Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Once a Miner, Twice a Breaker Boy - Tuesday's Tip

A boy began coal mining as a breaker boy, outside the mine proper but inside the building that sheltered the breaker, where he sorted the coal and removed rocks and debris that had been extracted with the coal.   As he grew older he began working down in the mine.   At first he may have worked with the horses or opened and closed the doors for the coal cars.  Eventually he graduated to digging coal.  Too often men were harmed in the mine and even more often they grew old at the job.  When they were unable to perform the labor required of coal mining proper, they returned to the breaker where they once again became breaker boys.  Thus the saying, "Once a miner, twice a breaker boy."

If you have ancestors who mined coal in the 1800s and early 1900s and you would like to learn what their lives in the mine might have been like, one or several of these sites may be of interest to you.

Ohio State University's ehistory presentation, Coal Mining in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era offers links to several different articles, primarily from the 1870s and the early 1900s.   I found the following ones especially worthwhile.
  • In "In the Depths of a Coal Mine" (from McClure's Magazine, Vol. III, August 1894, No. 3) author Stephen Crane paints word pictures of the mines, both inside and out; of the coal mining process; the environment and atmosphere in the depths of the mines; the mules and stables; and interactions between miners. About the blackness of coal Crane paints a colorful portrait.
  • The Life of a Coal Miner... by Rev. John McDowell (1902).  The subtitle of this article is "The Slow Progress of the Boy Who Starts in a Breaker, and Ends, An Old Man in the Breaker -- as Told by a Man Who Was Once a Miner."   He tells the longing of breaker boys to become door boys, door boys to become drivers, and drivers to become miners; and then describes the work in the anthracite mines.   Of miners he writes, "His dangers are many. He may be crushed to death at any time by the falling roof, burned to death by the exploding of gas, or blown to pieces by a premature blast."
Citizendium: The Citizens' Compendium presents an article about coal mining which discusses a variety of mining topics.   For family historians the interest will be in the history section.

My particular interest in coal mining comes because of ancestors who mined in England, in southeastern Ohio, and in western Pennsylvania in the 1800s and early 1900s.   I was pleased to find that Explore PA History offers Stories from PA History where you can read these two articles.
  • King Coal: Mining Bituminous focuses on the bituminous region of southwestern Pennsylvania.  As far as I know my ancestors were not "owned" by the coal barons, not tied to coal towns, nor in debt to the company store.   Yet aspects of this article describe the probable lives of my ancestors.
  • Mining Anthracite tells the history of the creation of coal in northeast Pennsylvania, its ties to the Industrial Revolution, and the resultant mining in the area.
One very last resource that I almost forgot to include will be helpful to those who have Pennsylvania coal miners who mined during the late 1800s and early 1900s.   The introduction states that this is an "alphabetical index by miner's name for fatal and non-fatal mine accidents in Pennsylvania for the years 1869, 1871, 1872, 1875, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1887, 1888, 1890 through 1914, 1915 (Anthracite), and 1916.  Given in the index is:  the name of the miner, date of the accident, miner's age, colliery (mine name), whether fatal (F) or non-fatal (N), page and reference (a for Part I Anthracite and b for Part II Bituminous) from which the information was extracted."  More information is available at the website.  I was able to find several family members but no direct ancestors.

You can read more about my mining family in Coal Miners in My Family.

The image at the top of this post is a Library of Congress photo of breaker boys from South Pittston, PA, taken circa 1910.  It comes from Mining Anthracite at ExplorePAHistory.   At the upper and lower far left of the photo you can see that some of the breaker boys are not boys at all, but men.


Copyright © 2012-2014 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Very interesting post Nancy, and an extraordinary photograph. Although, I don't have any men in my family tree who were miners, a lot of Irish did work the mines in England. It's great to learn more about the process. Thank you for sharing this.


  2. Great information, Nancy! Gives me more appreciation for those Ancestors that made their living working in the mines. You did a great research job on this post.

  3. Nancy - Great post, and thank you for these PA links! I have ancestors who were miners in PA so this was of great interest to me!

  4. Thanks Nancy. I had a cousin who was killed in a mine in Pennsylvania in 1877. He was 18 and was a door boy. There is no record of his burial anywhere, but I now think he died underground. Maybe he is still there.

    1. I have as similar situation: my great-grandfather, a miner in Mercer Co., PA, died in about 1872 but I have been unable to find a grave anywhere. I wonder it he, too, was buried in a mine accident. It's so sad to imagine, Dianne. I wonder if there is a newspaper article about an accident with the names of miners killed. I haven't found one for my great-grandfather, but then I only have access to PA newspapers that are online.


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