Monday, September 29, 2014

Amanuensis Monday - Everything Changes

This is the 9th installment of the autobiography and family history written by my paternal grandfather, Howard Beirly Matthews.  It is December of 1915, my grandfather is 14 years old and everything in his world is about to change.

Arthur William Matthews

Dorothy has said that Grandpa Matthews, my father, must have had a good position for the family lived well and he worked at the mines only the first two hours of the day and that he was a very generous man.  Perhaps he had been too generous; when he died there was very little left but life insurance, the family home and a bunch of debts remaining, perhaps, from his oft expressed boast that when Arthur Matthews needed money he just went to the Bank and got it.  I remember that when I needed a pair of new shoes my father always said go get them and charge them to Arthur Matthews.  My first long-trousered suit was a Hickey Freeman, which cost $15!!!

So a year or so later the house was sold and we moved to Forty Fort, Pa. near Wilkes-Barre to be near Will Ahlers' office and that of my brother Charles at the Maltby mine of the Lehigh Valley Coal Co.  I commuted to Pittston to complete my Sophomore year at its High School.

In those days very few from our area went to college, altho Floyd Hunter's sister graduated from Cornell, and not many even finished High School.  And since my brother Charles, then 21, wanted to plan on getting married, it was decided that I should not return to High School but get a steady job and contribute to the family income.

In the summer of 1917, with World War I creating a great demand for coal and so many jobs vacated by men joining the armed forces, I found it easy to get a job, underground, at the Maltby mine of the Lehigh Valley Coal Co., whose Supt'd. lived just a block away from us.  He hired me as a "mechanic's helper" and told me to be at the mine shaft at 6:30 am, properly clothed and equipped by which he meant overalls, a cap and an acetaline [sic] (gas) lamp, a full lunch pail and, most important, a Union button on my cap indicating that I had joined and paid my first month's dues.  I complied.

Despite the fact that I was raised in a region that had many mines and that my father worked in one, I had never been in a mine.  Access to the Maltby mine was by cage, two cages in parallel shafts, one cage coming up while the other went down, but suspended on heavy steel wire cables, activated by a single stationary steam piston engine which turned two large drums on which one cable was wound while the other was unwound.  During the day these cages were used to hoist loaded 3-ton mine cars and, simultaneously, drop empty cars 600 feet down the shaft.  The same cages were used to lower workers into the mine in the morning and bring them up to the surface at the end of their shifts,--presumably at a lower speed!

I stepped aboard that first morning, packed in among the miners, and the cage dropped into pitch blackness at what seemed to me terrific speed, and then a fast slacking which buckled my knees, and with a bang and a bump we were in the mine.  But to me it didn’t look like a mine as I stepped off the cage into a wide, white-washed tunnel, its roof supported by steel beams, lighted by dangling electric light bulbs.  Down the middle of the tunnel were parallel narrow gauge tracks, one bearing loaded mine cars, the other empties.  To the right, behind the windows, was the Superintendent’s office and to the left were stables housing dozens of mules which were used in the far reaches of the mine to haul loaded cards out of the main tunnels.

Soon I learned that the real mine began just beyond that whitewashed and lighted area, for those loaded cars waiting to be hoisted one at a time up the shaft had been hauled through miles of pitch black tunnels which sloped down to lower and distant levels where loaded cards were assembled by electric locomotives (actuated by overhead electric wires) and then were drawn up the slope to the foot of the shaft by a long steel wire cable activated by a stationery electric motor. The long line of cars, hooked together, were drawn at terrific speed and the tail-end car had a cable attached to it which in turn would serve to pull the empties down the slope.  The noise was deafening and no one walked these slopes.  There was a parallel tunnel for walkers.  Neither was lighted.

The excitement of these new surroundings dispelled in me, a 16 year old, any thought of danger or fear.  and the seriousness of this change in my life did not hit me until mid-September when I realized it meant the end of High School for me and I would not be joining my schoolmates Malcolm Miller and Clinton Myers there.