Tennessee,West Virginia: Coal

Child Labor in the American South: Tennessee/West Virginia: Coal


Beth Smilow


Lewis Hine presented to the American public in the early decades of the twentieth century, the realities of the devastating circumstances child laborers were to endure in their working environment. The exploitation of children workers was a widespread dilemma spanning throughout the whole of the United States during these early decades. Hine’s photographs depict the harsh truths of child manipulation that cannot be overlooked.  Hine’s photograph’s had been taken with the intention of publicizing his work for the cause against the abuse of child employees. Children were sucked in by the demands of industry as a cheap labor source. Formal education was not of concern to a majority of the working class and Hine was “concerned that they carried “industrial mortgages” on their backs rather than the new urban hope” (Gutman, 14).  In an effort to present the misery of child laborers to the American people, Lewis Hine associated himself with the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), a non-profit organization founded in 1904 which orientated its goals to be such that “promote the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working” (NCLC Fact Sheet).

During the industrial boom in the South, demands for intensive industrial labor were at an all time high. In particular, the Appalachian states, Tennessee and West Virginia were notably rich in their region’s natural resources. Working in this land meant financial gains, and these regions had much to offer in terms of monetary values. Investing in Appalachia’s coal resources was dominated by powerful corporate interests who sought out to exploit the rich mountainous terrain and its workers.

Hours were long, starting the work before sunrise and ending long after sundown.  The miner’s work was for the most part completed manually until around the 1930’s, when heavy machinery was created to ease and speed coal removal. Duties such as picking, cutting and loading the coal into mining cars was completed by hand, it was a tedious and physically tasking labor. Working conditions in the mining industry were less than adequate at best. Pay was minimal and the frequent occurrence of death was a constant reminder of the dangers of the job. The fear of the almost inevitable Black Lung disease was yet another indication of mining’s hazards.  A chronic lung disease caused by breathing in large amounts of coal dust over an extended period of time was the terminal cause of Black Lung disease. 

            Scholar Archie Green presents in his dissertation, Only a Miner, Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, numerous songs composed with lyrics lamenting the grueling work the miner must carry out to earn a living, or lines mourning over a miner whose life ended abruptly while in the depths of the mines. Such distress is represented in the song entitled, Only A Miner Killed in the Mine

            Unconscious of danger the night hours fled,            They heard not the crash of a rock over head,            Till it fell like a bolt to the death blow of one,            At the feet of his comrade he sank with a moan,

            … Death ended his shift; And his misery was done … (Green, 92).


“Hard work and dangerous for such a young boy”

James O’Dell, a child laborer, and employee of the Cross Mountain Mine, Knoxville Iron Company, located not far from Coal Creek, Tennessee is photographed in the year 1910 by Lewis Hine while working his shift pushing a packed coal car.  The work was filthy and physically draining. O’Dell is indisputably much too small to be handling a car that is visibly overriding his tiny stature. The exposed coal car heavily crammed to its brim appears to be a task that is to be performed by an individual twice O’Dell’s size. The threat of the spillage of coal is always a present risk and such work appears to be all too daunting for a young boy to claim as his responsibility. Hine notes that O’Dell appears to be only about twelve or thirteen years old and occupies other odd jobs on the site. Such duties include working as a greaser, or one who holds the task of greasing the tub axles at bank.  This task is carried out alongside his undertaking as a coupler, an individual responsible for coupling or connecting, by means of the coupling chains, the tubs of coal in order to form a set or train. (www.dmm.org.).


“Trapper Boy”

            Soiled in dirt and black coal dust from working the mines a young boy employed as a trapper leans sullenly against the opening of a large wood door. He carries out the duty of opening and closing the door to control the ventilation within the mine. The boy appears to be no older than thirteen and had already been employed at this West Virginia mine for six years.  Of course, cheap labor was an attraction to the mining employers and hiring children as young as they were able to be taken advantage of was a profit waiting to be reaped by the company. Children’s wages were especially low, as children were seen as completely inferior in their ability to provide work that was on a similar level to that of their male adult counterparts. Children were well underpaid for carrying out labor intensive work, but the need to contribute to family income was a constant push for work and so the continuation of exploiting child workers was persistent.


“Drift Mouth, Sand Lick Mine”

            Posing in front of the entrance of a drift mine with his adult co-workers stands Alfred at age fourteen taking on the role as a trapper boy employed at the Drift Mouth, Sand Lick Mine in West Virginia. Hine’s caption acknowledges that this young boy does attend school for part of the year. During lengths of vacation, Alfred takes on his employment as a trapper at the mine. The boy when asked if his schooling was more fun than work said, “this yere hain’t no fun!” Children were often placed in unfortunate situations where their household income was not sufficient in supporting the most basic needs that was necessary in maintaining their survival in early twentieth century America.


“Entrance to a West Virginia Coal Mine; A Drift Mine”

A majority of the Appalachian mines were drift mines, as were most Southern Appalachian mines.  Entry into the drift mine was prepared laterally as opposed to the vertical shafts. Drift mines provided easy entry which was significant in cutting costs, as no pricey transportation equipment was needed. In addition, drift mines were beneficial in that they were cost efficient in their ability to provide effective ventilation.  “This lost cost contributed significantly to the rapid overexpansion of the industry in the mountains, as well as to the heavy reliance on cheap human labor” (Eller, 176) and children were prized cheap labor.  This photograph reveals the unavoidable dangers present in the countless mines. Mining companies were aware that labor came cheaply for them and in a number of instances ignored the demands for a safer work area, knowing replacements would be available. Hine’s caption reads, “the live-wire was only shoulder-high in places inside, and unprotected”. The threat of electrocution by contact with these wires was all too real. Conditions within the mines were a constant potential hazard to all every individual that stepped foot in close proximity to the mines. The casualty statistics are overwhelming providing that over the first three decades of the twentieth century, the fatality rate of miners averaged about 1,600 per year (Eller, 179).


“A Young Coupling-boy at Tipple of Indian Mountain Mine”

            Photographed at the tipple, a piece of equipment used to unload coal cars by tilting them is the sorry looking photograph of Harley Bruce. Around the age of twelve to fourteen, Bruce takes on the role as a coupling-boy for the Indian Mountain Mine in Tennessee. Bruce is pictured in long drab clothing, covered in black dust. He has the face of a young, but exhausted boy, drained from the constant manual labor he is expected to carry out. Although young children were employed to carry out the odd job needs of the mining industry, the labor left a hardening toll on them as it is evident in the sorrowful face of Harley Bruce.