My hometown is in Cambria County, Penn. It is small and its economy rests on agriculture, mining and timber harvesting. Along the branches of the Susquehanna River there are rich deposits of bituminous coal which attracted settlers from Europe. Wildlife abounds and hunting and fishing help the residents put food on their tables. The area is colorful and rich in history.
It was in the l940s when I was about to graduate from high school. I was wondering what I would do to earn a living. Since my uncles were coal miners, they tried to interest me in digging coal for a paycheck. They took me underground with them to show me the ropes and what I saw there convinced me that although being a miner is an honest profession, it did not suit me. It was wet, dark, dirty and dusty in the tunnel. The roof kept making sounds like it might fall on me at any time. It was clear why thousands had lost their lives working in the mines. Coal was a vital part of our lives. We heated with it, generated power with it. It paid the rent, put groceries on the table, gave us script to buy school clothes and other necessities at the company store.
Extracting coal could be deadly. When burned it spewed carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It polluted our air, clogged our lungs. We spread its ashes on our icy roads in the winter and those who dug it suffered health problems like pneumoconiosis, black lung and silicosis from breathing rock dust. Many miners had chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Surely a recent graduate could find a less health-harmful profession, and my trip underground showed me I was not cut out to be a coal miner. I was not destined to join those hard-working people who gambled daily with their lives to extract coal from underground mines. I chose not to gamble with my health and safety by working as a coal miner. I admired and was proud of all who did such work to provide coal for the world market. I saw firsthand how hard they worked digging, blasting, shoveling and loading what many called “black diamonds.”
The good people I know had come from many lands to follow in the footsteps of the American Indian in sharing the contents of the town’s forests, hills and valleys.
I moved on, became a public servant and have never been sorry for my decision.
God bless the brave, industrious, peace-loving, hard-working coal miners. They face an even more harsh future as coal plants are closing and America makes a transition to renewable energy.
Jack Simpson is a former educator, a veteran, an author and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.