"May God bless all our miners who endured the darkness so that we might live so well in the sunshine."
From the information we've gathered to date, the family goes back to an agricultural background in the Wiltshire district of England. When times got tough, many family members went looking for work elsewhere and ended up following the coal mining industry. Many went to Wales and then from there to mining in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and the Gold Rush in California while others moved to Canada and Australia seeking better living conditions and futures for their families.
We felt it appropriate to add a page here of stories and links about the life of the coalminers and movies that might give the family a feel for the rough life our ancestors endured to carve a better life for their descendants.
Written by and copyright held by Robert Howells. In tribute to David Howells (father), David Howells (grandfather) and, Henry Howells (great grandfather), all coalminers. His grandfather and great grandfather came to the United States from South Wales in 1868.
[Bob has given permission to share his stories with the Swanborough family as they give the Swanborough descendants a feel for what life was like for our families who came before us and mined coal for a living. Thank you Bob!]
Hi: A few hours before the shift began at Susquehanna #6, the fire boss would make his rounds to determine if the work sections were safe. He checked possibilities of danger including gas. He carried with him a safety lamp (Davey lamp) which used naphtha for fuel. It was a tall (app. 10-12 inches) and about 4-5 inches in circumference. The flame was surrounded by a mesh and then a glass enclosure. When the light went out it indicated a lack of oxygen and the presence of gas. The men would pick up their battery operated lamps at the lamp shanty. Each had a designated and numbered lamp. The lampman would hand them out in the morning and collect them after the shift, put them on a rack and charge them for the next day. (Many lampmen were men who had lost a leg in the mine and couldn't go below to work.)
The men would affix them to the front of their safety helmet, put the cord over the top of the helmet and down the back to the battery pack which was connected to his belt at the waist. He wore a piece of leather between the pack and his body for protection. The lamp was turned on when it was put on the helmet and stayed on until the shift was over. Instead of going down on the cage, some of the men would walk past our patch of houses and through the woods to a slope. A slope was an entrance that went into the mine at an angle and the men would walk down instead of taking the cage. From our kitchen window, after dark, we could see the lights coming through the woods as the men returned after their shift. Watching the bobbing lights at night was an eerie sight. Some men showered and changed clothes before going home after work. Others preferred to go home in their work clothes and wash at home.
Those who "shifted" went to the shifting shanty. The shifting shanty was a large building with a shower room at the end. As I recall, the shower room was about 10 x 10 with shower heads on the walls.There were no lockers for their clothes. The ceiling was very high and there were many pulleys attached to it. Through each pulley ran a chain that came down and was able to be fastened to the back of a bench. The men fastened their clothing to the chain by means of a hook or, in some cases, a very large safety pin. They would then pull the chain taking the clothes to the ceiling, fasten the chainto the back of a bench and put a padlock through the links so nobody could steal the clothes. The shanty was very dark, smelly and dirty. There were long electric wires that hung from the ceiling and came below the clothing. There was an incandescent bulb at the end of the cord. I don't think the lights were ever turned off. They replaced the bulb when it burned out. The windows were trasnslucent but turning opaque with the dirt. The benches and floor were always dirty with coal dust. I guess someone cleaned the building once in a while but it was a never ending job.
On Saturdays, when the mine wasn't working, I would go down and get permission from the hoist engineer (Mr. Morgan, Mr. Brush or Mr.Poltrock) to take a shower. Usually, my friend, Jack Campbell, would go with me. The engineers knew we were from the mining patch and they never refused us. We had to take newspapers with us to spread on the bench and on the floor. If we forgot to bring them, we couldn't sit on the bench or walk barefoot on the dirty floor. Sitting or walking without the benefit of the newspapers meant a dirty "bottom" or dirty feet and required another shower. It sounds like a lot of trouble but it was better than the alternative which was taking a bath in a round galvanized tub in the middle of the kitchen floor and have my two older sisters teasing me by threatening to open the kitchen door and throw cold water on me.
Hi: Thank you for the kind remarks and the encouragement. This week ( at time of original mail from Bob ), a 23 year old miner was killed in a methane explosion in Joliett, Schuylkill County. That incident and the many email messages I received from the list members about relatives who were killed in the mines, jogged my memory.
Living in the patch, I recall just once when I saw the ambulance pull up to the mine shaft to pick up mine accident victims. (There were other times but I was in school.) The Susquehanna ambulance was painted black and was called the "Black Maria." I remember the women and children in the patch gathering in the front yard waiting for information. The usual questions were asked: "Who was it?" "How many involved?" "How did it happen?" Later, someone would come to give the information. This time it was not someone from the patch.
The results of serious mine accidents could be seen in the community. There were men with one or two legs or arms missing. Men with one eye. Men with blue scars on their faces and arms indicating cuts that occurred while they were working. Probably, the most common characteristic was not the result of accidents but from breathing the dust. It was the terrible cough that the men had who suffered from anthra-silicosis or black lung. People often said they were "coughing their lungs out." On Saturday nights, when the stores were open and the streets were filled with people, you would see one or two men who had lost their legs, sitting on the sidewalk with a cap in their lap, begging. Remember, this was before social security was enacted and the men had little or no income.
Almost all families had friends or relatives who were injured in the mines. My neighbor had been burned in a gas explosion and was left with terrible scars on his face and arms. His nose and ears were almost burned off, His hair was missing from his face and his lips were two or three times their normal size. And yet, he still went back to the mines to work. I had a twenty year old cousin who was killed in an explosion and an uncle who was injured while workng on Good Friday. He never worked on Good Friday after that.
My father, who worked in the mines all of his life, had only one eye and was more accident prone than the average miner. He was injured six times but I remember only the last two. They were laying track inside the mine and carrying the track by hand. One man missed the cue to set it down and dropped it. It crushed my father's thumb and he was unable to use it much after that. Another time, he was coupling cars in the mine when the motorman started before the signal and the cars came together crushing his arm. He was never able to flex it completely after that. Finally, (this happened before I was born) there was a fall of rock in my father's section. When the rescuers found him, he was sitting on the floor of the mine with a rock across his legs and another rock on his back bending him over the first rock. After extricating him, they took him to the hospital in the ambulance. (Ironically, my mother saw the ambulance pass the house but never realized that it contained her husband.)
Later that evening, his buddy brought his glasses and dinner pail to the house and told her that "Dai" was in the hospital. Going across the street to get his mother and sister, the three ladies went to the hospital where they found him lying on a bed, unwashed and still in his mining clothes. The nurse told them that he wasn't expected to live. (Evidently, they were waiting for the undertaker to clean him up.) My mother then went to summon our family doctor who came to the hospital and instructed the nurses to wash him. He told them that "Dai" was going to live. He had two broken pelvis bones. Well, my father didn't die and after many months of hospitalization and recuperation, (you guessed it) he went back to work in the mines.
This experience was not unique but was typical of many, many mining families during the early 20's The men always returned to the mines because it was the only thing they knew and mining seemed to "be in their blood." In a sense, they were slaves to the industry. I'm sorry if this message seemed a little personal, but I thought some on the list might be interested.
Hi All: In answer to several requests, I'll continue with my explanation of the mine at Susquehanna #6. Although I never worked at the mine, I lived for over four years just a few hundred yards away.
The shaft had two cages each connected by a large steel cable which went over a wheel high above the cage and into the engine house a few hundred feet away where they were connected to a huge drum or cylinder. One cable went over the top of the drum while the other went under the bottom. As the hoisting engineer manipulated his levers causing the cylinder to turn, one cable wound up while the other cable unwound. This caused one cage to come to the surface and the other to descend. The man stationed at the surface was called the head tender while the man at the bottom of the shaft was called the foot tender.
They would signal by bell to the engineer as to what the cage held at the time. For example: one bell might mean men aboard, two might mean mules, three might mean mine car, etc. When a full mine car came to the surface, it was pushed off the cage and replaced by an empty. The full car would travel by gravity down a slight incline where a man would stick a wooden sprag through the spokes of one wheel to slow it down and stop it. He then would hook all the cars together and when there were enough for a trip, the lokey (sp ?) would pull them to the breaker in Glen Lyon, then return with empties. (A lokey was a small coal burning steam engine not unlike the larger locomotives used on the railroad). This process was repeated all day. The mine car held about 4 tons and the miners were expected to load 4 cars during a shift. (Hence, the song 16 tons by Ernie Ford). The larger railroad cars held from 50 to 80 tons. They were called gondolas.
There were times they brought mules to the surface. Although they were using electric motors to pull the cars inside the mine, they still used mules in certain places. I always felt sorry for those mules. My father used to sing a ditty with these words:
"My sweethearts the mule in the mines I drive her without any lines. On the bumper I stand with a whip in my hand and spit on her behind."
(My apologies for sounding crude.) However, the ditty was wrong. Those men would do nothing to abuse those animals. They loved them and would take treats for them when they went to work. Sometimes, they were taken to a mule barn and yard at Susquehanna #7 in Nanticoke. As one came into town by bus or trolley, the animals could be seen roamng around the yard. I don't know why they were sent there. Maybe, they were sick or just getting a little R&R.
My wife said if this is too long, people won't read it so I'll stop here. Have you had enough of the coal mine tales?
Hi: Stearns Station was a patch of 8 double block homes and one single home for the superintendent of the colliery. It was owned by the Susquehanna Coal Company and was lccated a few hundred yards south of the #6 shaft. In 1934, the residents were: B. Boyle, superintendent; H. Smith, Pieseno (sp?) Cymbalysti, Rogowicz, Kopko, Zakszewsi/Smith, McGill/Zlotowski, Kivler, Walkewicz, Howells/Lewis, Wallace, Dinardi/Zakszewki, Campbell and Selecky. The names with the slash indicate two families living in the home. Many times, a daughter got married but could not afford to go housekeeping so she brought her husband to live with the in-laws.
During the depression, the mines did not work every day. Paydays were small so the ladies of the house were interested in knowing if the mines were working on the following day. It was always a day-to-day basis. A Wilkes=Barre radio station (WBAX or WBRE) broadcast the schedule every noon for the following day. It was sponsored by Fred S. Petit, a local feed store owner, who began the program with the sound of baby chicks peeping. At the time, it was unique. The announcer then began giving the schedule, i.e; Alden, working; Auchinclos, idle; Avondale, idle..........Loomis, working.......Susquehanna #6 working; Susquehanna #7 idle; etc.,etc.....There must have been 20-30 mines in the Wyoming Valley so it took a little while.
Well, this is getting too long so I'll quit with the trivia. There probably aren't many people interested in how the mines functioned in those days, anyway.
Hi: Thought I'd reminisce on a lazy Sunday afternoon. There were no supermarkets in my area during the 30's. A lot of "mom and pop" stores existed. There was a larger Grand Union in town but most business was conducted at the smaller stores. There were a few American Stores in town but after WW2, they were closed and formed into the ACME markets. The "mom and pop" stores were a blessing to the coal mining families because they could buy on the book. The proprietor gave each customer a book small enough to fit in a woman's purse or a man's pocket. The book had numbered pages with two pages having the same number. When a person purchased anything, the proprietor would put a carbon paper between the pages and itemize each purchase. He tore out one page for his record and left the other in the book. Each page was totaled and carried over to the next page. At the end of the pay period (two weeks) the bill was paid.
Most of the stores had sawdust on the floor. Shelves of canned good lined the walls but a lot of produce was sold out of the bushel basket in which they came. A large stem of bananas hung from the ceiling and the proprietor would pull as many bananas as you wished from the stem. It was not a self-service store. The clerk "waited on" you. Usually, the meatcase contained three or four kinds of cold meat which the clerk sliced as needed. Sharp cheese was cut from a huge round piece and weighed. Most of the time, pork and beef was kept in a walk-in refrigerator and the proprietor cut it on a meat block for you. When we lived in the coal mining patch about three miles from town, a store owned by Carter Bache would send a solicitor (their name for it) every Monday and Thursday to get grocery orders. The orders were delivered on Wednesday and Saturday. Out of town deliveries were made by truck but many in town deliveries were made with horse and wagon. Mr. Bache owned Maywood Farms which supplied him with all of his dairy products, meat and produce. One could also buy bakery products and produce from trucks that came around to each block.
All of this occured in and around Nanticoke, PA. I hope I didn't bore you with this life style that existed in the 30's.
Hi: I was born in 1925 and I remember the 30's. Do you remember the UMBRELLA MAN? He came down the street ringing a small hand bell. He carried a small table on his back which he set up on the front porch or sidewalk. The table had an emery wheel which he turned by means of a treadle (not unlike the old sewing machines). He not only repaired umbrellas but he sharpened knives and scissors. In our "throw away" society today, if our knives our scissors get dull we toss them away and buy new. There was Mr. J-- who owned a dress shop in Nanticoke, He used to come round with a huge pack on his back and, when invited, would come in, throw his pack in the middle of the living room (we called it our parlor) and proceeded to sell his wares which were mostly dresses. Neighbor ladies often came in to see what he had. It was like an impromptu tupperware party.
There was Mr. P---who, when invited, came in to check you for eyeglasses. He sat his client on one side of the room and put an eyechart on the other wall. He then put a heavy frame over your nose and proceeded to change lenses until a person was satisfied that he could see well. In a couple of weeks, he returned with your glasses. Do you know of any optometrists who make house calls today?
Just once I remember a man come around with a "fortune teller" parrot!!! He carried a tray of small cards which had a fortune printed on them. (Much like the cards that the old scales dispensed along with your weight). After giving the man your money, the parrot would pick out a fortune card with his beak. The kids loved to see him do this and they would follow along hoping another neighbor would buy a fortune. Enough nonsense for this time.
Hi: Thank you all for your complimentary email regarding my 30's experience. However, I was asked the name of the town in which I lived. I have lived most of my life in Nanticoke, PA. In 1934, my father moved his family to a company house in a "patch" called Stearns Station. Living in a company house was not all that bad except there was no central heating or inside toilets. Another problem was that I had to attend a one-room schoolhouse. I was the only one in grades 4 through 7 and so I claim to have been the smartest.
My wife said I was the dumbest. Oh well, it all depends on how you look at it. Thanks again.