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Legal age to work in West Virginia was 12, but coal operators generally ignored state law.
Keeney joined an army of young boys working the mines. Chuck Keeney, Historian : Frank's mother, she wanted him to have an education. She didn't want him to go into the mines that young, at the same time she was unable to support the family on her own. When he was 12 years old there was a partial collapse of one of the mine shafts, the mule panicked and smashed him up against a wall. And he had to bite part of the mule's ear off in order for the mule to let go of him.
My grandmother has always said that it was indicative of his character. He was more stubborn than a mule. Narrator : At 18, Keeney was still supporting his mother and two sisters, as well as his new bride, Bessie Meadows. He took the best paying job he could get -- digging coal at 40 cents a ton. The rate was well below the wages paid to union men in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. And according to rules set by West Virginia coal operators, a miner had to load more than 2, pounds -- the "Long Ton" -- to get his 40 cents.
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But a man with a strong back and staying power, good with a pick and blasting powder, could fill five or more cars in a shift, and make enough to support his family. Thomas Andrews, Historian : Even though this is an industry where there is a tremendous degree of oppression it's also an industry where workers still had much more control over their own lives than they did in most American industries.
These are guys who on the whole decided when they were going to work, when they would start, when they would stop. They do have this real sense of autonomy. Ellis Ray Williams, Coal Miner : You got a certain dignity going in the coal mines, and working and drawing a paycheck, and coming out. That's what men would do to take care of their families. Narrator : Coal was the engine of American industrial progress at the beginning of the 20th century. It ran locomotives, factories, steam ships, electric power plants and home furnaces; and it helped to purify the steel that made possible the rising skyscrapers.
Coal -- and the men who mined it -- fueled the nation's enormous surge in wealth. Increasing wealth brought increasing appetite.
There was always a demand Nearly three quarters of a million men across the country spent 10 or 12 hours a day in coal mines, blasting, hand-picking, shoveling and loading the indispensable rock onto rail-cars bound for destinations across the country. Most of these miners worked the vast and long-established coalfields stretching from Pennsylvania to Illinois.
Just 20, worked the mines in West Virginia, but the coal operators there, propelled by a state government hungry for revenue from its biggest industry, had embarked on a furious game of catch-up. The coal industry spread across the state. Production in southern West Virginia was increasing about 10 percent a year by , and the potential seemed limitless.
Thomas Andrews, Historian : The southern West Virginia coalfields were really the up and coming coalfields. They had tremendous demand for new miners because the industry was expanding so much. The only way to really bring more coal out of the ground was to put more mine workers underground. And the coal companies in southern West Virginia are bringing African-American miners up from the South and bringing people in from southern and eastern Europe. His name was Fortunato Battaglia. Coal company agents would come up to him, he said, and say, "Lavoro e casa," in other words, "We can give you a job and a home.
My parents were sharecroppers, and the life of sharecroppers wasn't the best life. The South wasn't very free where black people were concerned. But compared to the South and compared to the North, West Virginia was a place in which they got a more equitable footing. There were more black miners in West Virginia than anywhere else in the nation.
And black workers in this environment gained access to a system that proclaimed equal pay for the same work. Denise Giardina, Writer : There was a lot of conflict among the different groups of coal miners because they didn't know each other, and so you had a great deal of prejudice. And the companies reinforced that by building coal camps so that you had a section for black miners, had a section for Eastern European miners, and there was a section for native, Appalachian miners. And that was done on purpose. The coal operators felt that that diversity would keep unionization at bay.
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Bankers and shareholders in cities like New York and Philadelphia were siphoning most of the profits from the mines, while transforming a mostly rural state. The quiet village where Keeney had grown up was rent with the "crush and grind" of the passing coal trains. Keeney counted himself lucky to be living in an independent town; eight in ten miners in West Virginia lived in a town built and owned by a coal operator. The housing workers were forced to rent was constructed to suit the purposes of the owners Denise Giardina, Writer : They were just hovels, maybe one-room shacks.
And it's clear that the operators felt that that was all their miners needed. Rosemary Feurer, Historian : A coal town really is almost an instruction ground for exploitation. Mine workers, they can see it very directly and their families see it very directly. They take all the risks. They bring out that coal and it's producing wealth for people who don't live there. Narrator : The coal towns were almost always unincorporated; there were no elected officials, no independent police forces. Owners hired private detective agencies to watch over their workforce.
Company towns were also untethered from the free market competition owners usually championed. Operators often paid workers in company currency, called scrip. They forced mining families to shop exclusively at the company store, which they stocked with food, fuel and clothing, even the tools and blasting powder required on the job.
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