that coats everything—coveralls, hardhats, steel-toed boots and dinner buckets. The soot makes its way into a man’s mouth and down his throat. It gets into his ears, goes up his nose. Miners have a term for the way coal dust burrows into a wound, leaving a blue-ish mark beneath the skin. They call it a coal tattoo.
The most damaging dust is breathed into the chest, where tiny particles destroy lung tissue, resulting in an incurable condition named coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung. Many miners don’t know they have black lung until they retire—when it’s too late to do anything but suffer the consequences, which miners describe as feeling like you’re drowning.
My dad’s hearing is shot from working thirty-five years in the confines of a mine shaft surrounded by roaring equipment. His back is stooped from crouching for eight to ten hours a day—duck walking, miners call it—and his knees and shoulders ache. He has black lung, the coal miner’s disease that killed his father.
And yet he considers himself blessed. He got out of the mines alive. The closest he ever came to getting seriously hurt was a few close calls. There was the time he broke his arm.There was the time he was struck by a pillow-sized hunk of slate that weighed more than a cinder block. There was the time he was talking to another miner when highly combustible methane burst into flames between them and torched the other man’s face.
Coal mining moves at a fast pace inside the narrow tunnels—the more coal mined, the more money made—and in a hurried and cramped environment, accidents happen. One of the worst accidents Dad ever witnessed came early in his career, when a loaded coal car broke free and slammed into his father, shattering his pelvis and rupturing his bladder.
By the time my dad retired, he had worked every job inside a coal mine. Boneman. Scoopman. Foreman. He went from hand-loading coal with a shovel and a pick in the 1960s to retiring in the 1990s from the highest position outside corporate offices—mine superintendent.
Coal mining is a boom or bust industry, dependent on energy demands and competition, and my dad endured his share of walkouts, layoffs and strikes. Although he started out in the United Mine Workers of America union, he eventually became superintendent of a big shaft mine in Jewell Ridge, Virginia. During the Pittston Coal Co. strike of 1989, someone set fire to his company Jeep while it was parked in our driveway. Dad knew all along the danger he faced. Except for a three-year stint in the U.S. Army in his late teens and ten months as a mine inspector during a federal pay freeze, he never thought of doing anything else. Coal mining did what he had been taught a job was supposed to do: gave him the means to support a family.
I graduated in 1989 from Virginia Tech—two hours, but a world away—from the coalfields. I spent the first twenty-four years of my working life as a daily newspaper reporter, telling other people’s stories. I tell my dad’s story now because he is seventy-eight, and I see how a lifetime in the mines is slowly killing him.
I am the first of four generations of miners not to risk my life digging coal. Now I have sons of my own; I fully understand the price my dad paid for my freedom. He worked in a thirty-two inch seam so I wouldn’t have to, so I could get an education and choose how to spend my working days. He didn’t have a choice.
Although mining is safer today, fatalities still occur. Twelve U.S. coal miners died on the job in 2018, down from 222 in 1967, the year Bonsell Robinson was killed. The deaths came even as the U.S. Department of Mines and Minerals reports the total number of coal miners is dwindling—82,299 in 2018 compared to 139,319 in 1967.
The world that made my dad, the world that made my grandfather and great-grandfather, is disappearing.
In the northern edge of Tazewell County, Virginia, where I grew up, some of the company houses built for Bishop miners still stand close to the curvy two-lane road. They are the last survivors of a once thriving coal camp. A few of the identical houses are still inhabited, but most are vacant, boarded up with plywood and heavy plastic, or abandoned and caving in.
All that’s left of the Bishop mine is a granite memorial to the deadly disasters. It sits inside a chain-link fence, littered with fallen leaves. The names of the thirty-seven miners killed in 1957 are engraved on the left and the names of the twenty-two killed in 1958 are on the right.
Drive the hairpin turns from Bishop to Jewell Ridge where my dad worked the longest stint of his career, and you won’t find anything left there, either. Even the sign at the cut-off has dropped into the weeds and been swallowed by poison ivy and Virginia creeper.
Years ago, I visited my dad’s office when he was the Jewell Ridge superintendent. Pinned to the wall behind his wide metal desk was a map depicting all the tunnels mined below us, a grid that looked to me like a massive underground city.
It’s gone now. Demolition crews balled up the map and tore down the concrete walls of the office. They bulldozed the bathhouse next door, where miners once hung their coveralls in wire baskets that swung from the rafters. They ripped out toilets, sinks and showers stalls. They threw out the panels where batteries charged headlamps and they trashed the identifying tags miners hung on hooks to show who was working inside the mine, in case there was a cave-in or an explosion, and every man needed to be accounted for.
Inside the mine, the demolition crews pried up rail tracks and hauled them out with shuttle cars, mantrips and the continuous miner machine. They shut off the fans that sucked lethal methane from the tunnels and sealed the mouth of the mine with a cement plug.
There’s nothing left to prove that hundreds of miners risked their lives deep inside the earth. Nothing left of the smells and the screams. Nothing except a wide place on a hillside and a road that goes nowhere. ■