Coal Mining In Western Kentucky
As the twentieth dawned, coal mining was a main source of employment in Kentucky,
and especially Ohio County Kentucky, In the first half of the century, there
were operational mines in just about all areas east, south, and west of Beaver Dam.
Some of these mines were owned by individuals and others were owned by companies.
The Echols Mine was an example of a Louisville Gas and Electric owned and
controlled mine. Buck Curtis had a small mine just west of Graveyard Hill, and
on Hwy. 62, between Rockport and McHenry. This operation is an example of an
individual owned mine. All of these mines were underground mines and they had a
few things in common. For instance, the miner's work week would depend on the
demand for the coal. If Louisville Gas and Electric has a sufficient stockpile
of coal for their power plants, then the mine may work only a day or two a week or
maybe no work in a week. Another common factor was the danger. If the miner had a
safety complaint, or was hesitant about doing a certain job, the person in charge
would just remind him to look outside, as there were others wanting to take his place.
The hard work, safety factor and the irregular work hours combined to make coal
mining an undesirable occupation for a lot of people. Accidental deaths, high job
turnover, low weekly pay and hard work were a few of the reasons that a lot of the
local citizens went north to find work. As the demand for coal increased, in the
mid part of the twentieth century, conditions in area coal mines were beginning to
improve. A high coal demand and an expanding Peabody Coal Company combined to
create a desirable work place. A higher than normal salary for the coal miner,
and better and safer working conditions created positions close to home for a lot
of Western Kentucky workers and the northern migration for work certainly decreased.
In fact, a reverse migration may have occurred as some of those that had to move
north were returning and finding work in the mines.
There was a vast coal reserve in Ohio County that stretched from the Little Bend
area on the Green River to Rochester and to Centertown on the Green River and from
about Beaver Dam back to Centertown, Rockport, Echols, Cool Springs and just about
to the Prentice Road. The Beaver Dam Coal Company owned the coal reserves on most
of this land and the property owners were mostly farmers. Coal had been mined in
this vast area for centuries without much of a noticeable decrease in the enormous
reserve of coal. All that was needed now was for a large coal company to enter the
picture. There is an old song with an expression in it that goes: "And along came
Jones" or something to that effect. Well, along came Ken Mine and the rest is history.
In the earlier years of the twentieth century, some coal was being dug, but the
full potential of the use of coal was several decades away. Most of the earlier
coal mines were based on a small scale and even individual land owners would dig
up some of the coal for use in heating and cooking. In the area of Western Kentucky,
there were several small companies that supplied coal to be used in steam engines
for the railroads and for the companies that operated the steam boats. Over the
next few decades, coal was becoming more useful in the furnaces of electric
generating companies and steel mills. Electric power generating plants were being
built at a rapid pace to keep up for the demand for electricity. The steel mills
in Northern Illinois, using coal to fire their furnaces, were creating a bigger and
bigger demand for coal. It would only be a matter of time before the "Strip Mining"
technology and this different method of mining the coal would become popular in
"Strip" mining was new to Ohio County in the nineteen forties. Although there
were a few "Strip Mines" in Hopkins County and other Western Kentucky Counties,
Strip Mining was mostly an idea and not very practical. In this time frame,
20th Century Mines had a small Strip Mines in operation near Echols and there
was a small Strip Mines in operation near McHenry. "Underground Mining" was the
norm though, and most of the mines just did not consider mining the coal using
the "Strip Mine" process. This process consist of moving all of the material
(Overburden) from the top of the coal with a "Stripper" or other "Earth Moving"
machines. Once the "Overburden" was removed, the coal would be loaded into large
trucks with smaller versions of the "Stripper". These "Loaders" were similar
in appearance to the "Strippers", but on a much smaller scale. The depth of the
overburden that could be moved, by a stripper, depended on the ability of the
"Stripper" to be able to find enough dumping room for the overburden. This ability
was determined by the length of the boom. In the late forties and early fifties,
there were not any huge strippers that could remove 100 Feet or so of overburden,
simply because the stripper did not have the reach to pile the overburden one
hundred feet high. Thus. Underground Mining was the most popular means of mining
the coal. Some of the "Coal Reserves" at the Ken Mine was sitting under "Dirt and
Rock" twenty to a hundred feet deep. Until massive "Strippers" could be built,
most of the coal could not be mined by the "Strip Mine" process.
"Strippers" come in two basic forms, a "Shovel" and a "Dragline". About every
miner has an opinion on which type of stripper is the best and that probably
depends somewhat on the type and condition of the overburden to be removed.
Peabody Coal Company had a large variation of each type stripper, with Ken Mine
operating a "Shovel" in one pit and a "Dragline" in
another pit. A "Shovel" uses the method where the digging mechanism (Shovel) is
attached directly to the "Boom". The "Shovel" is stationed in the "Pit", and on
top of the coal. It faces the highwall and removes the overburden "Head On". It
normally sits on four separate "Tracks" that act as the driving mechanism to move
the shovel. By the use of "Levers" the "Bucket" is moved into the overburden and
raised allowing the "Dirt and Rocks" to be scooped up and then, the loaded bucket
is swung around and the load is dumped on what is called the "Spoil" side. Ideally,
this process continues seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.
"Draglines" are somewhat different than "Shovels". They have been in use for just
about as long as there have been motors. A dragline sits on what is called a "Tub",
and like the "Shovel", it must remain mostly level. To move a dragline, large "Pads"
or "Feet" are extended from each corner and toward the direction of the move. A
"Lifting" mechanism will raise the "Tub" a few inches off the ground and allow the
machine to move forward. The "Dragline" operates above the pit and on top of the
"Overburden". The "Bucket" is attached to the boom with cables that are used to
raise, lower, pull and dump the loaded bucket. The "Boom" extends out from the
overburden and the "Bucket" is lowered into the pit. The bucket is now pulled or
"Dragged" toward the dragline, filling up with "Dirt and Rocks". Then the digging
end of the "Bucket" is raised a little so as not to spill the contents. The entire
"Bucket" is now raised and swung to the "Spoil" side and dumped. This process,
ideally, continues 24/7.
A "Strip" Mine can be a very large operation with large machines and a variety
of workers. Most strip mines cover hundreds of acres. The process of removing
the coal from the ground, to the last stages of shipping it to buyers can be a
complicated process. The "Pit" is probably the center of attention, as that is
where the coal is located and the job of the miners is to get this coal and
transport it to a place where it can be shipped to those that purchase the coal.
From the pit, "Haul Roads" are constantly being built to the "Processing Plant"
or plants. The "Office" complex is another "Center Of Activity", as plans for
the mine operation are constantly being changed and updated. The mine history,
as well as the miners work activity must be recorded, payrolls completed,
equipment bought, sold and repaired. All types of shipments in to the mine and
out of the mine are processed through the office. The "Garage" area and other
workshops are usually contained in a central area and broken equipment that can
not be repaired in the field are brought to this busy work area. In many cases,
an "Underground" Mine will be located in a "Strip Mine" area. The managers,
foreman, other bosses, clerical workers, truck drivers, pit crews, welders,
electricians, etc, need a staging area or reporting area. To better facilitate
this type of operation, the employees are assigned to a certain group or a crew.
For instance, the electricians form the "Electrical Crew" and report, at the start
of the shift, to their shop. From here they are dispersed to where they are needed.
Special crews like the "Stripper Crew" or the "Loader Crew" consist of only a few
people and it is not uncommon for these crews to work together for ten years or so.
A bond of such a crew will certainly exist and lasting friendship will continue
even after retirement.
Rockport, Echols, and Ohio County were fortunate to have Ken Coal Company move
into the area. Prior to the nineteen fifties, good jobs were not very plentiful
in the area and those wanting a good wage for a day's work had to move north.
Just a small start at first developed into a major operation. Ken Mine alone may
have employed some four hundred miners at one time. Good jobs were plentiful and
some of the people that moved north were returning to the area where they were born
and raised. Rockport, Echols, and other towns in the area were on the move. Tax
monies were distributed to all of the area that was being mined and it seemed that
this source of monies was endless. Guess that the area thought that the "Boom"
would last forever, but once the coal, that was easy to mine was gone, the area
feel on more difficult times. By the start of the Twenty-First Century, "King Coal"
was gone and now the area that got used to "Easy Pickings" had a difficult time
realizing that the "Coal Boom" was over. It was a nice ride while it lasted.
Gosh, if you are still here after reading all of this, I appreciate your determination.
As a retiree, on this cold winter day, I just took the time to jot down a few paragraphs
on coal mining. Although I have plenty to do, I had rather be on this keyboard. Thus,
typing a few paragraphs is a form of entertainment and something that keeps the old brain
cells trying to keep up with what the hands are typing out to form these paragraphs. Now,
to have some actually look at the pictures, and read the text gives me double pleasure.
Just a big thanks for those that have reached this stage.