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Mine Disasters in the United States

"All Nine Alive"

Chapter Two — Somerset and Coal

As Popernack began his work, he was carrying on a tradition that has long been a part of Somerset County, where rolling hills and grassy glades have proved both a blessing and a curse.

The topography of the county's 1,000-plus square miles has enabled the easy extraction of coal from abundantly rich seams, spawning coal patch communities like the cluster of tidy homes called Quecreek and company towns like nearby Windber, a planned community built by coal barons in 1897.

But such success has come with a price.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, miners bent their backs beneath low mine ceilings -- sometimes on their knees in sludgy water, sometimes on their bellies or backs -- digging with picks and shovels into the black veins crisscrossing the county.

Sons joined fathers in the mines.  It was common for generations of men to earn their livings -- and, occasionally, their deaths -- in the mines' dark confines.

Mining today is generally much safer, and has become highly mechanized work that pays good wages for rural Somerset County.  Small crews with sophisticated machinery have replaced the hordes of men valued for their muscle and stamina.

It remains a familial legacy, a job passed from father to son as a way to earn an above-average wage below the ground.  When men talk about their mining experience, they'll often say, "I have 10 years in the mines," owning the experience as far more than a job.  That closeness with the mines -- with the earth -- is manifested in the tiny, tight-knit, faith-based communities spattered across the county.

Coal was one of humanity's earliest sources of heat and light.  The Chinese were known to have dug it more than 3,000 years ago.  French explorers discovered it along the Illinois River in 1679.  The first commercial mining on this part of the continent occurred in Richmond, Va., 71 years later.  Somerset County coal mines date to the early 1800s.

But coal's origins go back much further.

Coal is the remnant of vegetation that grew 400 million years ago in large swamps that no longer exist.  The fossil fuel is often called "buried sunshine" because the trees and plants that formed coal captured the sun's energy through photosynthesis.

As layers of flora and trees accumulated, they formed a soggy dense material called peat.  Over time, as the earth's crust shifted, deposits of sand, clay and other mineral matter buried the peat.  Pressure squeezed water from the peat and the earth's heat forged chemical elements together that resulted in the black combustible mineral known as coal.  It's estimated that about 3 feet to 7 feet of compacted plant matter were required to form 1 foot of bituminous coal.

Carbon is what gives coal most of its energy, and it's the reason that coal was the country's most important fuel from 1850 to 1950.  As America flexed its industrial might, coal was used to melt glass, heat forges, kiln lime and cement, and process wood pulp.  Coal-powered railroads moved the country's goods and coal-run steam engines drove factory machines.

In 1920, when coal was king, a miner could make 50 cents for every ton of coal he produced, and it was common for some miners to produce up to 10 tons per day.  The buying power of their $1,300 annual salary would translate today to about $12,800.

Now, the average mining wage in Somerset County is $33,798 a year, well above the county's average earnings of $23,153, or a minimum-wage job generating $10,712 a year.

But mining jobs are no longer easy to find.

In the 1950s, mining and steel provided about 40 percent of the jobs in Somerset and adjoining Cambria County, where Johnstown's steel mills consumed prodigious amounts of metallurgical coal.  Entire communities depended on the coal mines.

Those days are gone.

Today the biggest employers in Somerset County include health care providers; two state prisons; the Seven Springs resort; Fleetwood Folding Trailers, which makes Coleman recreational campers; and Gilmore Manufacturing, Co., which makes lawn and garden implements.

It is a sign of the changing fortunes of coal that the Berwind-White Coal Co. headquarters in Windber, is now a museum, the Windber Coal Heritage Center, and that the largest coal producer in the county, PBS Coals, employs fewer than 400.  Windber, which once was home to more than 13,000, now has only 4,800 people.

PBS Coals, a privately held non-union company that is a unit of Mincorp, controls the mining rights at Quecreek, although the actual digging was done by Black Wolf Coal Co., an independently chartered company whose chief executive is David Rebuck, a miner who was once president of a PBS sister company, Rox Coal.

The complicated mix of companies doing business with each other is common in the coal industry, to avoid unionization and to lower costs such as insurance coverage.

Today, roughly 1,000 of Somerset County's 80,000 residents work in mining at fewer than 40 mining sites.  Most are surface mines that strip away the earth to reach the coal; a few are deep mines like Quecreek.

Three shifts of miners show up daily at Quecreek, lunch pails in hand, to descend more than 200 feet underground for their eight-hour tours of duty.  The 18 men on the mine's 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift had done just that on Wednesday, July 24, riding into the damp darkness.

Now, they were deep in the mine, chewing up the coal.

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