A Dangerous Past

Written by: Jessica Lynch

New River Gorge National Park is full of small West Virginia coal and coke mining towns all along the river. Visitors learn about mining operations and how the region fueled the industrial revolution of the late 1880s. Miners had more complex lives, however, whether dealing with racial segregation within their town, or facing traumatic injuries on the job. This blog will utilize artifacts seldom seen by the public from the New River Gorge’s museum collections to show the dangers of mining life. 

A report from a Miner’s Hospital in Fayette County, West Virginia dated 1902.

In order to accommodate the injuries faced by the brave coal miners, specialized hospitals were established in the region. This local Miners’ Hospital served as a training ground for nurses, who learned a lot about medicine by working with severely injured patients. Some of the ailments the hospital dealt with during the turn of the 20th century were fractures to every bone in the body, including the skull, gangrene, necrosis, and lacerated wounds. Needless to say conditions inside the mine were extremely dangerous. The men inside the mines took these jobs to lift their families out of poverty and avoid other means of physical labor such as railroad work. They continued to be oppressed, however, as they were paid in company scrip, currency that could only be used at the company store owned by their bosses. Mineworkers were not fairly compensated for their risky jobs or celebrated for fueling the nation. 

Record of a mining accident in 1932.

Mining accidents were also recorded like this hand drawn insurance report. The drawing shows the extent of the accident and details who witnessed it. In this case, Charley Jones’ pant leg got caught on a steel tie. The following image records how a 23 year old man broke his right thigh bone from a slate fall.

Documentation of a mining injury from December 28th, 1932.

These poor working conditions for miners reveal the importance of unionizing for better wages and safer precautions to be implemented within the profession. The United Mine Workers of America was organized in 1890 and remains an active union advocating for mine workers to this day to ensure supportive healthcare, assistance for widows, and competitive wage benefits. 

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