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Beyond Boom and Bust…Coal’s Human Toll

With the emergence of the United Mine Workers of America in the 1890s, coal towns such as Linton, Indiana became crucibles of labor struggle.

From the excavation of Greene County’s first underground coal mine in 1859, the area enjoyed a prosperity and vitality that endured through the 1920s. But the cost of doing business was often exacted in human lives, among other currencies.

When it became evident that the natural resource was abundant, prospectors could take a pick and a shovel to their land to access a vein. By the turn of the century, there were about 200 coal mines in the area, from backyard improvisations to high-volume operations.

The coal rush pressed thousands of men into underground employment. In the mid 1880’s, a day’s work could fetch as little as 75 cents in wages, mostly paid in scrip usable only at the company store (an institution made infamous in many a bluegrass song).

With the emergence of the United Mine Workers of America in the 1890s, coal towns such as Linton became crucibles of labor struggle.

In response to their demands, coal miners started receiving compensation for the back-breaking, perilous work they did that was more proportional to the industry’s enormous profits. Their shifts were shortened from ten to eight hours, and they were no longer required to live in company-owned housing or purchase provisions at the company store.

The occupation continued to be treacherous, however. In addition to the inhalation of carbon dioxide and methane gas, miners risked explosion, inundation and mine collapse.

The massive April 1923 explosion in Greene County’s Antioch mine spurred the miners’ union to push for safety legislation, and resulted in the national recognition of miner Isaac Cotton for braving the fire to save a pair of fellow workers.

But the industry endured more casualties in 1931 when a blast occurred at the Little Betty pit mine in Sullivan County, six miles southwest of Linton. 200 men were 200 feet down at the time of the explosion; dozens were injured and at least 28 killed, their survivors compensated by the local union and the national organization.

By the 1930s, many of the smaller, family-owned mines had been abandoned after their supply had been exhausted. Others were consolidated into larger coal companies, such as Peabody and United Fourth Vein. Waning demand following World War I and the Great Depression contributed to the industry’s decline, and subsequent reductions in force and wages.

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