Willoughby: ‘Death by breath’ remains an occupational hazard for miners of gold, silver and coal
Legends & Legacies
When I asked my father whether he had ever worked any of the coal mines in Western Colorado, he said, “I would never set foot in a coal mine.” The response seemed strange, coming from a man who had spent nearly 30 years underground.
Father had to leave Aspen to move to sea level, where he could breathe more easily. Silicosis, the miner’s disease, had sliced and diced half his lung. But he did not mention either silicosis or the equivalent disease for coal miners, called black lung. Instead, he listed hazards to coal miners that silver miners escaped. He started with the increased likelihood that a coal mine would collapse.
I suspect father’s distaste for coal mines had been passed to him during his childhood, from his father. After father was born in Hotchkiss, grandfather had settled his family in the North Fork Valley around 1912. He planned to take advantage of the latest Colorado bonanza: fruit production. At the same time, several of Aspen’s mining men also bought land in Western Colorado. Two of them convinced my grandfather, who was certified in several areas of mining engineering, to invest in Aspen’s Midnight Mine.
Hotchkiss is located close to Somerset, a town founded at the turn of the century, which extracted coal from a 4-mile seam. When the railroad connected the Somerset mine to outside markets, the town grew as an economic center. When my father was young, people would have talked about a major fire at that mine in 1911.
Coal mine disasters occurred commonly in the U.S. throughout the decade. Sixteen miners had died in 1902 in an accident in a Pennsylvania mine. A mine explosion in 1907 in Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania, killed 239 miners. That same year, the worst-ever U.S. catastrophe killed 362 in West Virginia. And 10 miners lost their lives in an Oklahoma mine in 1909.
Father’s caution centered on coal mine explosions and fires, and he acknowledged other dangers. If you have a natural gas line or a propane line, you feel concern about gas leaks. A smelly substance, added during manufacture of these gases, alerts you to a leak before a spark can set off an explosion. But in a coal mine, you cannot smell explosive natural gas and other toxic gases such as carbon monoxide. Starting in 1913, coal miners carried canaries into the mines and heeded a bird’s death as an imperative to leave the area.
Although he had not mined coal, father had experienced near-death from bad air as a new hire in a copper mine in Arizona. He and his buddy started to build a platform in an upraise, so others could set up drills to extend the upraise. Using sledgehammers and rock chisels, the two of them hacked away at the rock. Father’s partner began to talk strangely and fell off the board they were perched on. Familiar with the underground, father, diagnosed the problem: bad air. He leaped down and dragged his buddy toward safety. Then he blacked out, too.
The two men woke up outside the mine with splitting headaches. The foreman had used them as guinea pigs to find out whether they needed to pump clean air into the upraise. After blasting, the gasses from the blasting need to be cleared out and he thought they would move on their own.
Father’s aversion to coal mines provides context to a new twist in the age-old story of black lung disease and coal miners. During the 1970s black lung disease, caused when miners inhale coal dust, finally got the attention it deserved. Out of the national total of 127,000 coal miners, around 4,000 were dying each year.
The new twist is that those who drive tunnels through hard rock, rather than coal seams alone, lodge silica dust in their lungs. The result is a worse form of black lung disease, a combination of silicosis and black lung. It appears that mine inspectors have not been accounting for that complex exposure.
My father and others of his time divided miners into two groups: hard rock miners and coal miners. Generally, hard rock miners needed more skills, and those higher skills attracted much higher pay.
Father assumed the arrogance of a hard rock miner and a multigenerational Coloradan. According to him, it didn’t take much thought to realize you shouldn’t set foot in a coal mine. He may not have realized that factors other than risk figured into the choice. Coal mining jobs, some of the most dangerous imaginable, fell to those with few other options — recent immigrants and African Americans. If he were alive today, father surely would identify with coal miners afflicted with silicosis, the disease that ended his years underground.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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