Forty plus years in the coal mining business has given Dorsel an inner strength that matches his physical strength. He is a quiet spoken man, wrapped in country eloquence, who can tell a story or two about the business of mining. I could have listened to him all day as he described the inner workings of a coal mine, a damp, dreary man made cave that has seen it’s share of tragedy and triumph over many years. In 45 minutes, Dorsel completely transformed my impression of coal mining, admittedly limited to Hollywood and required reading, sometime in my past, about the formation of the United Mine Workers. I genuinely love people who are blessed with a work ethic, and my dear readers, miners know something about hard work. Let’s have a look.
Our current RV trip found us in the city of Beckley, W. Va. We had arranged to stay the evening in the city owned RV park, which to our amazement was situated directly over a coal mine that was once owned by a farmer who found greater profitability in coal than beef. This is coal country, and a post hole constituted the beginning of the farmers mining venture. You can tour this mine, sitting in a low transport car on rails, guided by an experienced miner who explains the various pieces of equipment as well as techniques associated with mining. He easily covered the past decades of advances in every thing from lighting to the use of explosives, cleverly using humor to help the young people in our group understand and accept the death of the canaries in a cage that indicated the air had turned deadly in the mine. He talked of conditions that are simply unimaginable, such as lying on your side with a pick “undercutting” a vein of coal, and then shoring up the ceiling of that cut with timbers and bolts. He talked of a single miner cutting and loading a 1 ton coal car 6 times each day in order to earn your pay, and how you marked each car with a unique identifier to insure credit for the load.He talked of crooked inspectors, accepting money on the side, who would turn back a load that was contaminated by rock in the coal. Often the cars were loaded with several hundred pounds more than the required 1 ton, however the miners were not given credit. Dorsel came from a mining family, his father working long before the unions assuaged the conditions the miners worked in. Dorsel watched two brothers die as young men, their lungs ravaged by the deadly coal dust they inhaled as a part of their specialty in the mines. Dorsel quietly, but with measurable authority, spoke of the importance and design of lunch buckets, squibs (fuses), tampers (to pack explosives into hand drilled holes) and bolts used to keep the ceiling from collapsing on you as you worked. He talked of death in the mines, an all too often occurrence, and the many ways that death stalked you in a mine.Safety was not the priority it should have been in the days before regulation, and is still often given second shrift by unscrupulous bosses and inspectors. He described the “Kettle Bottoms”, large pieces of petrified tree trunks, slick sided and weighing hundreds of pounds, that would slide out of an overhead vein of coal and kill a miner instantly. There are two words associated with coal mining, productivity and safety, with safety traditionally following productivity in importance. He talked about the early politics that surrounded mining and the struggles of the miner in a world squarely slanted away from his well being. My eyes were wide when he revealed that your tools and even the explosives were provided by the miners themselves, the company only providing the mine and timbers for your convenience. You, indeed, owed your soul to the company store, who would only accept unique company script for your needs. You rented your home, owned by the company that owned the mine, and your family was quickly moved out if you met your fate in the mine. There would be no additional compensation for your family.
Coal will likely be at the center of the climate debate until the last ton is gouged from the earth. In this part of our country, it is king, and with the recent political shift related to this industry, has restored West Virginia’s economy. Their coal is literally being shipped all over the world, and the enthusiasm in these parts is palpable.
All of this aside, I was most impressed by the mental and physical endurance required to work in this environment. Bosses walked the shafts and saw to it that you were swinging a pick, drilling a hole or shoveling coal. Those young people today, seeking safe places to shelter from emotional abuse, would do well to take this tour. Dorsel’s handshake would be the envy of every gym rat I know, his eyes are both soft and steely, and his authority unquestioned. He is the proud product of a demanding industry who looks back with an eye toward history as it really is and not as retold by others with a dramatic flair. He will take this pride to his grave, of that you can be sure of.
His name is Dorsel, and I am proud to make his acquaintance.