Sunday, September 6, 2015

52 Ancestors Week #36: Occupations in a Coal Mine

Ancestor Name: Dedicated to all my coal mining ancestors

Like his father and grandfather before him, my great grandfather, Robert Muir, was a coal miner all his working life. He worked in both subsurface, or underground, mines and drift mines. According to my grandmother, his oldest daughter, he was an organizer for the United Mine Workers (UMW) of American and was blackballed from employment by mine owners and even shot at to encourage him to leave town. He may have been involved in the bloody West Virginia Mine Wars in the early 1920s as his daughter, Henrietta Muir, was born in Tralee, West Virginia, in 1920. Tralee was a company coal town of housing and stores for miners.

Tomorrow, on Labor Day in the United States, our holiday to celebrate the American labor movement and dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers, I will post more about the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1920-1921. Coal miners had some of the hardest labor struggles in our Nation's history. Owners employed private detectives to stop union organizing efforts, used their political influence to enact laws that were tilted in their favor. They kept miners and their families on extremely short leashes. Miners were not paid in cash; they were paid in scrip, which could only be used in company-owned stores. These stores contained few choices at exorbitant prices. Housing was provided by the owners, but the cost was taken out of their wages. In anthracite mines fields of Pennsylvania, there were only two towns where miners could own their own property.

Company-owned miner housing in Tralee, West Virginia, where my
grand aunt, Henrietta Muir, was born in 1920; from Coal Towns of West
Virginia: A Pictorial Recollection
by Mary Legg Stevenson

Today, I'd like to focus on the different occupations found in coal mines. Understanding these occupations and what the were required to do helped me understand the working lives of my coal mining ancestors much better. These are descriptions of the various jobs in a coal mine from the early 1800s until the mines became more mechanized.

Banksman -- a person in charge of the cages at the pithead that transported miners down into the mine and up at the end of their shift.
Bottomer -- a person who attended to the bottom of the shaft, usually where the cage that transported workers up and down the shaft
Breaker boys -- young children who worker in the breaker, sorting and breaking coal before it was dumped in a railroad car
Brakeman -- one employed to work the machinery used to raise coal up from the mine
Brusher -- a person employed to blast the roof or floor of the mine to give it more height

Pennsylvania breaker boys, 1911; courtesy of Wikipedia

Clearer -- unskilled labor used to clear away trash and other debris
Coal carrier -- people responsible for the transport of coal
Coalcawer -- person responsible for the transport of coal
Coal hewer -- person who cuts coal from the mine walls
Coaltrimmer -- person who stores or shifts coal on barges
Collier -- a person who works in a mine; it is a general term
Coupler -- usually a boy hired to connect tubs of coal into a train
Craneman -- a strong man who worked the crane

Dook headman -- a person who tended the top of a roadway incline
Drawer -- a person, often a child, who pushes or pulls a cart full of coal using ropes or chains

Engine tender -- a person who looked after and maintained the machinery that had engines

Furnace man -- the person who tended the air ventilation furnace

Hitcher -- a person who but the trams into the cage to raise or lower them

Journeyman -- between an apprentice and a master of a trade

Lamp keeper -- the person in charge of the lamps miners used so they had light while they worked

Pit shanker or shanksman -- a person who works at a coal pit, especially sinking, repairing, or inspecting shafts
Pit sinker -- a person who works sinking mine shafts
Pitman -- a person who works at a coal mine but at the surface and not usually underground
Putter -- a man or boy employed to bring carts from the coal face to the bottom of the shaft for removal

Postcard of a pit shaft and the cage that transported miners in and out of
the mine; courtesy of

Trapper -- a person, often a boy, who opens and shuts gates underground for people and coal to go through

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge optional theme Working for a Living.

Tralee, West Virginia: A Coal Camp


  1. A very informative post, Schalene. My husband's ancestors were miners in Derbyshire, Yorkshire and County Durham and I found some excellent websites conveying, the hardships and dangers of mining plus the harsh living conditions for mining families.

    1. Thanks, ScottSue. Mine were mostly in what was then Lanarkshire and Linlithgow. I've written about the housing conditions before. I also have a book about the history of coal miners' trade unions. The history of their oppression is unimaginable.