Monday, February 9, 2015

Amanuensis Monday - Life in the Mines

This is the 10th installment of my grandfather, Howard B Matthews', story.  In the last installment, his father, Arthur William Matthews, passed away at the age of 71, when my grandfather was only 14.  The following year, after the family moved out of Pittston, it was decided that my grandfather should leave school and contribute to the income of the family so that his brother Charles could be married.

After his father's death, my grandfather's family had to sell everything and move out of Pittston. 

The mechanic to whom I was assigned was named Jerry, an Englishman.  His shop, equipped with benches and tools, was located in a whitewashed and well lighted area near the foot of the shaft.  It was his job to maintain and sometimes replace the steam operated pumps which controlled the level of constantly dripping water in the mine, and various other machinery throughout the mine.  He took me on his rounds of many areas and levels of the mine, packing valves, tightening pipe joints, replacing clutch facings, etc., warning me to watch out for bare overhead wires, teaching me not to panic if my light blew out.  When later he trusted me to make a miles long trip alone, getting there, making a minor repair, getting back, -- a walk of several miles without meeting a soul, it was for me a major victory.  But Jerry could be tough; he chewed tobacco, began and ended every sentence with a curse and vowed that he would kill me if I ever missed the cutting tool that he was holding and I was supposed to hit with a sledge hammer. I never missed.  It took me years to get over thinking sentences without cuss words in them.

Soon it became apparent that what the Super really hired me for was to be the keeper of the Yardage Books.  In these were kept a record of the length and thickness of the rock a miner had to blast down and load in order to get the number of loaded cars he and his helpers produced and he was paid additionally for the aforesaid hindering rock.  He was an independent contractor and could hire as many helpers as he wished.  The payment for rock made up for any slowing down in his coal production.

In every two-week pay period I had to accompany the Assistant Superintendent, Malachi Glennon, on a tour of the entire mine, right up to the “face” of each of the scores of chambers (tunnels) where the actual  mining, the blasting and loading of coal was going on.  As we came to each area we were met by its foreman who accompanied us over his “workings”.  His primary responsibility was to push for loaded cars to meet the daily goals set by the Super but he of course knew of the problems encountered by his miners and he guided us in the allowances I entered in the yardage book.

These journeys were very interesting and I was either too young or too dumb to recognize the dangers although they did expose me to many of the dangers associated with underground mining.  Certainly, as I recognized later, I was safer just being with Malachi Glennon, a wonderful man then in his 50’s, huge but not fat, red-faced, redolent of last night’s liquor, but a kindly family man, father of a young man who was a stationary engineer at the head of one of the slopes I have described.

Malachi and I together were involved in two of the kind accidents typical of mining,  - a gas explosion and a fall-of-rock, otherwise known as a roof cave in.

Mines are ventilated by a forced air system which brings fresh air from outside, through the long tunnels and then by a series of doors and temporary movable ducts, called brattice-work, right up to where the miners are working at the face of the chambers.  The force of a sudden release of a pocket of gas, ignited either by blasting powder or any source of sparks or flame, reverses the flow of air, blasts open the control doors and scatters particles of coal and rocks. It was the air reversal and flying specks hitting us in the face that told Malachi what was happening. He immediately threw me to the ground and covered me with his own body.  We lay there while the burning gas, rolling along about 2 feet below the ceiling, burned itself out without harm to us.  Had there been enough gas to fill the entire tunnel we would have been burned to a crisp.

Again in the roof cave-in, because of his many years of experience, Malachi understood the implications of the sounds he heard, - the cracking of roof rock and the groaning of support timbers.  He pushed me ahead and we ran as tons of rock and timbers crashed behind.

It was some time after these events that Malachi asked me what I intended to do with my life and what were my ambitions.  I replied that I would like a job like his.  Malachi stared at me a while and then said: “Howard, get the hell out of here before you get kilt”. Probably after saving me twice he didn’t want to stretch our luck. Because of his concern and the knowledge that my working underground was worrying my mother sick, I decided to give it up despite the fact that inside jobs paid much better than outside jobs.  Besides, it was hurting my social life for, scrub as I did every day, it was difficult to get that coal dust out of my pores.  When I perspired it oozed out of my pores.  I remember one Sunday when I walked Miss Celeste Bonti home after Epworth League and her mother met us at the door and said, “Howard Matthews, don’t let me catch you kissing my daughter”.  (Actually, I had a find social life, unhindered by my job.)  I have wondered since why the family permitted me, at age 16, to go into the mines in the first place.  Around Pittston it might have been considered a natural thing to do, but we were living in Forty Fort, a rather affluent suburb.

In the next installment, my grandfather sees what can come from a good education and is determined not only to go back to school, but a very good school.

Transcription of above article: Mrs. Arthur Matthews and family, including Mr. & Mrs. William Ahlers, who have lived for many years on Nafus Street, have moved to Forty Fort, which will be more convenient for Mr. Ahlers, who is Chief Clerk for the Lackawanna division of the Lehigh Valley Coal Co. at the Wilkesbarre [sic] office, and also for Chas. Matthews, who is employed as colliery clerk at the Maltby colliery, of the Lehigh Valley.  The Matthews property, on Nafus street, consisting of the homestead and a single dwelling on the rear of the lot, has been sold to the Gaughan family, of Port Griffith, who have already moved to their new home.