By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Sunlight streamed through the window, backlighting the few remaining tufts of white hair that haloed my old friends head. His hands, twisted, gnarled, and deeply veined from a life of hard-work gestured and pointed about as he told me of his life and pointed out the artifacts left from it. A coal-miner from an early age and the son of a coal miner, Allen Heard had seen much in his day. Starting at an age when most kids were just entering middle school, he had scurried down into the depths of the Earth following his father into the coal mines around Greenwood and Hackett. In his father’s time, the coal was extracted by pick and hauled by man and mule up the track to the surface.
During Allen’s twenty-nine years in the mine, the work was still difficult. The mines followed the vein of coal into the Earth, tilting and twisting through the solid sandstone above and below it. Side shafts called breasts extended on each side of the main shaft. Pillars were left standing to hold the overlaying rock in place; when those didn’t suffice, supports of wood were put in place to hold the ceiling. Most coal in Arkansas was less than two feet thick so a shaft was cut through the stone above and below the coal to extract it. Removing rock was expensive so the tunnels were kept at minimal height. Coal miners were expected to work on hand and knee to pick the coal from the veins. Allen’s knee joints were gone from his constant crawling about to get to the coal. Allen, his brother, and his dad all contracted black lung from the work.
Danger was a constant in the mines. Falling rock and flooding were a constant hazard. Sam Carter once described being caught in a flood in Greenwood #2 mine as the most harrowing day of his life. He survived by catching an electrical wire in the ceiling and pulling himself hand over hand to safety. On two instances, Allen was involved in accidents that resulted in loss of life. The first was in the Excelsior-Sunshine mine and resulted in the loss of seven men- three of them were brothers. In the second instance, Allen and his father were deep in the mine when the most dreaded of accidents occurred. Methane gas, called “fire damp,” ignited in a breast on the other side of the mine. The gas, extruded by the bituminous coal, rose to the ceiling and gradually filled the mine cavity. In this instance, a spark ignited the gas and the miners within the breast were quickly burned to death. Allan’s dad heard the blast and threw Allen and himself on the floor. The blue flame danced down the ceiling instantaneously, so close it caught the hair and clothing on fire but they were able to escape.
According to Mr. Heard, miners lived hard, played hard, and died young. In its hay day, the small town of Hartford had 18 legal and illegal taverns. Workers would catch the train into Fort Smith on Saturday night after a six-day week and would live it up for a day, often having to be carted back to the train stop in order to get them back to work on time. The town of Jenny Lynd was named for a famous singer that enthused the miners when she visited a saloon there.
I rose to depart my interview with the old 89 year old miner. Any last words Mr. Heard? He replied, “The mines were a way of life. It provided a good living for me and my family. If I had my life to do over again, I would do it all over again.