You were asleep. You had no idea, but I might have been under your bed working. I was 300 feet under your bed. In the summers I paid my way through college by working for Consolidation Coal Company at the Shoemaker Mine in Benwood. Once we got on the man trip and headed into the mine, who knows which direction we went, but once I asked, and my foreman said we were headed somewhere under South Wheeling.
When I first started on a regular mine crew running a shuttle car, we entered the mine right in the middle of the little town called Benwood. Our crew made history. We were the first coal miners to go through an abandoned mine to reach new coal. The Benwood mine blew up on April 29, 1924, and 119 miners were killed. No one survived. Our job was to tunnel through that old mine and get to unmined coal to the East. When we went through the old mine, the Mine Health and Safety Administration made the coal company take some special precautions. There was a special little room. I asked an old timer how it would work when and if we had a problem. The old coal miner showed me the room. It had some crude bunk beds made from plywood and a Bible, as I recall. The real delight was a small borehole that went to the surface. The old timer said the idea was that in a disaster we could go in the room, shut the door, and they could pump good air down to us and drop supplies. I could just imagine myself trapped in a mine ordering a cheeseburger to be dropped three hundred feet into my hands. “Well how do you think it will work if we ever need it?” I asked the old miner. He said there will probably be a first explosion; then we will all get in the room and close the door. I said, “Then what will happen?” He said there will be a second explosion that will blow the door in and kill us all. Best not to have those explosions, I thought.
Every day I thought we might come across the remains of a 1924 miner. We never did, but it was amazing how well preserved some of the cloth and other mining items we found were. The coal absorbed the oxygen, and a person may have been pretty well preserved if we did find anyone.
As the years progressed, we entered the mine from a shaft farther up the Valley. I can remember going to work on a midnight shift. Before the shift we dressed in our work clothes. Every miner knows what a mine bath house is like. Your belongings hang from the ceiling in a basket. A small chain pulls your clothes to the top of the room where hopefully they will be dry. You put on smelly, dirty clothes and rubber boots. You have your miner’s lunch bucket. The lunch bucket is like a double boiler. On the top is your food, and your water for the day is on the bottom. With your battery and headlamp on you sit in the cool evening air and wait to start your shift. Your shift starts when the elevator opens and you are on the bottom ready to board the man trip. There is no being late for coal miners. Either you are on the man trip, or you are not. It only runs once.
One particular night I always remember; it was a very foggy summer night in the Ohio Valley on the river. It never occurred to me that the mine fans would suck the fog into the mine. Once underground in the mine entries covered in the chalkey white lime dust used to suppress explosions; the fog had a very eerie effect. It was like an old movie scene in Transylvania.
Friday would finally come. Friday was payday. I remember emerging from the mine right in the middle of Benwood and walking across the street to the bar where all the miners cashed their checks. I was young and stupid. In the bar I had my paycheck cashed. Because I needed the money to pay for college, I worked all the overtime I could. I had a two-week check for $1,200. Like an idiot I started drinking beer and got stupider by the minute. Also I got braver and bigger. I started joking and joshing, and the next thing I knew, I had challenged a huge coal miner to a fight. The winner would get both paychecks. This may have been the luckiest day in my life. Mike Quinn was about to pay a very big, very strong coal miner to pound him into hamburger. God smiled on me and some sensible sober person stopped the whole affair. Otherwise I would have gone through life with some permanent injury explaining how I paid a guy $1,200 to beat me.
Eventually I graduated from college and spent a career in coal mining, but I will always remember how it got started working under your bed.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Mike’s blog, Kadizzled. He has generously agreed to look the other way while we pilfer his material that pertains to Wheeling.