John Grant - details of mine
Andrea Hammer: Since I've not been in a mine, I have to reach to visualize. So if you were standing in front of this mine before you enter, what would you see? Can you sort of visually take me through it?
John Grant: Okay. Now if you're standing in front of the mine, you're going to see several things. First of all, the mine opening itself is fairly simple. Usually, there's some reinforcing around it to keep the dirt from sliding in, but it just looks like the entrance to any tunnel. You're also going to feel the air moving past you in the entrance of the tunnel because mines operate on what you call an exhaust fan. In other words, the air that goes into the mine comes in right where you are standing. And there's a fan, maybe several miles away, an enormous fan, that's drawing that fresh air into the mine and exhausting it where the fan is. So that's what they mean by the exhaust system.
You're going to be struck by the smell. Most coal has a sulfur smell in it. You can't help but to get that smell around the mine. You're going to be standing in pieces of broken coal because you cannot run a mining operation without having a lot of fragments of coal around. Everything is black.
Also, a surprising thing about this particular mine, it did not use electric lights. This was not a gaseous mine, and so they used open carbide lights. And one of the first things a miner did when he came out of the mine was to dump their carbide light. And they'd simply do this by rapping it on the railroad rails that ran into the mine. And so for maybe the first 50 to 75 feet past the mine opening, you would see this white of the carbide that had been burned that came out of the miner's lamps. And that also had an odor to it, a very caustic, biting odor to it, this carbide did. So that's part of the smell.
Also, you'd be aware of the fact that there was a trolley wire off to one side, and you'd try to stay clear of this trolley wire. Where you first went into the mine, it was protected by strips of wood, but down into the mine where you had room to move around, the trolley wire was not covered.
The reason I mentioned this was a friend of mine, who had worked for the mining engineer the year before, was telling me something that happened. I mentioned how the survey goes [ahead] and that you sight on the plumb bobs and that you have to measure the distance. You measure the distance with a steel tape, and that steel tape is held up as high as you can in the mines so that you have the least amount of trouble with it.
And this friend of mine flipped the tape up into the trolley wire and had gotten a terrible shock because his feet were in water. And he said, his words were, he could taste copper for a week after that. And also he quit within a week after that. He didn't go back into the mines anymore; he'd gotten such a shock.
So basically, that's what you'd see at the opening of the mine. You'd go into the mine on what you call a "mantrip". The miners may have to go a mile or maybe two miles from the entrance of the mine back to where they are working. And so it is to the mining company's benefit to man run what they call a mantrip to get those men back there as quickly as possible after starting time.
There is a phrase called "portal to portal pay." That was one of the selling points of the union and union contracts when John L. Lewis became such a dominant figure in labor politics in the thirties. Miners were not paid until they got back to where they were working. And it might take them a half an hour, forty minutes to get back to where they were supposed to be working, and the same amount of time coming out. So that in their working day, they were losing time, and John L. Lewis thought the mining companies ought to recompense these men for portal to portal pay. In other words, from the time they went until they came out. This is one of the things to be aware of---the mantrip that goes in.
Andrea Hammer: What did the mantrip look like?
John Grant: The mantrip is just the name of a string of empty cars; you just pile into an empty coal car and ride in. Now, one of the things about a larger mine is that they have regular cars that the men ride in that look like some kind of a street car. But at this particular mine, the mantrip was just open cars, and you piled into a train of empty cars, and that was called the mantrip.
Andrea Hammer: And then what would happen to the mantrip?
John Grant: Then the mantrip itself, since it was empty cars, would be shuttled around to different rooms for digging, and they'd be loaded with coal on the way out. So it served two purposes. They took a string of empty cars into the mines, and the miners rode in on the coal cars. Apparently, it was an old practice from a hundred years back in mining operation. As I say, in more modern mines though, they used a steel cab and steel cars that look like street cars, and the miners sit side by side and ride in that way. Then those cars are shuttled off to a siding, and they stay in the mine unless there's another group to be brought in later.
John Grant and Andrea Hammer
"Measuring for a new tunnel" is from John Collier Jr's photograph: Montour no. 4 mine of the Pittsburgh Coal Company. Near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1942. It is used with permission of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.
In 1941 to 1943, Collier worked as a photographer with the Farm Securities Administration and the Office of War Information under Roy Stryker and documented many areas around the eastern U.S. More information is available at The American Image - the Photographs of John Collier, Jr.
The interview is used with John Grant's permission.
Garrett College, McHenry.
Coal miners--Maryland--History; Coal miners--West Virginia--History; Garrett County (Md.)--History; Allegany County (Md.)--History.
Western Maryland, 1930-1980