By David Kuchta
…During the early years here in the Panther Valley there were two words that …originally brought fear into the hearts of miner's wives: Black Maria! Around …the coal collieries during and after the turn of the century there was a black …covered wagon that was pulled by a team of horses. In later years this was …a motorized vehicle that was later known as an ambulance.
During the mid to late 1800s, when people would see this "Black Maria," coming up the street, it brought shudders to those wives of miners who knew that just maybe, they were bringing home their husband or son. In those days, they used the "Black Maria," both as an ambulance as well as a hearse. If there was a bad accident at the colliery, a loud whistle would sound the alarm. But, if it was just what would be considered an average mining accident the whistle wouldn't be sounded. Just as in modern times, the word would get out that someone was killed and everyone thought the worst. Many of the local kids would see the "Black Maria," coming up the street and would be running along side or behind it like a procession. By this time the wives of the miners would be waiting or watching on the front porches or stoops hoping that the "Black Maria," would pass on by. Many of the wives would be praying the Rosary or silently wording desperate suplications to heaven.
During these early years, miners that were seriously hurt were taken by horse and carriage up to Ashland Pa. This was over very rough roads and was a long trip. Many a miner probably died from the rough ride or because of the length of time it took to get to Ashland Hospital. In time, trolley lines were in place from Mauch Chunk to Pottsville, Pa. This did help considerably. Then around 1910, the Coaldale Hospital was built and this was a real blessing for the local coal miners.
But before these trolley lines or Coaldale Hospital was built, everyone had to depend on the "Black Maria" to bring home their loved ones. Probably, the exasperating part was that the miner could be still alive but critically hurt. If the mine officials thought that he couldn't make the trip up to Ashland, he would be taken to his home for his wife to make him as comfortable as she possibly could for the short remainder of his life. If the miner was dead, they would place him on the front porch of his home. At this time, friends or neighbors would come over and take the body into the house, clean, dress him in his finest suit and prepare the deceased for his wake.
Just a few years ago, I always thought that the "Black Maria" was a local expression that was only used in the Panther Valley area. Then I started reading other books on coal mining throughout the entire hard coal regions, and saw this same words used for their ambulance or hearse throughout the entire coalfield regions. This term, "Black Maria," got me thinking about where these words originated. I thought that being the early years of mining here in Pennsylvania were done by Welsh miners that perhaps the word originated in Wales. How wrong I was! When I did research into this question about the use of a horse and carriage or vehicles called a "Black Maria," to haul the critically hurt or dead miners, I found that they used it during the Great Depression in the communities located in the western prairies. I found that it was something like an adaptation of the Model T Ford, and was used for transporting the deceased. Then, a good friend of mine came to the rescue and solved the problem of where the words, "Black Maria," originated. The "Black Maria," was the black van, which conveys prisoners from the police courts to jail. The French called it a mud-barge or a "Marie-salope." The tradition is that the van referred to was so called from Maria Lee, an African-American woman, who kept a sailors' boarding house in Boston. She was a women of such great size and strength that the unruly sailors stood in fear of her, and when constables required help, it was a common thing to send for Maria, who soon collared the refractory (person resisting control or authority) and led them to the lock-up. So because of this, a prison-van was called a "Black Maria." In time it was also used to describe an ambulance and a hearse.
In the 1700's, certain gases or the lack of oxygen were detected with various hit and miss types of detection. The candles on miners caps, or if carried by the miner, would either go out from the lack of oxygen or the flame would get larger with a different coloring of the flame if certain gases were in the area. Of course, in some instances these open flames caused fires or explosions. By 1815, the Davey's Safety Lamp came into use in the mines. This certainly changed the way for miners to check for certain gases. One of the earliest ways of detecting certain gases such as Methane, Carbon Monoxide or the lack of oxygen was the use of birds such as the Canary. Stories of the use of canaries in the mines have been passed down from generation to generation. Even as a child I remember my father mentioning the use of canaries in the mines, but he, nor his father, ever saw them used in the mines, and my grandfather was working in the mines in the early 1900's. Up to this year, I have never read nor seen any documentation as to their use, just hear-say!
The Lehigh Coal & Navigational Company was incorporated in 1820. Checking with a well-versed historian at their archives where most of the LC&N Company's records are kept, he well assured me that there is no mention of any use of canaries in the LC&N mines. We can assume that small independent mines in those early years that contracted for the mining of coal on their property might have used canaries for their mine work. The Lehigh Coal Navigational Company did have good investors with a lot of capital so it is more then likely that they had Davey's Safety Lamps and any other technical means for checking oxygen or certain gases at the earliest of times. To clarify the use of canaries in the mines, I started sending inquires over the Internet to find out just how prevalent was the use of these small fragile birds. I was surprised to hear that some countries, like the United Kingdom and Australia used them right up to more modern times. The last documentation was in the 1970's when they passed laws against the use of birds in the mines. In later years, canaries were certainly used in collieries in the United Kingdom, but not on a daily basis. They were used following the “William Pit Explosion,” in 1947, but to detect foul air for the rescue party. The lead man had a cage fastened to the top of his breathing apparatus, so that the man behind him could see when they had entered the “styth“ or after-damp area. They then knew where they needed to start trying to restore the “coursing” of the air-flow, to direct fresh air into that area. Rescue teams kept a number of canaries on hand, but, it wasn't as cruel as you might think because once removed back to fresh air, most canaries recovered to be used again!
Many mines used canaries to detect Carbon Monoxide and not Methane because their heart rate is so high they die or pass-out very quickly before a man could accumulate the gas in his blood stream to any harmful degree. Because of the high heart rate of the canary, it was convenient for the job, but notnecessarily too great for the poor canary! In more modern times they had special birdcages made of Perspex, which had holes drilled into it for ventilation on the forth side. When the bird fell off of the perch they closed an airtight door over the side with the ventilation holes and would revive the bird with oxygen so it could be used again. I also have read where some miners carried small vials of oxygen and they let the bird breathe this to save the bird's life. Many of the mining companies in the United Kingdom, would buy their birds from private breeders, pet shops or have an aviary built right in a part of the mine offices where they would breed the birds for use in the mines. Most of the canaries used were of bad coloring, or some type of imperfection, which weren't good for public sale. Also, the female canaries weren't too good for singing so they would be sold cheaper for mine use. Mine canaries were also used in the Southern Bituminous Coal Fields of the United States up to the late 1890's. I would also have to assume that some of the smaller independent or “boot-leg” mines used the canaries in the early years because of the expense of a “Davey's Safety Lamp.” Taking air samples in the early days was time consuming and had to be handled in special labs.
In later years, a Methanometer was used in the mines which detected methane gases and oxygen levels. The safest mines have good ventilation systems with huge fans, airways and proper doors and brattice's to control the airflow. Many modern mines have electrical sensors built right in the mines. In my limited mining, I have seen where there was methane in the escape way that we were driving after sitting idle for a week. With a small fan and ventilation pipe, the methane or foul air was dissipated very quickly. So, the “Mine Canary,” is now history, but I'm more than sure the stories of their use will be passed on to future generations.
By David Kuchta
I think most people would find the subject of Mine Mules intriguing. They are part of the long history of the mining industry. In the 16th through the 18th century in the United Kingdom, the mine industry used humans as a beast of burden. Most times, it was children and women who carried or dragged the baskets of coal or rock to the main shafts. In 1842, the United Kingdom passed laws against girls and women working in the mines. Then in time they used small ponies to do the job. Later, the United Kingdom passed laws against ponies in the mines but for a short while they used boys to pull the cars to the shaft. In the United States, some of the oldest mines used oxen and then mules to pull the coal cars inside and outside the mines. Here in the Panther Valley, the Lehigh Coal & Navigational Company used mules right up to the period of shutting down most of the mine operations in the early to mid 1950s. They kept the last mules probably more as a memento to the past but the company also utilized them in areas where the electric mine motors might cause certain problems. In some areas there might have been a minor gas problem and an overhead electric trolley line could spark an explosion so they utilized the mules. Mules are very smart and along with that, they could be very thick-headed. They know what they can do and would never do any thing they couldn't or would not want to do. Mules were known to pull at least three full mine cars full of coal. If you hooked up a fourth car they would balk at any commands and just stand there. No way would they pull the fourth car! Some mule drivers figured that the mules were counting the cars as they were hooked up with the chains. So when it came to the fourth car, they did it real quiet and discreet. The mules pulled the fourth car, unknowingly, without any problems.
In the early years when the coal companies had canals they tried using horses to pull the barges of coal. They soon found that on a hot day, the horses would want to take a dip in the canal to cool off, often dragging a young mule driver into the water which could end up with some of the drivers getting drowned. Horses are also known to pull more then they could handle and they literally would work to their death. They found out that the mule didn't like water and would never work himself into the ground like a horse. With this experience, the job of pulling the barges on the canals was eventually turned over to mules. A good mule driver knew that treating the mules with kindness got better results then mistreatment. Some drivers were mean and ruthless and if the mule didn't want to pull any mine cars they would hit them with the wooden sprags that were throughout the mines. The sprags are a piece of wood that you jammed in the openings of the wheels to brake the cars. When mules were mistreated they often got even. Many a miner or driver was killed by mules, by getting kicked in the chest or head. Another favorite way of evening up the score with a mule driver was to squeeze him against the rib (wall) of the mine. Most drivers kept away from any squeeze points and just treated their mules with respect. In the same case, mules were just plain cantankerous and ill mannered. Some mules wouldn't work with any driver. The company had to find someone who the mule would work with. Yes, some mules were just like humans and just didn't want to work. Mules also liked to get treats such as apples, carrots and believe it or not, chewing tobacco.
In the No. 9 Mine Museum in Lansford, Pennsylvania they have a death certificate for two mules that died in 1913. Their value was placed at $200 a mule. Most mining companies valued the mules life over that of a common mine labor. The Coal Companies also did not take lightly any mistreatment of mules. If a miner decided to kill a mule, he had a good chance of being fired. Many people think that the mules were never taken out of the mines and were blind. Not so! Mule stables in the mines were usually lit up with electric lights (after 1920 or so.) Mules were also taken outside to a mule barn when the miners went on strike or during a vacation period. If any mine mule was hurt or sick they would bring him out for recuperation. When the mules were brought out of the mines they would romp and run around the area. They would like to roll on their backs and just kick up their heels. Mules enjoyed getting out of the mines every so often. They often walked the mules from one mine to another such as from Spring Tunnel or No. 9 Mine to No. 6 at the other end of Lansford. Around 1964, the government passed laws outlawing the use of any animals, as beasts of burden, in any mines. It was at this time that the illustrious career of the “Mine Mule” came to an end.
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