By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Large mounds of blackened rock and dust dotted the landscape. Surrounded by old metal buildings and rusted train tracks, abandoned coal mines dotted the landscape of my youth. Coal was one of the most important and valuable minerals found in Arkansas. Thomas Nuttall, in his 1819 travels, noted that outcrops of coal could be seen along the exposed Arkansas riverbank near Spadra. State geologist, David Dale Owen, saw coal being extracted and sold for a few pennies a bushel near Paris in 1857. By the turn of the century, coal from the Arkansas coalfield that ran from Russellville to Fort Smith was powering the growth of the railroad across America. High-grade bituminous coal from Sebastian, Johnson, Logan, and Franklin county was being shipped to industrial centers around the country and thousands of men flocked to the area to find work extracting the rock. The Excelsior, Jewell, Sunshine, Red Rooster, and the Monkey Run are just a few of the colorful names for the mines found throughout the area. Rail systems were extended to the coal towns and even to the mine sites as thousands of tons of coal flowed daily from Arkansas outward to the world.
Coal was the fuel of choice for most of the nation and fortunes were made by its sale. Shafts were sunk into the earth following the coal beds, sometimes hundreds of feet beneath the earth, and men crawled and crept beneath the overburden with a pick and shovel to remove the black gold. Men made decent salaries of four to eight dollars a day to do the backbreaking and often dangerous labor. The real price of the coal was not the price at which it was sold; the real price was the price paid by the men who brought the coal to the surface.
The men ambled down the dark tunnels, lit only by the flare from the carbide lamps strapped around their heads. Log chocks and cross beams held up the ceiling and walls of the main tunnel Water dripped constantly from the ceiling, splattering in glistening circles as it hit the pools already collected on the mine floor. Reaching the breasts or side tunnels from the main shaft, the ceilings lowered and the men scuttled, often on their hands and knees, to the coal mine face where the coal could be extracted and loaded onto carts. Too often, the overburden was too heavy for the wood supports. When that happened, huge slabs of the rock above would fall, crushing the miner or blocking off access back to the surface. In other locations, damp would collect. Collections of carbon monoxide or other noxious gasses, the miner would not realize the danger until deprived of oxygen, they would suffocate. Methane gas collected in pockets near the ceiling and, when ignited, resulted in violent explosions.
Families, hearing of mine accidents, would gather at the surface and breathe sighs of relief as their loved ones emerged at the surface or remain in prayer as they waited long hours to discover their families’ plight. At the Excelsior mine near Greenwood, one such explosion resulted in the death of seven men- three of them who were brothers.
Newspaper articles from that period fully describe the toll taken on human life. More insidious was the damage done to the body and health by exposure to the work. My wife’s grandfather was permanently damaged when the rock caved in upon his back. He continued to try to work but suffered intense pain for the rest of his life. Others contracted black lung, a condition that results in the spitting of dried blood and phlegm for the remainder of a shortened life.
Environmental concerns still surround the water running from the mines or the eye sores of the huge gob piles known as Arkansas pyramids.
Like wars of the past, the cost of coal is not measured in dollars or cents but in the measure of cost taken on the body, soul, and spirit of the men who paid the price.