Kentucky’s coal miners have endured much hardship throughout the history of mining life in the Bluegrass State. My grandfather was a coal miner who lived in a one room log cabin with a wife and three children until the day he had miraculously saved enough pennies to get out of the mines and buy a dairy farm. Other miners and their families in this era weren’t so lucky.
These 19 photos show a glimpse of mining life in Kentucky in the first half of the twentieth century. Two things are for certain about mining in the early 1900s: Life was hard—but the miners and their families were tougher.
1. Twenty-three-year-old Rufus Sergent began working in the mine at age 13.
He quit school before finishing grade school and set out to work in the mine. In this photo he's advanced to coal cutter and a "floater" of sorts, considered a general all around miner. Taken September 1946, P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky.
2. A crowd of miners blocks the road during the Harlan strike.
The Harlan County strike in 1939 was one of the bloodiest in Kentucky's history.
3. A 1940 photo shows two children on their horse at a small mine in Kentucky.
The photographer notes this was "Tommy Abner's coal mine." It was common in Kentucky to simply dig, or "raise," your own coal if you couldn't afford to buy it, or you simply lived too deep in the mountains or hollers to have it brought in.
4. Two miners are photographed, one of them is smoking.
Taken in 1935, this photo shows how verile miners were to survive this tough life.
5. A 1935 photo shows a miner taking a rare break or perhaps waiting on a ride.
The photographer notes say this man was working for the Consolidated Coal Company in KY.
6. The 1939 miners' strike in Harlan County.
Miners are photographed sitting down on the job during this historic strike in Kentucky's history.
7. Miners board a transport vehicle in Jenkins, Kentucky.
Headed to the pit in October 1935.
8. Mountaineers hauling coal up the creek bed to their homes near Jackson, KY, August 1940.
Kentucky families often "raised" their own coal and then dealt with the arduous task of transportation.
9. Bobbie Jean Sergent cracking nuts her brother had brought in from the woods.
Miners' families often lived in the mining camps with them. This photo was taken in Clover Gap at P V & K Coal Company, September 1946.
10. A photographer captures a candid moment with coal camp children.
Dixie Darby Fuel Company, Marne Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, September 1946.
11. Kentucky coal miner, Blaine Sergent, shown here ready to go to the mines.
Miners worked until they couldn't physically take it any longer, or until they miraculously found work outside the mine. Sergent is carrying a pole in his right hand. It's to provide extra support as he was forced to walk bent over in the mine all day. Taken September 1946, P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky.
12. The photo above shows this man, Blaine Sergent, on his way to to the mine. Here he is after work.
Sergent worked long days at the P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. Taken in September 1946.
13. A carload of coal is perfectly pitched into a point on top of the car for less resistence against the wind.
Staging the coal into this perfect point was hard and difficult work. Note the two men at the front of the car in this photo. One of them has lost an arm. Taken Sept 1946.
14. No coal was wasted. If it fell off the transport someone was assigned to shovel it back into a car.
Here, Eli Sanders, a tipple worker at Clover Gap Mine loads fallen chunks of coal back into a transport. Sanders was the Pastor of Holiness Pentecostal Church of God. Photo taken September 1946.
15. Life in a coal town was hard but for the most part workers and their families lived a normal, albiet hard, life.
Here, some coal workers and their families attend a healing "laying on of hands" ceremony in the Pentecostal Church of God. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. The Pastor of this church also worked in the mine. Taken September 1946.
16. It was common for loaders to shovel 16-17 tons of coal per day.
Here, Harry Fain is loading coal that has just been shot from the face of the mine. Taken September 1946, Inland Steel Company, Wheelwright #1 & 2 Mines, Wheelwright, Floyd County, Kentucky.
17. Miners line up to bring in their checks.
They've just discovered there is no Saturday work for the week; a double-edged sword for most who likely needed the money but also needed the rest. Taken September 1946.
18. In coal camps and coal towns, the community store was not only a source of necessities, it also served as a social hub.
Miners and their families gather around the community store and office. P V & K Coal Company, Clover Gap Mine, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. Taken September 1946.
19. A coal miner by the name of George Hoskins lived in this Kentucky house with his wife and ten children.
It was a three-room house that Hoskins rented for $6.75 per month, plus another $4.12 per month for electricity. The family had an electric refrigerator, a washing machine and an iron. The photographer notes that Hoskins said "We've lived in this house for eleven years and it's leaked for eleven years." Taken in Bell County, Kentucky in August 1946.
Life was tough for miners and their families in the early to mid 1900s in Kentucky. But folks worked hard, made an honest living and supported their families – just like they still do today.
Do you know someone who was part of the early coal mining days in Kentucky? We’d love to know in our comments.