Five years ago today (August 5), the world learned of the entombment of 33 miners 2,300 feet below ground after a cave-in at a copper and gold mine in northern Chile. For the next 69 days, all eyes were on the rescue effort which, miraculously, raised “Los 33” to safety one by one in a steel capsule designed with input from NASA.
Dating as early as 1854, when Nancy Wier reported seeing the “great curiosity” of a coal mine in Union County, Kentucky, the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections contain a wealth of information on the perilous business of mining. Included are histories of coal companies in Muhlenberg and Hopkins counties and elsewhere in the Pennyroyal Region, and oral history interviews in which miners recall their back-breaking work. WKU professor Carlton Jackson‘s research for his book The Dreadful Month focuses on coal mining accidents, and letters, like one from Sturgis, Kentucky, tell of bravery in the aftermath of explosions and other disasters. Although coal reigns supreme in Kentucky, many would-be miners from the Commonwealth, such as David B. Campbell and William Harris, set out for California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s and wrote home about their quest for wealth.
In 1937, 22-year-old George Tippins wrote to his future wife Pat of the routine perils he faced working in a Harlan County, Kentucky mine:
Tell your mom coal dust and powder sure do make you sick. I sat and vomited and cussed for 7 hours the first night inside.
We had a man get his finger cut off last nite. . . A piece of slate fell and hit me on top of the head.
I told you we had a man hurt on the day shift. Well we had another one get hurt yesterday in the same place and by the same thing. I took one of the day men’s job and damned if I didn’t come within a hair of getting crushed all to pieces the same way.
You tell mom if you see her I am working on the tipple [the loading facility for extracted coal]. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her besides I’m carrying over $7000.00 worth of insurance. . . . I know I have a home in heaven but I’m not homesick for it.