Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Coal Miners' Memorial

I've always thought it remarkable that I migrated half way across the world to a place in England that is in some ways so similar to where I grew up. Oklahoma City and Newcastle-upon-Tyne are neither one tourist towns, though in each place there is a great deal of interesting places worth taking the time to see. The people of both cities are very friendly and helpful. The skies are full of dramatic clouds driven by wind nearly every day of the year. And coal mining has played a major part in the history of both Oklahoma and Newcastle. 

Pioneer Miner

He may have been killed or suffered permanent injury, or black lung, in his hazardous occupation. It was by his labor that the early day economy of this area was built. He left with us an ethnic and culture mix that has enriched us all. 

I knew nothing at all about Newcastle upon Tyne when I came to work here. However, virtually everywhere I've been that is associated with Britain's empire has a place named Newcastle. There is the phrase 'Like taking coals to Newcastle' which is akin to 'selling ice to the Eskimos'.  It's not a phrase I ever heard until coming here, but a few people in the US older than I seem to have encountered it. 

Across the Northumberland coal field tight knit communities formed in mining villages where men put their lives at risk on a daily basis, going down the pit at a young age and doing odd jobs at the surface even younger. As the coal mining industry declined - and Thatcher broke the union - these villages have often lost their cohesiveness as people drifted elsewhere for jobs or joined the welfare rolls and got stuck. Where transport links into larger towns/cities survived cuts some communities have survived and grown.  

28 major mining disasters in 60 years!

Immigration patterns have been influenced by major mining disasters: when the Old Hartley mine in Northumberland killed most of the skilled miners back in 1862, recruitment for new labour brought Bill's ancestors to the area from North Wales, one of the most beautiful places in Britain. It is hard to imagine what they felt about the change in their surroundings, though it is almost certain that economic necessity drove them to the dreary mining town.

Researching my family history has shown me a similar pattern in SE Oklahoma. Lehigh, where many of my family were born, was a thriving town of 7,000 during the early part of the 20th century when coal production was at its highest; today only 359 hearty souls live there. Mining companies in the US and Australia paid the passage of miners and their families from Britain to bring exceptionally skilled labour to their mines.

My relatives worked in mines I thought were owned by the Choctaw Nation, for that is how they are referred to in the literature. I've read in several places that the death rate for the mines in the Choctaw Nation was the highest in the country. On this trip, however, I learned that this name simply means the location within pre-statehood terms. The mines were not owned by local people in the early days. There were just brokers who obtained leases from the Native Americans on behalf of coal mining and railroad companies back East. These Eastern financiers were men who obstructed efforts to improve the safety of the mine and protected their profits rather than their employees. The article names the officers of the Osage Coal and Mining Company, including two men from St. Louis, Missouri about which I've not found anything further: R. M. McDowell and A. M. Fellows. The third name is Edwin Gould, son of the infamous Jay Gould (8th worst CEO of all time!). The Wikipedia entry for E. Gould only mentions his philanthropy but as far as I'm concerned, all three of these men - and others like them - have blood on their hands.  

Killed in Oklahoma Coal Mines

One article from 1990, by a retired university history professor, Paul Carano (who I suspect also had family members killed in the mines), reviewed the Krebs mining disaster which killed my great uncle John in January 1892, when he was 39 years old. He left a wife and four daughters, aged 13, 10, 8 and 8 months. They will likely have lost their home, tied to his employment. The baby, Winifred, died in August that year, aged 16 months. The next two youngest daughters went on to marry men who were later killed in horrific mining disasters at ages 27 and 30. 

The Krebs mining disaster, I learned back in 1990, was responsible for the creation of the first federal institution concerned with mining safety. The complete lack of any hospitals in the area in 1892 was also a major concern. Most of the men who made it out of the Osage number 11 mine died, some quickly, some slowly.

I found a brilliant three-volume book at the Oklahoma Historical Society where Geoffrey L. Satter had compiled and indexed historical newspaper articles about coal mining deaths. Over 1,000 pages of gory details. 

Of course, coal wasn't only a profitable business but a necessary fuel for heating and transport. The awful number of mining deaths reminded me that many occupations in developing countries are still quite hazardous, for example dressmaking in Bangladesh. I read somewhere that mining of gems like rubies and sapphires is exceptionally dangerous. It makes me want to be more aware of what I buy and what it costs others to provide it to me.


D A Wolf said...

Sad, fascinating, instructive. You would think we could, as a human community, learn from our history. Tragic that all too often we do not.

Sandra said...

Shelley I am in awe of your research on OUR FAMILY's roots and consider myself so lucky to have your first hand writings, observations and commitment to the HARLEY/HOUSTON STORY. I am loving reading these accounts from your latest visit to Oklahoma. Thank you.

Dstipe said...

I applaud your research. Growing up in mcalester, you have given me information I did not know. Amazing to fly from Britain to visit this humble little town. As to mentioning Gene Stipe earlier, his father too worked in the mines and is why the family migrated here. Great job!

Dan Stipe