The Harrowing Lives of Child Miners in the Early 1900s

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • A boy of around 13 years old working the ‘trip rope’ over a pile of coal – called a tipple – for ten hours a day at Welch Mining Co., Welch, WV.

    The trip rope pictured here has been described as the manual equivalent of an emergency stop button – and we’d wager it was called into action once or twice. Welch in West Virginia, where the photograph was taken, belongs to McDowell County, which was America’s leading coal-producing hub until as late as the 1960s. Welch thus proudly called itself “The Heart of the Nation’s Coal Bin.”

  • Young breaker boys at the Ewen Breaker shaft of the Pennsylvania Coal Company in South Pittston, PA. The man with the stick on the right was exactly what he seems to be, “A kind of slave driver… prodding or kicking them into obedience,” according to the image source. Looking not much older than the boys he oversaw, the supervisor was there to whip his charges into shape or force them to do speedier work. Note how the air is thick with coal dust – a dangerous occupational hazard.

    Breaker boys, like those pictured here, had the job of separating, by hand, lumps of coal from slate, rocks, clay and other debris. Among the very youngest of the boys set to work in the mines, they had to be 12 years of age – at least, officially they did, though the law stipulating this was only passed in 1885 in Pennsylvania. Moreover, submitting fake records, parents apparently sent boys to work who were as young as five or six. Bosses can’t have scrutinized the situation very closely, either – indeed, they too were known to forge documentation, eager for all the cheap labor they could get.

    Despite working above ground, breaker boys were exposed to large quantities of coal dust, which settled everywhere from their faces, eyes and ears to their hands and lungs. What’s more, as we can see, the breaker boys’ working environments were far from well ventilated. And with dust in the air being breathed in constantly, serious and chronic respiratory illnesses were rampant.

  • More breaker boys, here at the Pennsylvania Breaker in South Pittston, PA. Pittston was known as an anthracite coal mining city and attracted a fair number of job seekers, many of them immigrants from Europe.

    Another of the occupational hazards faced by the breaker boys was known as ‘red tips’ – a skin condition characterized by swollen and bloody fingers resulting from repeated exposure to the coal’s sulfur content. Wearing gloves, which would have alleviated the problem, was not an option: employers believed that they would affect the boys’ dexterity, and thus their productivity.

  • Six miners going to work at the mine in Gary, WV. The youngest in the middle is the trapper – the boy responsible for opening and closing the trap doors underground. For his 10-hour shift, running from 7am to 5:30pm, he received $1 a day.

    As if damaged lungs and fingers weren’t serious enough problems, breaker boys also suffered from hearing loss as a result of prolonged exposure to the deafening noises of the machinery – especially the coal crushers. These same machines were also singularly dangerous in other respects: one careless movement could cost an overworked and exhausted young boy dearly, with fingers, hands and even lives lost in conveyor belts, gears and other devices. As one source describes it: “Occasionally a boy fell into the coal crusher and was ground to pieces.” A starkly chilling image.

  • Willie Bryden, the 13-year-old son of German immigrants, worked as a ‘nipper’ at Pennsylvania Coal Company in Pittstown, PA. A fake birth certificate, making him out to be 16, allowed him to work underground in the shafts, as did his father and brother. The dampness of the mine made the boys cough constantly.

    The working conditions in the coal mining industry were clearly bad enough above ground. Underground, it was a living hell. Nippers, or trappers, had the apparently simple – not to say mind-numbing – job of opening the doors for the mining cars trundling through, yet the young boys were in grave danger of being run over by the cars in the dark should their attention lapse for a second.

  • Fifteen-year-old trapper boy Vance got paid $0.75 for a 10-hour shift at a coal mine in West Virginia. Photographer Lewis Hine says: “On account of the intense darkness in the mine, the hieroglyphics on the door were not visible until the plate was developed.”

    Gary, a city in West Virginia – and site of some of the scenes shown here – was named after attorney Elbert Gary, founder of U.S. Steel. This company not only built the soon-to-be booming coal mining town around it but was also once the world’s biggest steel producer, controlling two thirds of steel production in 1901. Coal, by the way, is essential in the steel industry as a fuel used to extract iron from iron ore. And where there was coal, there were miners – and boys ripe for being exploited in these roles.

  • Another trapper boy, at a mine in West Virginia, who had apparently been doing this job for a few years despite his tender years. The wooden framed trap doors had to be shut once the mining cars went through to control ventilation in the mine. Asked about the mind-numbing nature of this job by photographer Lewis Hine, the boss replied: “Oh, they [the trapper boys] change around from one door or another.”

    Mining in Gary, WV has historically been the largest local employer – shaping people’s lives and economic security. Over time, however, it suffered the same fate that has befallen many such mining towns. Since U.S. Steel closed down its Gary Operations in 1986, the area became plagued by poverty and high unemployment. Ironic that it was impoverished conditions which drove many of the young workers and boys down the mines in places like Gary in the first place.

  • James O’Dell, pictured here, was a ‘greaser’ and ‘coupler’ at Cross Mountain Mine for Knoxville Iron Co., located close to Coal Creek, TN. Pushing the heavily loaded cars looks like backbreaking work, and photographer Lewis Hine estimated O’Dell to be all of 12 or 13 years old.

    Back in the day, a greaser’s job was to grease the axles of the coal cars, while couplers had to join together those same cars with coupling chains to form a train. Spraggers, meanwhile, kept the wheels of the mining cars going with long sticks. Often, however, rather than the stick, it was the limb of one of the boys that got entangled and severed in the spokes of the cars’ wheels. Dangerous? Wait until you hear of the more general mining dangers, which could strike at any moment.

  • Excavating coal under a low ceiling in Brown Mine in Brown, West Virginia.

    Explosions resulting from the build-up of methane and carbon monoxide killed numerous miners, young and old, and the mere release of these same poisonous gases was enough to asphyxiate those unfortunate enough to breathe in the fumes. What’s more, underground fires often preceded or followed the explosions just mentioned, trapping those not killed in the blasts. Naturally, given such a state of affairs, sanitation wasn’t high on the agenda, and having to go to the toilet meant doing it right there, underground. This lack of basic hygiene, together with rat infestations, resulted in the spread of many diseases.

  • A young driver with a mule in the Pennsylvania Coal Company’s mine in Pittston, PA.

    Those who somehow circumvented all the aforementioned subterranean hazards had to contend with yet another common danger: mining tunnels caving in and collapsing. Boys working in the pits stood little chance and could easily be left paralyzed or quite simply crushed to death. As one source has it: “Sometimes a young miner would be crushed to the ground so severely that his body would have to be scraped from the floor of the mine with a shovel.” Too gruesome to contemplate.

  • A boy named Frank, estimated to be 14 years old, had already experienced much when this photograph was taken: he had worked in the mine for three years, picking and loading coal, and spent one year in the hospital after a coal car crushed his leg.

    As one can imagine, with its growing demand for a workforce that suited the machines – rather than vice versa – the Industrial Revolution was not the best time for laws being passed that helped to improve working conditions – not least for children. In spite of this, part of the work of the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), formed in 1904, was to raise awareness about the conditions and risks that tens of thousands of children had to face every day in the United States alone.

  • The gritty reality of life underground, here at Gary Mine in Gary, WV: A mining car with a bank boss (with the lamp between his knees), motorman, brakeboy and driver. The boss apparently said “he would use more boys if he could get them but they went to school.”

    The NCLC’s investigative photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940) took on the important mission of traveling the United States to document the working conditions of children. Hine carried out this work from 1908 to 1924, with the 5,100 and more photographs he took creating a body of evidence about the dark underbelly of the Industrial Revolution – a period whose seeming success was based on the broken backs, lungs and lives of society’s weakest members, children.

  • Entrance to a coal mine in West Virginia. The live wire inside was under head-height in some places, and unprotected as well.

    Many of Hine’s photographs (like those shown here) were published in newspapers and other publications of the time. They thus helped to shed light on the dreadful lives endured by many young workers toiling underground and elsewhere. Yet although most people were shocked and outraged, they had to contend with the interests of the business owners, who did their best to keep the young workforce in place.

  • Group picture with tipple boy and drivers at the Maryland Coal Co. Mine in the vicinity of Sand Lick, Grafton, WV. According to the image source, the boy with the mule didn’t want to be in the picture at first, while another boy “feared we might make him go to school.”

    Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given what we have just learned, at least some of the young workers preferred the idea of slogging underground or within the walls of factories to the prospect of school. Historically, throughout the Industrial Revolution, many families found themselves without a male breadwinner owing to factors such as early death and abandonment, meaning the children had to chip in to help ease the financial burden.

  • Trapper boy and drivers at Brown Mine, Brown, West Virginia, September 1908.

    Being a child in the 19th century meant growing up fast. At 13 or 14 years of age, adolescents were considered young men and women who had to earn their keep. In fact, as we have seen, many were sent to work much earlier, aged eight or even younger. For many, attending school and thus not earning was simply not an option. And if your role models were men who cheated death each day just by making it through work, sitting at a school desk into your mid or late teens was unthinkable – especially with college nothing more than a pipe dream for most.

  • Drivers and mules in Gary Mine, WV. Here, according to Hine, “much of the mining and carrying is done by machinery,” implying that this wasn’t the case in other mines, where the work must have been truly backbreaking for man or beast.

    In early 20th-century America, in large part thanks to the work of Lewis Hine, labor reforms were set in motion to raise the minimum age at which children could work and lower their working hours. There were setbacks, however, with a 1916 law deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court just two years after it had been enacted. After a long struggle, the Fair Labor Standards Act was finally passed in 1938. Under the terms of this act, schooling and health were prioritized for any children working below the ages of 15 and 16, while no one under 18 could be employed in treacherous jobs like mining. A minimum wage and limits on the number of hours children could work were also put in place.

  • The tall boy, second from right, is starting his job as a picker, or pikeman, at Gary Mine in Gary, WV. This meant backbreaking 10-hour shifts underground picking coal lay in store for the young worker.

    Today, child labor is still rife in many countries around the world. Moreover, dismissing it as the problem of poorer nations is missing the point, as developing countries often produce goods for their wealthier counterparts. The fate of the world’s children – rich or poor – is intertwined. It is thus up to all of us to face the reality of the situation, and to be aware that children simply forced out of one kind of employment could easily find themselves in the hands of even less scrupulous employers and performing yet more dangerous tasks.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

Simone Preuss
Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History