Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coal Miners in My Family

Among those soot covered faces in the left photo, above, is my grandfather, Gust Doyle. He's standing in the center of the back row. It's nigh on impossible to recognize him compared to the photo on the right but I was assured by his daughter that indeed, that is Gust. Of the two photos, I believe he was younger in the #7 Mine photo.

I've never been into or observed the workings of a coal mine but in my brain float images of a dark and dangerous environment with the sounds of hammering, pounding, and explosions. I imagine dirt and grit from head to toe, and the darkness of night all day. The scrubbing that must have been required to clean one's skin upon returning above-ground surely turned it pink or red, or possibly raw! And how did they live without sunshine?!

The mines in Stoneboro and the rest of Mercer County, Pennsylvania, were sources of bituminous coal, less hard than anthracite, but no less dirty and dangerous to mine. As far as I know, none of my direct-line ancestors were in mine accidents but there are several Doyles and Fromans listed on the Pennsylvania USGW Archives of Mine Accidents who may be collateral relatives.

In searching for Stoneboro Mine #7 I was hoping for photographs. Instead, GoogleBooks provided Coal Mines by B. H. Rose, a 1910 publication which told me that Mine #7 was operated by the Mercer Iron & Coal Company. The vein was called Brookfield Bed A with a thickness of 4½ feet. It was a shaft mine where both machines and picks were used. Its daily capacity was 700 to 1000 tons. It did not record the number of employees who mined those 700-1000 tons/day. Mine #7 seems to have extracted the largest quantity of coal per day of all the local mines. It was serviced by the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad.

I asked Tressa Doyle Wilson, Gust's daughter and my father's half sister, about coal mines and the miners in our family. I knew that my dad grew up on a farm and that he had worked for a while in a coal mine, but I wanted more information. Below is what she told me about a mine on their farm property.
Most of the men in this area were coal miners. They had to walk several miles to and from work. Dad [Gust] and Pap [William Doyle, Gust's father] worked in the mines. This was the main source of income.
The coal mine your Dad [Lee] worked in was in our pasture field. In the late 1920's Dad, Pap and your Dad dug the shaft for the mine. The shaft was 35 feet deep but I don’t know the other dimensions. I’ll never know how they had the knowledge and wisdom to know there might be coal at the bottom of the shaft they were digging. They had to keep shoring the sides to keep it from caving in. Also had to build a ladder for ascending and descending. There wasn’t any heavy equipment at that time – they had to do all the digging by hand. They struck coal at 35 feet. They built a tipple and a building for the hoist what would bring the loaded coal cars up the shaft to be emptied in the bins and returned to the bottom of the shaft. Your Dad helped with all of this. [Lee was born in 1913 and would have been 15 in 1928.]
Until the coal mine was in operation our main source of income was from the milk we sold. When we started to sell coal I’m sure the income from it was almost as good as the income from the cows.
Digging a coal mine by hand would have been a huge, labor-intensive undertaking. I have a hard time imagining how it would be done, considering that I have trouble digging a 2' hole for a plant. I think digging a small mine with only a few miners would have required courage, steadiness, and extreme care to succeed.
Other coal miners among my ancestors:

Andrew Doyle, Gust's grandfather, was a miner in Northumberland, England, in the mid-1850s and '60s. He came to America to find work in 1869, when he was 32, because, wrote Tressa, "the mines in England were being mined out - making it difficult to earn a living." He settled in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. His wife and children came one year later. Andrew eventually owned a small mining store in Stoneboro.

William Doyle, Gust's father and Andrew's son, was 7 when he arrived in the U.S. It is possible that he worked in the mines in England but I believe that laws had been put into effect by then preventing children from working in the mines until they were 10 years old. He may have worked in the mines in Stoneboro as a youth. It is certain he worked in the mines as an adult.

Abel Armitage, my maternal great-grandfather, was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England in 1821. Sometime between 1851 and 1861 he began working at the Trimdon Colliery in Durham. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1863 or 1864 and worked as a coal miner in the Steubenville area of Jefferson County, Ohio. The 1870 and 1880 census records both record him as a coal miner but by 1880 he was disabled. Perhaps he was injured in a mine accident. He died sometime after 1880, though I can find no record of his death.

John Froman/Frohman is my paternal grandmother's father. He appears in the 1870 U.S. census living in West Salem Township, Mercer County, Pennsylvania. From what I can gather, he passed away in 1872 but I have been unable to find information about his death or an exact date of death. Until I learn more, I will wonder if he died in a coal mine accident.

It is hard for me to imagine being a coal miner or living in a coal mining community. I wonder how, after an 8- or 10- or 12-hour day in the mine, my grandfather Gust was able to do the work necessary to keep the farm going. How did he manage in the winter when the days were were short and he and missed most of the daylight hours? I'm grateful for his work ethic and that it's been passed down through several generations.

Below are some postcard photographs of coal mining in eastern Pennsylvania where anthracite was mined. (Click on any of them to see them larger.) They were uploaded to Flickr by j3net and are on her Photostream where she has additional coal mining images.


Copyright © 2010-2016 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Nancy. I found this so interesting. You read about my father coming to NZ. One of the reasons the family left England was due to my Dad's ill health from working in a coal mine in Wigan. He had lung problems and a Dr suggested he move to England. My grandfather worked in the mines.I have been down coal mines in Ireland and Wales. So I can say I'm a coalminer's daughter and you a coalminer's grand-daughter

  2. This is so interesting, I can't imagine so few men digging a mine shaft. I don't have any coal mining family history, the only mine that I have seen is a modern open cast one with huge machines the wheels of which are at least twice the height of a person. The work is so dirty and noisy, the dust would have been dreadful in those old shafts without much ventilation.

  3. That really is amazing, to think that they dug a shaft by hand, and then manhandled the coal to the surface like that.

  4. it does seem unimaginably hard, doesn't it? and to think that children went down the mines too

  5. A unique set of photos to treasure... :)

  6. This is fascinating. I know that I had great-great uncles that were gold miners, but I think it was more of the panning for gold stuff rather than digging a shaft and risking your life. Don't know for sure. I've always been amazed, however, about all the New England colonists and Dutch East India Trading Company types in my grandmother's pedigree that left the motherland to come to the wilds, having to build shelter and figure out how to get through the winter with so few resources.

  7. I wrote my comment and then I closed the window by mistake. Phooey. So, where was I? These are great photos. I'm not sure how they did it either. And some of those fellows in the last photo look like little boys. That makes me really sad. I assume you have probably checked the somewhat morbid General Disasters website? It's great for helping to find relatives who died in disasters that were reported in newspapers. Just in case you don't know about it, here's a link:

  8. Have no idea if any of my ancestors worked in the coal fields of PA, but it's possible. A story had been passed down in the family about an ancestor actually owning a steel milll in PA. Actually the largest, but I've never bothered to dig to find out if it was true. Besides he was a brutal strike buster so I'd prefer to think we aren't related.

    Do know my paternal grandfather and great grandfather both worked at a steel mill in Scotland. One of their reasons for leaving for California. Devastating work.

    Very interesting post.

  9. Our family went to The Museum Of Science and Industry in Chicago every Sunday when I was in grammar school. One of the things we liked best was the recreation of a coalmine. You could ride in real coalmine cars in a shaft down several floors and then see an exhibit about coal mining. We probably didn't care so much about the exhibit but we loved that ride.
    I loved reading this story about your families coal mining experiences.

  10. This was so interesting, Nancy. My Finnish great grandfather worked as a coal miner (among other things) in Washington State. No surprise he died of "black lung" at a fairly young age. Thanks for giving me perspective on his job.

  11. Thanks Nancy I have left a comment for you on my post.
    They have been such courageous and hardworking people. We are so soft in comparison. This is a great post about your ancestors work. When I read about coal mines I always thought it would be the last place I wanted to work. Those people did not have a choice. It must have been so scary sometimes. They also worked for such small wages, so many hours. Their lives were always at risk and their health as well.

  12. Wonderfully informative post, Nancy! It is hard to recognize your grandfather in the mining photo, but what a treasure you have.

    When I was in elementary school, my class took a field trip to an anthracite coal mine in Ashland PA. I remember it being dark, chilly and dank. Of course, we were no longer in a working tunnel, so the coal dust and and fumes had long since cleared. Nonetheless, I can't imagine spending day after day like that, underground. It definitely took a certain kind of man to commit to working in those conditions to support his family.

  13. a tough life and my thoughts go to the colombian miners still trapped... i've never close to such a place and i wouldn't wish this kind of life on anyone, but people make choices to earn a living, and it's fine, as long as all goes well, 'cause when it doesn' just doesn't.

  14. Great post! So many members of my family and their neighbors first landed in the mines of PA & WV when they came to the US. You've given me a much clearer vision of their lives.

    I'm terribly impressed by your family's hand dug mine,

  15. Wow. What an interesting post.

    As far as I recall, I've only seen one miner among my ancestors - listed as his occupation.

    Now I have to go look him up.


  16. Do you have any other information regarding the Mercer Iron and Coal Company?
    I know they filed bankruptcy in th 192.

  17. Hi, Anonymous. Go here for more information: Scroll down to "Coal and Railroads." I'm sorry I don't have any more information.

  18. Was really interesting to read about the history of your mining family!!


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