Community//

They Owe Their Souls to the Company

Both Granddaddies Were Coal Miners

                  Both granddaddies were coal Minters

                                    By James A. Fragale

  • 
                   
 When I was a child back in Clarksburg, West Virginia, as young as three, I can remember my paternal Grandfather Fragale standing in his long underwear and baggy pants held up by straining suspenders over an ample belly near the radio, intently, raptly, listening.  “SHHH, EVERYBODY, SHHHH…”

            
           At dawn, possibly earlier, even before the rooster in the chicken coop crowed, Grandpa would hop a trolley that whisked him passed the broken down barns dressed up with chewing tobacco ads directly to the nearby underground (not strip) coal mining cavern. Then, early afternoon he’d arrive back home, remove his protective head-gear, a helmet with a silver-dollar-sized light on top, to reveal a soot-black face with a perfect line, as if made by a ruler, that divided right there and up into his hair. Mid-forehead, silver-white hair, face on down from that perfect line: black with coal-soot except for the white of his blinking brown eyes.

            
 At 63 – not such an “old guy” after all — he was to retire from his job and lollygag around his half-acre, sometimes irritating Grandma not accustomed to having him there all day: laying bricks, planting a generous green-thumb-rewarded garden, making his home-made, potent “Dago Red.”  When he wasn’t looking, grumpy Grandma, in a foul mood, she called it a “bad moon,” would throw up her fist and roll her eyes toward heaven. All that, and yet this father of ten, soon-to-be grandfather of thirty-some, couldn’t even write his own name. 

            I was the first grandchild of the many more to come. In those early years, I stayed out of the way rewarded with fantastic “Gumba” food and 1940s-early-1950s hit parade that played on the Philco day and night.  For some reason, Grandpa called me “Handsome,” a jinxed blessing since it was difficult to live up to handsomeness as I grew older and ugly acne ravaged my face and neck.  One of my teen jobs was to sign documents as well as to read aloud to him from The United Mine Workers Journal, which invariably reported on, repeating multiple times, the name “John L. Lewis” —in every article.  (John L. Lewis was President of United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960.)

            In many pre-dawn hours, I had seen my Grandpa Fragale getting ready for work as Grandma, downstairs in their basketball-size kitchen, packed a meal: big chunks of mozzarella, several pepperoni rolls, a pale-yellow, lime-green “Golden Delicious” apple (his favorite), and watched her, with wrinkled hands, place the meal in a black, scratched, banged-up, lunch box.  I fancied the food container-preserver was bought at the revered and frequently feared “Company Store,” but was never sure about that. Another quandary, I now wonder, was his protective hardhat-with-the-little-light-on-top purchased at The Company Store, or was it management issued?

            Then later, Grandpa would come home, black, smudged, sweaty, cranky. As I look back at the tough, once-mighty, aging miner, I now long to know more about him, but neither he nor Grandpa Biafore, is here to answer any questions about their work.    

            The only conversations I had about his occupation: as a grown man visiting him, accompanied by my own dad – a strong smell of BENGAY in the over-heated room — recounting succinctly, of how HIS father had forbidden him to work in a certain “down-yonder” mine: “It wasn’t safe.”  End of story.  That was the extent of the recollection as he absently jumped to another battle.

            I was reminded of just how much more I might have asked him when I opened a copy of Monongah, a paperback billing itself as “the worst industrial accident in US history” —  a side-by-side mine explosion devastating the Appalachian mining town of Monongah, mere miles from where I was born and reared. The memory of that disaster was an unspoken terror shared by every man who went down into the mines each day as well as every wife who waited for him to return each night. 

            Grandpa, can you hear me? What is it like being a coal miner?  Do you like it?  Do you prefer working underground?  Are you ever scared? Were you ever hurt? Are you glad you came to Clarksburg and got a job in an underground tunnel?  Would you prefer to work in an above ground strip excavation instead?  Or, is there a hard-to-pass-up pay differential below the surface?  


 
         Not only was this paternal grandfather a fulltime coal miner, my maternal granddad Grandpa Biafore (originally Biafora), also worked in the hell-hole  —  as a carpenter — in the same sunken, subterranean deathtrap.

            The actual blast of two ill-fated, adjoining mines, No. 6 and No. 8, unfolded during fact-lengthy legal proceedings  …  huge crowds … shock turned into despair … wives in high drama distress  … women pulling their hair out … doctors, clergy, and bewildered volunteers immobilized by the overwhelming number of dead bodies laid out side by side, side by side, side by side.  Coffins as far as one could see…

            Not so many years before, both grandfathers migrated to Ellis Island at the turn of the century from a small, Southernmost Italian town, San Giovanni, in Fiore, Provence Cosenza, Calabria clutching one suitcase and an armful of regional Calabrian recipes.  The immigrants were whisked to where the work was, directly to Northern West Virginia, among the bouldered bluffs and rugged hills – and their assignment, the coalfields.

            Monongah reverberations …  500 or so souls … men and boys … perished … leaving hundreds of widows, thousands of orphans …  mostly foreign born … largely Italian and Polish immigrant workforce… salaried below the prevailing wages due to illiteracy, fear, and ignorance of possibilities available to them…

            Coincidentally, as fate would have it, the two families, the Fragales and the Biafores, lived across the street from one another in the Italian Section — cheery, warm, warm-hearted, amico, cordiale, simpatico, pungent-oven-baking smelling Little Italy, if you will, in Clarksburg, where Mother and Dad were to meet, and later marry. 

            My maternal grandfather could not only proudly write his own name, but he was able also to read, and incessantly did so. At times, he carefully scrawled his middle moniker, “Guisseppi,” on a lined 8 x 11 ½ pad.  (His buds nicknamed him “B-4,” a riff on Biafora.)  Oddly enough, both Grandpas were baptized Antonio.  B-4 always referred to me by my middle tag, “Anthony,” always “Anthony,” not once uttering the Christian assigned James – and it was one of the few things we shared, that I.D.  I never could drive a nail with one hit of a hammer as he did, or handsaw a straight line with the tool easily engineered for that single, simple purpose. I tried, I tried so, but my sensibilities were elsewhere.  Despite the many embarrassing times, I still failed.  

            Reading, writing, and squinting at a carpenter’s level must have been hard on his eyes.  Grandpa Antonio Guisseppi periodically refreshed his eyeglasses at Woolworth’s (remember those?).  I happened upon him once at the Five ‘n’ Dime – “Hi, Grandpa…  Anthony…” —  trying on pair after pair until he found the ones that fit his needs. 

            This grandfather was more reserved, quietly commanding respect —  not prone to angry cussing jags, as my father’s father.  In the airy, light-filled kitchen, he kept a roomy cage of chirping canaries, a hobby he picked up in the mines, that sang incessantly, except at night. (Canaries, you know, were used to determine a mine’s safety and could be found in most tunnels.) In the evening, the birds’ home was completely covered, dark and sleep-conducive. I assume those pets dozed under cover, the noise had stopped, until pressed back into service the next morning. 

            Dear Mister Canary, do you carry any secrets about the Monongah mine disaster?  Were you there?  Where were the canaries-on-duty the morning of the explosion? Were there any?  If not — why?

              Surreptitiously, to avoid envy, B-4 once slipped me a round Gold Railroad Watch on a Long Gold Chain (I’m busting my chest with pride here) not to be shared with any other grandchild-cousin.  By the time both granddads were deteriorating with age, I was distracted big-time in New York City, not witnessing their declining years.  Maybe it was just as well. To the chagrin of his daughters, during a rare, short stint in the local hospital, B-4 would get an erection then point to it, as he called out to the nurses, “I’m a hundred!  I’m a hundred!” as he beckon them in.  Most of the nurse-staff totally avoided his room. 

            Which brings me back to that overwhelmingly monstrous non-fiction outing apropos of everything –Monongah*.  For me, Monongah, the book, is heart wrenching.  While reading it, I kept picturing my grandfathers who quite easily could have been in that “Worst Industrial Accident.” Author McAteer’s exhaustive investigation opens with the story of how the Monongah mines were developed by the many powerful, most wealthy West Virginia entrepreneurs and politicians –  financed by John D. Rockefeller, The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Standard Oil –- then bursting forth from briar town to the country’s largest coal producing area.  Soon, the coal company owners were to exploit the vulnerability, the insecurities, the apprehensions of a language-challenged, foreign-born workforce with the sole intention of preventing an eventual organized, unionized, workforce to emerge.  (Years later, a Rockefeller was to be governor.)

            Published in hardcover in 2007, and now in paperback, to observe the hundredth anniversary of the unfathomable, the 332 pages are a harrowing account of the massive, mammoth side-by-side mine explosion — an incomprehensible underground blast instantly killing, I repeat, 500 in the tiny Central West Virginia town, a few miles from Clarksburg.
 

            Grandpa, what do you know about the 1907 mine disaster?  Were you in Clarksburg yet?  You were in your late teens, right? Were you on staff at Dawson’s at the time of the Monongah blast?…

            With every word, with every sentence in every paragraph, on every page, I thought, and kept thinking, about both of my grandfathers, perspiring, digging, hammering in the mines. Clarksburg as well as the close-by city of Fairmont was mentioned in every chapter of the Monongah book as well as depicted in photographs. I winced the first time I ran across the picture of the lined-up coffins on Page 140 in Monongah, and never returned to that page again.  So close to home, Monongah was, so close to home.

            Grandpa, the mine you worked in was Dawson Number 9.  Was it nearby? Could it have been right next door to No. 6 and No. 8?

             Established here, No. 6 and No. 8 mines were not too far from Clarksburg.  In 1968, there was yet another tragic, horrific mine explosion where 78 men lost their lives in a Number Nine Mine called “Farmington” — a city also adjacent to Clarksburg: Farmington. I shudder as I wonder, could this underground excavation be the former, one in the same then-Dawson Mine, where my Grandpas worked in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s?**

            The Monongah Mine Disaster:  The entire town arrived less than an hour after two mines exploded, crowds grew unmanageable… chaos ensued.  December 6, 1907, the feast Day of St. Nicholas…and on that morning, in the No. 6 mine, a cable pulling 19 mine cars, each loaded with two tons of coal, snapped.  Experts later speculated sparks generated by the displaced methane gas caused coal dust to swirl to ignite the coal dust-methane gas.  

            The initial explosion in No.6 could be heard eight miles away; multiple fires shot 60 feet into the air along with several tons of earth.  Bricks, timber, coal, dirt few flew thousands of feet the air. Debris rained down for a full fifteen minutes. That initial explosion in No. 6 had triggered a second explosion in adjacent No. 8 mine: 100 feet of mountainside blew out. 

             An hour and a half later, brave volunteers ventured into mine No. 6, and that initial rescue team surfaced without a survivor.

            At four o’clock in the afternoon, one survivor was found.

            Saturday morning, rescue efforts increased. Body and body, after body, charred and unrecognizable, were pulled from the mine and placed side by side.  By nightfall, the rescue efforts found five miners alive: an Italian father and son along with three Polish miners.  Two hundred and thirty three of the deceased workers were from Italy.

            The American Red Cross arrived with a relieve committee–the first time the organization had ever supported a man made disaster–previously, Red Cross showed up for natural disasters only. 

            To raise funds, Teddy Roosevelt and Vice President William Taft sent out railroad cars full of apples for sale.  By February, $140,00 had been collected.  A mere $17,000 of that total came from Fairmont Coal Company, whose profits had not suffered one bit from the disaster.  In fact, a month following, the Fairmont Coal Company had issued a dividend.

            On July 5, 1908, Fairmont’s forty one years old Grace Golden Clayton, mourning the lost of her own father from the Monongah mine disaster, held what was to be the first father’s day in the history of the United States in Fairmont’s Methodist-Episcopal Church. (It took another 64 years for the official holiday to be signed into law.) 

            Both of my grandfathers’ home town–San Giovanni in Fiore, Province Cosenza  Calabria—honored the 233 Italian miners who perished in the explosions, many of whom had emigrated from the town. In December 2003, the Italian government installed a black granite memorial monument in Mount Calvary Cemetery honoring the “strong men who sacrificed their lives.”

            *…Some of the dead were badly burned; others, destroyed beyond recognition; an untold number, unaccounted for–entombed forever.  And, further impeding a definitive death total: multiple miners oftentimes brought apprentices to work alongside them. Some of theses novices: young children, and now they, too, were “among the missing.”

            Later, (how could they stomach it?), assessing the death toll became even more improbable.  A form of “punching-in,” before elevator-ing below the surface, required scheduled employees to hook a tin nametag on a large identity board outside the entrance.  During the explosion, and its aftermath, this sign-in method, those nametags, were burnt beyond recognition — along with everything else in sight… 

            Grandpa, did you know anyone who perished in the Monongah Mine Disaster? A friend, a neighbor, a cousin…?

            Alas, Grandma and Grandpa Fragale were unaware of the impending realities that were to come in the years’ ahead drama:  a flood that was to creep in and destroy the entire bottom floor of their house–including all kitchen appliances and a “cellar” full of food as well as barrels of homemade wine.  A devastating December death, middle, daughter, Italian beauty Anna Maria at 26, was to pass during an experimental heart operation at the Cleveland Clinic, today routine.   Other stories for other times.

            Often, I hum their favorite songs, grandpa’s: a popular Spanish song, “La Paloma,” reinterpreted in diverse cultures, copyright 1859.  And, Grandma’s, classic Latin American waltz “Over the Waves,” also a crossover, copyright c 1888…

            I’d prefer to wrap now with author Davitt McAteer’s quiet crescendo, “Death still stalks the mines of America,” but I can’t, because it ain’t over yet.

            On April 5, 2010, one hundred and three years after Monongah, West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd spoke out, following the deaths of 29 men in yes, yet another close-by coal mine Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch in Montcoal (West Virginia):

              “It is infuriating,” Byrd said, “that in this day and age, and in this country, that such a disaster could still happen.  I am sick.  I am saddened and I am angry.  We have the laws.  We have the resources.  These tragedies, on this scale, should no longer be happening.” 

             AHHH-men.

            Well-meaning tributes are no longer enough. Bolder-sized efforts must be made.

Now, as then, attention must be paid, more vigilance must be shown, further, increased, expanded action has to be taken…

            Ironically, both granddads lived to be a riper-than-imaginable old age: Grandpa Fragale, 92.  Grandpa Biafore, 100.  Late in life, they both were privileged and entitled enough to receive, above and beyond their pensions, “black lung checks” although there wasn’t the slightest indication either one of them ever had a tinge of that dreaded disease. By that time, I’m guessing, neither needed the money. Grandpa Fragale drank wine with every meal, every day of his adult life. My little joke was, he washed away any trace of black lung with every sip of vigorous vino.  And, at 99, Grandpa Biafore’s daughters took away his sweet maple-smelling pipe for fear he’d burn the house down with himself in it. So what, I asked? So what?  Why not let him enjoy his one final addiction?

             I sheepishly report neither of my grandfathers’ funerals was very sad  — a far cry from the thousands and thousands of dead West Virginia coal miners who came before and after them. Their story is told here with a tear in my eye, a lump in my throat, fists that are clinched, and an overwhelming, profound feeling of helplessness.  I pray these words help somehow… in some way … I pray.  See the list of those who perished in the introduction here.

entitled to receive, above and beyond their pensions, “black lung checks” although there 

wasn’t the slightest indication either one of them ever had a tinge of that dreaded disease. 

By that time, I’m guessing, neither needed the money. (I sheepishly report, no comma 

neither funeral was very sad.)  But for the ________thousands of  West Virginia coal 

miners the scenario is quite different; their story is told with _____________

ronically, both of my granddads lived to be a riper-than-imaginable old age: Grandpa 

Fragale, 92.  Grandpa Biafore, 100.  Late in life, they both were privileged enough to be 

entitled to receive, above and beyond their pensions, “black lung checks” although there 

wasn’t the slightest indication either one of them ever had a tinge of that dreaded disease. 

By that time, I’m guessing, neither needed the money. (I sheepishly report, no comma 

neither funeral was very sad.)  But for the ________thousands of  West Virginia coal 

miners the scenario is quite different; their story is told with _______         

             a) Now in paperback, *Monongah, The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, The Worst Industrial Accident in US History, published by West Virginia University Press, Morgantown, WV.



            b) DAVITT McATEER:  About the author of Monongah, solicitor Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief, Fairmont, WV native, Davitt McAteer, father of five, received a Bachelor’s degree from Wheeling Jesuit University (1966), and then (1970) a Law degree from University College of Law.
 A tiny positive NOTE:  The tragedy at Monongah led to a greater awareness of industrial working conditions, and ultimately to the Federal Coal Mine Healthy and Safety Act of 1969, which Davitt McAteer helped to enact. 

            e)  **Another volume-worth reading: “No. 9, The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster,” where 78 men lost their lives in the explosion, by Bonnie E. Steward.  Again I question, could this be the former Number Nine Dawson Mine where Grandpa work for three-plus decades?

            d) Wiki tells us: From 1880 to 1910, mine accidents claimed thousands of fatalities. Where annual mining perish-ings had numbered more than 1,000 a year during the early part of the 20th century, they decreased to an average of about 500 during the late 1950s, and to 93 during the 1990s. In addition to deaths, many thousands more are injured (an average of 21,351 injuries per year between 1991 and 1999), but overall there has been a downward trend of pass-ings and injuries.
  

            Song, Sixteen Tons  c 1946

Written by Merle Travis and a 1955 hit by Tennessee Ernie Ford

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you
Then the left one will

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

            Published by Right Song Music, Elvis Presley Music, and Song of Cash Music            Copyright 1946

    The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
    Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

    You might also like...

    Community//

    What I Learned From My Dad’s First Job

    by Elaine Guerrazzi, PhD
    Community//

    I Never Looked at Fear the Same After that First Time I Walked Across Fire

    by Dr. Christine Bradstreet
    Wonder//

    The wonder of life.

    by ARUNDHATI MUKHERJEE

    Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

    Thrive Global
    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

    - MARCUS AURELIUS

    We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.