The Harrowing Lives of Child Miners in the Early 1900s

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Image: Lewis Hine / LOC

A young trapper boy inside Turkey Knob Mine in MacDonald, West Virginia. His job was to open and close the wooden trap doors for the mining cars being shunted through.

“Watch out!” the boy shouted as his workmate’s hand came into contact with the mouth of the coal crusher. Too late – the unfortunate lad’s hand got caught and sucked into the machinery. Three of those working the crusher jumped to help, pulling out the boy’s arm, but by then it had been ground to little more than a mangled, bloody mess.

“Shouldn’t have dozed off using the crusher,” said the foreman as men carried off the screaming victim. “Get back to it or you’ll be next,” he warned the ten other boys breaking coal who had momentarily stopped their labor. The breaker boys bent their aching backs over the tipple once more. “If he doesn’t make it, who’ll feed his mother and sisters?” one of them thought, blinking back tears.


Image: Lewis Hine / LOC

A boy doing the strenuous and dangerous job of breaking a motorized train in Gary Mine, Gary, WV. Notice the live wire overhanging, no higher than a man’s head.

The scenario just described may be imagined, but scenes just like it were the harsh reality for many people – not least young boys forced by poverty and circumstance into risking their lives each day in mines across the United States, many of them working thousands of feet beneath the surface.

Coal mining was closely linked to the Industrial Revolution – which continued into the early 20th century in America – as it was the energy generated from coal that powered the steam engines of the era. As mining developed, it became an industry based less on manual pick-and-shovel labor, instead relying more on machinery – like the coal-cutting machines invented the 1880s. Yet, while such inventions reduced the number of workers needed in the pits, for the men – and boys – left toiling underground, many hardships and dangers remained.

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Image: Lewis Hine / LOC

Boy drivers with a mule in a mine in West Virginia.

In the US, coal mining dominated regions like the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains, both economically and culturally, and Wyoming, northern Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania were all notable for their coal-mining activities. As we can begin to see in these images of mining in the latter two states as well as Tennessee, the industry played on important part in shaping local identity and tradition in various parts of the country. However, as part of this, boys – valued down in the shafts for their small stature, nimble fingers and the lower wages they could command – had a mix of tough and hazardous tasks to fulfil.

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