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Coal Mining in Early Vigo County

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

I come from coal miners. Three generations of the Chrisman side of my family toiled in mines west of the river, including my grandfather who lied about his age and went to the mines at 11 years old. The family saw the changeover from the small owner-operated mines of the nineteenth century to the company mines after the turn of the century, complete with “the company store” to which so many “owed their soul,” like the one located on Paris Avenue in West Terre Haute.

Hard on the western edge of West Terre Haute, just across Sugar Creek, rises a series of hills and bluffs. It was here, around 1847, that a Welsh immigrant spotted an outcropping of coal and began the mining industry in West Terre Haute. Coal mining was a major driver of the county’s economy for the next century.

George Broadhurst was born in Taxal, County Cheshire, England around 1813. That area was a coal mining region, so it is very likely he was a miner before emigrating to the Untied States in the mid-1840s. He likely was accompanied or joined by his brother Richard and cousin James Broadhurst. They settled in Vigo County, where George is credited with operating the first mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846/1847. Coal mining became the family business.

The first “mines” were not underground shafts. Using a variation of the slope method, Broadhurst dug into the side of the hill to extract the coal. Shaft mining came later.

That was the start.

In 1875 the Terre Haute Gazette gave a rare view of early mining operations in Indiana. They sent a reporter (who appears to have been rather full of himself) to the Barrick and Sons mine in West Terre Haute. The mine, less than one hundred yards from Broadhurst’a original mine, was just across the Sugar Creek bridge was sunk in 1874. Barrick employed 21 men on the site, including African Americans (or darkeys as the reporter called them). His first sight was of a small upright steam engine surrounded by outbuildings. The pump used to siphon water from the mine.

A potbellied horse was slowly turning a drum wound with rope lowered into the shaft. One miner worked the engine, another wheeled away the coal hauled up from the mineshaft. The reporter was lowered into the mine in a “box.” As he descended the sky grew smaller. He was headed deep beneath the surface.

The shaft was about 30 feet deep. The mine was apparently using a version of the room and pillar in which the shaft was sunk and miners dug “cross streets” at right angles from the main shaft. “Rooms” were dug, their roofs supported by beams and pillars of coal. The bottom of the shaft was about 12 x five feet and divided into 3 small compartments of wooden partitions, the smallest one to provide air and water for miners.

He climbed out of the bucket and was shown into one of the “streets.” Miners, black and while scurried around with their hand lamps, flickering across, barely illuminating, the black walls. The room was supported by wooden pillars. The space was cramped and close with hunched over men (old miners could often be instantly recognized by their perpetual stoop brought on by years of seldom standing erect in the mines.)

Two miners were bent over drills, pushing slanting holes into the coal seam, their bodies the motive power for the drills. in which “squibs” of blasting powder could be pushed. The purpose was not to blast a wall of coal into the room, but to open narrow cracks in the coal face. It was the work of strong men with picks to pry the coal from the face.

Miners were paid by the ton of coal they dug out, not by hour or day. So any action not directly connected with digging out the coal was “dead work.” They got paid nothing for the preparations to digging. (Dead work would become a contentious issue between miners and management during labor troubles in the twentieth century.) The coal was then shoveled into cars where the Black miners pushed (in many areas Blacks were only allowed to do the hauling and shoving instead of working as miners) it to the shaft to be hoisted up in the bucket powered by the potbellied old horse.

Miners often worked with partners or small groups, but one explained to the reporter he preferred working alone, alternating between drilling and picking. He was originally from the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania and found he could make more money by going solo. When the coal made it to the surface, the work of each miner was tagged as his output and weighed. He was paid by the ton.

Though aspects of mining would be “modernized” over the next half century, the basic work of these miners, the same dangerous conditions (over 50,000 miners would be killed at their work from 1875 to 1914) would continue for several generations of Vigo County miners.

A veteran miner described what it was like to be down the mine when an explosion occurred in article called “How it Feels to be Blown Up in a Coal Mine.” As soon as “the explosion occurs it drives like a whirlwind… it sweeps along the ceiling, carrying along props, brattices, and everything else, even the pillars of coal.” Released gases bring about a secondary explosion that flings the trapped miner “probably fifty feet against the ragged coal.” The miner “feels a a light dizziness, he becomes weak and sleepy; he staggers; his knees lose all their power, and he falls.” His only hope is that the rescuers reach him before it is too late.

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