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Coal Mining In Kentucky

A jrd webpage on 1/8/11
Thanks to Nicholas Koba, jr. for the pictures
Mine Car Homestead Pit

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 Western Kentucky.

"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.

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