Technological History and the Mechanization of Federal No. 3

Mechanization Movement in the Coal Mines

Electric Locomotive
Electric Locomotive
"Bank Boss, Motorman, Brake-boy, and Driver,"
1908, Lewis Hines (LOC)

By 1927, the coal mining industry in America was in the midst of an evolution in mining techniques and technology. The coal beds in the Fairmont field in Northern West Virginia were no exception. By April 1927, the Federal No. 3 mine was thoroughly involved in the transition process from the old hand-dug and hand-loading methods of coal mining to new mechanized methods which promised higher output and higher profits for operators. Federal No. 3’s progression from the old ways to the new played a large part in the events causing the fateful explosion in April 1927.

Types of Mines
Mine Types from a US Bureau of Mines pamphlet

Individual coal mines were unique in shape and size, but by the start of the twentieth century there were four major types. A shaft mine was designed to extract coal which was found at a great depth below the surface of the earth. Shafts were sunk to the level of the coal seam, and an elevator system ferried miners and their gear from the surface to the depths. To access a seam running closer to ground-level or that ran under both a hill and a valley, a slope mine was employed. Miners dug a shaft at a steady angle downward to the seam and ran railroad tracks topped with loading cars to move the coal from the working areas of the mine to the surface. If a coal seam was exposed at ground level, miners simply employed a surface mine. Large mechanical shovels dug the coal straight into waiting trains or trucks. A drift mine was used when a seam was visible on the side of a hill or mountain. The mine was dug into the seam, working back into the hillside at a generally level grade. Railroad tracks were installed to facilitate transportation of the mined coal to the mouth of the mine and then to the tipple nearby. Drift mining was the predominant form of coal mine in the Fairmont field due to the geological cutting activity of the Monongalia River and the tributary system supporting it.

Mining in the Fairmont Field: Rooms and Pillars

Once the coal was reached, the coal miners either developed the mine in a “long wall” method or a “room and pillar” method. Long wall mining was not popular in the early twentieth century and was not used in the Fairmont field. The Federal No. 3 mine was a drift mine operated with the room and pillar method, the more popular technique. In the room and pillar method, miners cut a passage, called a “room,” into the seam, extracting the coal as they progressed. As they moved into the seam, the miners left walls of coal between parallel rooms and cut “breakthroughs” between rooms at intervals, connecting the passageways as they drove deeper into the seam. Cutting into the mine in such a way left pillars of coal, giving the mine a honey-combed appearance on a map. When the miners reached the far edge of the seam or the edge of the mineral property rights of the coal operator, they moved to start a new room. Large sections of the mine called “panels” were eventually fully penetrated by rooms. The most skilled miners entered the farthest rooms from the main passageways and began “pulling” the pillars. Pillars were mined one at a time, with the miners moving back towards the main passageways, allowing the roof above where the rooms and pillars were to collapse and fill in the mine. Pulling pillars was dangerous work, but the practice allowed for nearly all of the coal to be extracted from the mine.

Types of Mines
"Diagram to explain Room and Pillar Mining,"
T.C. Cantrill, Coal Mining, 1914

Pre-Mechanization Hand Loading and Mining Dangers

Prior to the mechanization movement, miners on the working face of a room extracted coal by hand. They laid railroad ties and track as close to the face as possible, and positioned a hauling car within reach. The coal itself was undercut, meaning the dirt and stone beneath the seam removed. The miner knelt or lay next to the coal face, and cleared away the material beneath the exposed face with a pick, an activity that gave the whole process its name, “mining.” Several hours of mining cleared enough of an undercut for the miner to move on to the next step. In the early days, coal was removed from the face with a wedge and a sledge hammer, but by the late nineteenth century, black powder was widely used. The miner drilled a five or six foot hole with a hand-cranked auger into the face near the roof and inserted a charge made of black power contained in a way-paper tube. After securing the charge and running a fuse, the miner left the room, and the explosion knocked several feet of coal from the face. The miner shoveled the coal into the waiting railroad car and a boy with a mule or horse hauled the full load to the surface. The process was repeated each day, with miners judging the amount of undercutting and thus the amount of coal to be removed from the face based around how much work they wanted to do on a given shift. 47 As the working faces of the drift mine moved further and further from the entrance, the hazards grew.

Brake Boy
"Boy braking on motor train 10 hrs. a day,"
1908, Lewis Hines, (LOC)

Coal Mining Dangers

The dangers of the coal mine were numerous, even before mechanization. The geological forces that covered and compressed primeval swamps and forests to form coal also formed explosive natural gasses. Methane and other gasses, called “firedamp,” were released during the mining process and collected near the roof of the mine. If the concentration reached a certain point due to poor ventilation, the air and methane mixture only needed an ignition source to cause an explosion strong enough to destroy an entire mine. In addition, miners were careful of weak ceilings which could fall and crush them, or worse, trap them in the mine for their last hours of life. The natural hazards of the coal mine were rivaled by the man-made hazards. Horses and mules frightened by the unnatural working conditions underground could easily kill a man, as could a mining car weighing over three tons when full.

The Importance of Federal No. 3 Mine in the Mechanization Movement

Boy Driving Coal
"Young Driver in Mine, Over 10 Hours a Day,
Underground." 1908, Lewis Hines (LOC)

Mechanization of the coal mines only increased the danger of working inside the earth. The mechanization of the mines did not happen all at once, but in steps. One of the first innovations, for example, was black powder replacement for the “sledge and wedge” method of removing coal from the working face of a room. The main advancement, however, was electrifying the mines. Bringing electricity into the mines was advantageous over the use of internal combustion engines or steam power because of the obvious air pollution problems caused by such power sources. In the first years of the twentieth century, mines in the Fairmont field began using electric undercutting machines and electric or air powered augers. The undercutting machines were operated by specialized miners who entered the mines during the night shift. The undercutting machines the Federal No. 3 mine probably employed were shaped like large chainsaws set parallel to the floor about a foot high and mounted on a railroad car. Electric powered chains ripped apart the undercut beneath the coal seam much more efficiently than a man lying on his side with a pick. During the day shift, miners only had to clean the undercut and move straight to drilling holes to insert charges into the face. The undercutting machines were dangerous for the miners despite the increase in production they offered. Like many other machines beginning to see employment underground, the undercutting machines created highly flammable coal dust. Miners could, and were encouraged to, use water to dampen the undercutting chain and the work surface being cut, but the best way to avoid the dangers of coal dust was to “rock dust” the surfaces of the mine. Rock dusting was a process by which miners would dispense a limestone mixture over the surfaces of the mine to dilute the coal dust to a point in which it was not flammable.

After electric undercutting machines became popular, hauling techniques underwent electrification as well. The horses and mules employed to pull the heavy coal cars from the working faces to the tipple outside of the mine were replaced by electric locomotives. In addition, ventilation was mechanized and improved by placing fans in the secondary shafts and mine entrances that had been dug to disperse gas build up.

Punching Machine
"Man with punching Machine to drill into coal," 1908
Punching Machines were early machines used to undercut coal.
Lewis Hines (LOC)

In April 1927, the Federal No. 3 mine was directly in the middle of the mechanization process. The only completely updated part of the mining operation was the employment of undercutting machine operators and the mine-wide use of electric lighting. Among the aspects of the mine which were not completely mechanized and updated were the ventilation and drainage systems. The mine was ventilated by electric fans in the main sections of the mines, and by natural ventilation via shafts to the surface in other sections. Electric pumps provided drainage for many sections of the mine while some miners were forced to dig ditches to keep other areas free of ground water. The working faces of the mine were serviced by electric locomotives in some cases, and horse led cars in others. Once the full mine cars reached the main arteries of the mine, however, electric locomotives hauled the coal to the entrance of the mine and then to the tipple. In one section the mine owners were testing a new loading machine to see how it operated compared to hand-loading via shovel and muscle, while in other sections, men were still mining with pick-axes. Reports after the tragic mine explosion in April 1927
show that the miners were waiting for yet another mechanization advancement: a machine to dispense rock dust to protect the miners from combustible coal dust.

The mine itself was not abnormal compared to most other mines in the area. The coal seam at the working faces had an average thickness of ninety inches, but the ceiling of the mine was made of weak slate, so miners left about a foot of coal in place on the roof to prevent cave-ins. Miners worked in about six and a half to seven foot tall rooms, making hand loading coal easier than in some “low coal” mines in other areas of the country which required the miners to work hunched over or on their knees due to low ceiling clearance. The miners used electrically fired charges to “shoot down” the coal which had been undercut the night before. Once the coal was loaded into the mine cars, one of the three storage battery locomotives or one of the twenty-two horses employed by the mine hauled the load to the main passageways. Working conditions within the mine were tight: the active faces of the mine were only 12 feet wide, and at some points, there were no more than two or three feet between the mine cars and the side of the passages.

Selected Bibliography and Acknowledgements