We are indebted to men, women who mined

From the museum

By Betty Van Newkirk

Cumberland Times-News, Thursday, March 27,2003

For thousands of years, mining has been a labor-intensive industry. There are records of mining operations in ancient Egypt and in the Roman empire, where prisoners of war, reduced to slavery, extracted a variety of minerals from gold to common table salt, from workings deep under the ground. Coal, however, was little used until about 300 years ago.

Coal is found all over the world and was identified quite early. Small quantities of it were burned in China about 4,000 years ago and archaeologist have found evidence of coal fires in England that antedated the Roman occupation of 80 A.D. But wood, and charcoal made from wood, continued to be the principal fuels for cooking, heating buildings and processing metals.

Sea coal, so called because it was delivered by boat from Newcastle, was introduced to London in the days of Chaucer. From that time until the end of the 18th century attempts were made to suppress its use because smoke from coal fires contributed to the notorious London fogs.

By that time, however, Britain's forests were being seriously depleted, and coal was needed not only for domestic use but also for the factories, steam-powered, which ushered in the Industrial Revolution. Scotland's crofters, driven from their lands, were forced to find employment in the mines.

The laws of Scotland had made virtual slaves of the miners. An act of 1606 made it legal for mine owners to "lay hand on all sturdy beggars and thieves" and compel them into the pits. Several penalties were exacted from colliers who tried to leave the mines and the growing demand for coal to power machines prevented the passage of laws to correct the situation.

Women and small boys, able to make their way through passages too narrow for grown men, were added to the work force. Mine owners opposed legislation that would require inspection or restrict women and children in the mines. Finally, in 1846, Parliament decreed that boys had to be 10 years old before they could be employed and women were excluded.

It is often said that some miners spent their entire lives underground. That is exaggeration. True, for months at a time miners, going to work before sun-up and returning home after sundown, saw daylight only on Sunday, but even the most abused humans have to eat and sleep and mine shafts had no facilities for either one.

England was the first country to develop a coal mining industry, linked to its growing factory system. In America the development was much slower.

In Allegany County, seams of coal had been identified by people traveling through in the 1600s, and by 1800 small amounts of coal were dug by the Frost family, for instance, for their own use. A few years later coal was taken by wagon to Cumberland to fire the glass factories that had been established there. When it was discovered that local coal gave the glass a greenish tinge, the glass men returned to using charcoal as their fuel.

Coal was better adapted to the processing of iron, and the furnaces that were set up at Lonaconing and Mount Savage used both local fuel and local ore. Bowery furnace, near Midlothian, also depended on both types of mining.

For Frostburg, boom times came with the railroads, which reached Cumberland in 1842 and our town in 1852. Huge quantities of coal were needed to power the steam engines, and even larger amounts were carried to Baltimore, to be transshipped to New England factories and to customers in England, where the demand for power exceeded the capabilities of their own mines.

Coal deposits in the central United States are much larger than those in Appalachia, and Frostburg is on the fringe, no longer in the center, of the coal industry. Mining techniques have changed, though, as we are well award, the hazards of working underground continue.

We are very much indebted to the men — and women, too — who risked their lives in British mines and gambled on finding better circumstances here in Georges Creek. Ours is only a brief chapter in the history of mining, world over, but for us it is an important one.