Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 7, 2016

Deep in a Coal Mine, Words to Live By

Like many UWS posts, this is a travel story. It has a twist: it includes traveling underground. First, some family history.

In the early 1920s, as labor “troubles” gripped England, my grandfather, a coal miner and staunch union man, tired of the struggle. In WWI, he’d met a few Yanks, and America beckoned with an opportunity for something better. He sailed to America, hoping to find work above ground, escaping the world of the mine. Once he’d gotten established, my grandmother and 5 kids followed. My mother was born a few years later, and here I am, grandson of a former coal miner.

Just over 50 years after my grandmother and future aunts and uncles got off the boat, I went to England and visited some of my relatives, several who’d known my grandmother since her girlhood.

In the Midlands, I visited my grandmother’s cousin, by then elderly, who lived with her daughter and son-in-law. The son-in-law was the manager of a coal mine. He asked my traveling buddy and me if we’d be interested in going down to see a working mine. “Absolutely!” we replied.

The next morning we reported to the mine and put on heavy coveralls and boots. Best of all, we were issued miner’s helmets with lights on them. We received some safety instructions: Keep out of the way. Do whatever you’re told and nothing else.

As we walked to the mine entrance, we got an explanation of the type of mining we’d see. It’s called longwall mining. Picture a seam of coal as a horizontal slab of solid material, like a big flat brick in the earth. In this case, the seam was about 4 feet thick. The following diagram looks down on the layout from above.


Two vertical shafts marked “Elevator”descended to the level of the seam, about 600 feet underground in that mine. From each of those shafts two tunnels ran horizontally at the depth of the seam to the end of the mining operation. In this case, it was something like a quarter of a mile.

The two horizontal shafts are called gate roads — headgate and tailgate. They’re connected across their ends by another tunnel, the coal face. Mining begins out along the face and works back toward the vertical shafts, known as retreating the face. That was where we were headed to see coal mining in action.

This link shows an animated version of the above diagram demonstrating the retreating coal face.

We rode down an elevator — very large, slow, enclosed in heavy gridwork, which let us out at the beginning of the headgate road. The roads also serve as the mine’s ventilation system. Air from above flows down the headgate shaft, into the mine through the headgate, across the face and out the tailgate road. The mined coal also moves out the tailgate to the elevator.

At the bottom of the shaft we got our first excellent experience: crouching down in a small railway gondola and riding along along a narrow gauge track. The roof of the tunnel wasn’t far above the top of the car. There were occasional lights strung along the tunnel. The rail ended, we climbed out and it was time to walk. The lighting ended, too, and the only light was the lamps on our helmets. The surface was somewhat uneven but not rugged. The shaft was about five feet high and we walked, stooped over, for a couple hundred yards. I banged my head repeatedly until I learned to stay bent over.

A steady noise grew louder, closer, louder and then, as we reached the end of the gate road, extremely loud. To our right the coal face disappeared off into the face tunnel, about 4 feet high, dark, narrow and noisy. Along the entire length of the face, about 100 feet, a giant machine — the shearer — moved back and forth, slicing off the coal which dropped onto a conveyor and was carried out toward the tailgate road at the other end of the face.

The roof of the excavated space was held up by an enormous line of hydraulic jacks. This photo will give you some idea of the scene.


It gives you an inaccurate idea, because in our case, the scene was not lighted for photography. The ONLY light in that long underground tunnel filled with the grinding roar of the shearer was from the headlamps on the dozen or so men working in the space. If I wanted to see something, I had to point my head at it.

Our guide led us in, stepping one after another over the arms of the hydraulic jacks.

The beam of my headlamp showed the air was filled with black snowflakes: coal particles and dust.

Stooping, clambering along in the low space between the shearer and the jacks, we made our way. We encountered three of the men who told us to stand still, please.

“Just movin’ up here, lads,” one said. “Mind your feet.”

Brothers and sisters, that was when the reality of being in a narrow space with 600 feet of earth on top of us came home. The men were advancing the hydraulic jacks to keep up with the retreating coal face. As they moved the jacks closer to the face, the earth behind the jacks COLLAPSED.

Yes, as the coal was removed and the rig moved on, they let the earth behind them fall into the voided space.

At 19, the prospect of an imminent, immediate crushing death hadn’t loomed too often for me. It did at that moment.

Convinced we knew first hand everything worth knowing about longwall retreat mining, my buddy and I worked our way through that dark, narrow space thinking of blue skies, a fresh wind, roses in an English garden. We stumbled out into the tailgate road where three of the mining crew were crouched down having a break.

A gentleman whose face and voice I will never forget looked at me. I must have had a pale, stricken look of absolute shock on my face. He smiled, his teeth bright white against the black coal dust covering his lean, narrow face and spoke one of the most memorable lines I’ve ever heard.

“Live a clean loife, lads, an’ ye’ve nothin’ to fear!”

At last I knew why my grandfather came to America.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Photograph courtesy of Britannica, all rights reserved.


  1. What an experience! It must have been terrifying to see that space collapse!


  2. That one miner has more wisdom and common sense than all of the Wall Street bankers put together.


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