A room at the end of the shaft

Sandy Vasko


Sometimes it's hard to picture something that you are not familiar with. I find that it is true when I talk about coal mining. The only experience I have with it directly is at the Science & Industry museum where long ago I remember going down to the coal mine. I remember feeling somewhat claustrophobic. Our subject today is the coal shafts themselves.

Coal shafts start with a vertical shaft going down to the layer of coal to be mined. From there shafts are dug horizontally in a prescribed pattern so that the most coal can be mined without the mine caving in on itself. Along the sides of these horizontal shafts, other shafts branch out feather-like, again in a pattern.  

The end of the horizontal shaft is called a “room.” Here three or four miners would crouch with pick axes and shovels to dig out the coal. It was also here that the shaft was least supported, and most likely to cave in on itself.

The first we read of such an occurrence was on Aug.19, 1868 in the Wilmington Independent, “Mr. John Cox and his son, miners at Cady's shaft were seriously injured on Friday last, by the falling of the roof of the room in which they were digging. It was some fifteen minutes after the roof fell before they could be extricated.

“They were brought to this place for medical treatment. Their chief injuries are spinal, and their recovery is extremely doubtful.”   

Note that the man and his son worked in the same room. This was a common for several reasons. First children went to work at the mines at a very early age, with little experience. It was easier to keep an eye out for your kids when they were in the same room with you.

Second, the room was the most dangerous place to be, and when in danger you wanted someone you could trust with you, and who better than your own family?

And what do you do if you are unable to work with your boys? In March of 1880 we read, “At about half past 6 o'clock on Thursday morning a light-hearted miner boy of 14  years might have been seen skipping along toward the H shaft, with canteen in hand and lamp in his cap.

“With others he stepped on the cage and descended about 80 feet into the bowels of the earth, and lighting his lamp, proceeded northwest for half a mile to chamber 95. Here he doffed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves and with two elder brothers commenced his day's toil, little dreaming that the hour of doom was at hand.

“Sudden and unexpected a huge piece of stone from the side of the brushing fell upon poor Freddy Davy followed quickly by another piece, each averaging 1200 weight. Little else remains to be told.”

David Morris, Will County Mine Inspector wrote, “So passes away Freddy Davy. His father left here for Kansas, about 10 days ago, after having selected Mr. J. Hughes, a miner of experience and careful habits, to work with his boys.

I hastened to the scene of the sad accident, and investigating the cause I found that it was purely accidental - one of these things that cannot be foreseen by human eye - and I felt satisfied that had Mr. Davy himself been present it would have been just the same, and that a better man that Mr. Hughes could not have been selected to work with the boys in question.”  

If family weren't available then miners looked to those of their own ethic origins. An example of this is from March 2, 1872 in the People's Advocate, “On Wednesday last, at about noon, three German miners were seated in their ‘room’ in the Crombie shaft, Braidwood, waiting for the ‘cage’ to descend, and raise them to the top for dinner. At this juncture a large stone, in the roof fell with terrible effect. Joseph Diebald suffered most, having his upper jaw fracture, and his whole face from forehead to chin crushed into a mass of pulp - too horrid for description. Andrew Shuman sustained a broken leg - the left - and other contusions. Ferdinand Leinhart escaped with several severe bruises, but nothing like the injuries sustained by his partners.”

When working in a room, miners needed to be careful with their picks.  One rock loosened in the wrong place could cause a fall.  An example of this from November 1879, “Anton Engler was severely injured in the G shaft on Monday, a stone weighing some 200 pounds having fallen upon him from the roof of his room.  Inspector Morris opines that the occurrence was partially from his own want of caution.  He will recover, though slowly.”

Less often rock would fall off the walls or “face” of the room.  From January 2, 1880 in the Wilmington Advocate; “Sixteen hundred car loads of coal were shipped from here during the six working days ending on Thursday evening. Richard Pope knows how it feels, too.  He was badly squeezed in Eureka shaft, No. 1, Tuesday, by stone falling from the face of his room.”

Working alone in a room was a dangerous thing, case in point from November, 1880; “Joseph Hobbs, an English miner, not long in this country, met a fearful death in the Eureka coal mine on Tuesday evening.  While working in his “room” alone a huge stone from the “roof” fell upon him.  Unable to extricate himself he shouted for help lustily, but before succor arrived a second rock fell with fatal effect.”  

Mine Inspector Morris said it best in his report, “Such is a miner's life he is not safe from the moment he steps upon the cage until he returns from it after his labor.  His risks have never been comprehended or recognized.”