IN THE DEPTHS OF A COAL MINE.
BY STEPHEN CRANE.
McCLURE'S MAGAZINE, Vol. III. AUGUST, 1894. No. 3.
THE "breakers" squatted upon the hillsides
and in the valley like enormous preying monsters, eating of the sunshine,
the grass, the green leaves. The smoke from their nostrils had ravaged
the air of coolness and fragrance. All that remained of vegetation looked
dark, miserable, half-strangled. Along the summit line of the mountain
a few unhappy trees were etched upon the clouds. Overhead stretched a sky
of imperial blue, incredibly far away from the sombre land.
We approached the colliery over paths of coal dust that
wound among the switches. A "breaker " loomed above us, a huge
and towering frame of blackened wood. It ended in a little curious peak,
and upon its sides there was a profusion of windows appearing at strange
and unexpected points. Through occasional doors one could see the flash
of whirring machinery. Men with wondrously blackened faces and garments
came forth from it. The sole glitter upon their persons was at their hats,
where the little tin lamps were carried. They went stolidly along, some
swinging lunch-pails carelessly; but the marks upon them of their forbidding
and mystic calling fascinated our new eyes until they passed from sight.
They were symbols of a grim, strange war that was being waged in the sunless
depths of the earth.
Around a huge central building clustered other and
lower ones, sheds, engine-houses, machine-shops, offices. Railroad tracks
extended in web-like ways. Upon them stood files of begrimed coal cars.
Other huge structures similar to the one near us, upreared their uncouth
heads upon the hills of the surrounding country. From each a mighty hill
of culm extended. Upon these tremendous heaps of waste from the mines,
mules and cars appeared like toys. Down in the valley, upon the railroads,
long trains crawled painfully southward, where a low-hanging gray cloud,
with a few projecting spires and chimneys, indicated a town.
Car after car came from a shed beneath which lay hidden
the mouth of the shaft. They were dragged, creaking, up an inclined cable
road to the top of the "breaker."
At the top of the " breaker," laborers were
dumping the coal into chutes. The huge lumps slid slowly on their journey
down through the building, from which they were to emerge in classified
fragments. Great teeth on revolving cylinders caught them and chewed them.
At places there were grates that bid each size go into its proper chute.
The dust lay inches deep on every motionless thing, and clouds of it made
the air dark as from a violent tempest. A mighty gnashing sound filled
the ears. With terrible appetite this huge and hideous monster sat imperturbably
munching coal, grinding its mammoth jaws with unearthly and monotonous
In a large room sat the little slate-pickers. The
floor slanted at an angle of forty-five degrees, and the coal, having been
masticated by the great teeth, was streaming sluggishly in long iron troughs.
The boys sat straddling these troughs, and as the mass mover slowly, they
grabbed deftly at the pieces of slate therein. There were five or six of
them, one above another, over each trough. The coal is expected to be fairly
pure after it passes the final boy. The howling machinery was above them.
High up, dim figures moved about in the dust clouds.
These little men were a terrifically dirty band.
They resembled the New York gamins in some ways, but they laughed more,
and when they laughed their faces were a wonder and a terror. They had
an air of supreme independence, and seemed proud of their kind of villainy.
They swore long oaths with skill.
Through their ragged shirts we could get occasional
glimpses of shoulders black as stoves. They looked precisely like imps
as they scrambled to get a view of us. Work ceased while they tried to
ascertain if we were willing to give away any tobacco. The man who perhaps
believes that he controls them came and harangued the crowd. He talked
to the air.
The slate-pickers all through this region are yet
at the spanking period. One continually wonders about their mothers, and
if there are any schoolhouses. But as for them, they are not concerned.
When they get time off, they go out on the culm heap and play baseball,
or fight with boys from other " breakers " or among themselves,
according to the opportunities. And before them always is the hope of one
day getting to be door-boys down in the mines; and, later, mule-boys; and
yet later, laborers and helpers. Finally, when they have grown to be great
big men, they may become miners, real miners, and go down and get "squeezed,"
or perhaps escape to a shattered old man's estate with a mere "miner's
asthma." They are very ambitious.
Meanwhile they live in a place of infernal dins.
The crash and thunder of the machinery is like the roar of an immense cataract.
The room shrieks and blares and bellows. Clouds of dust blur the air until
the windows shine pallidly afar off. All the structure is a-tremble from
the heavy sweep and circle of the ponderous mechanism. Down in the midst
of it sit these tiny urchins, where they earn fifty-five cents a day each.
They breathe this atmosphere until their lungs grow heavy and sick with
it. They have this clamor in their ears until it is wonderful that they
have any hoodlum valor remaining. But they are uncowed; they continue to
swagger. And at the top of the "breaker' laborers can always be seen
dumping the roaring coal down the wide, voracious maw of the creature.
Over in front of a little tool-house a man smoking
a pipe sat on a bench. "Yes," he said, "I'll take yeh down
if yeh like. " He led us by little cinder paths to the shed over the
shaft of the mine. A gigantic fan-wheel near by was twirling swiftly. It
created cool air for the miners, who on the lowest vein of this mine were
some eleven hundred and fifty feet below the surface. As we stood silently
waiting for the elevator we had opportunity to gaze at the mouth of the
shaft. The walls were of granite blocks, slimy, moss-grown, dripping with
water. Below was a curtain of ink-like blackness. It was like the opening
of an old well, sinister from tales of crimes.
"A few projecting spikes and chimneys indicated a
The black, greasy cables began to run swiftly. We
stood staring at them and wondering. Then of a sudden the elevator appeared
and stopped with a crash. It was a plain wooden platform. Upon two sides
iron bars ran up to support a stout metal roof. The men upon it, as it
came into view, were like apparitions from the center of the earth.
A moment later we marched aboard, armed with little
lights, feeble and gasping in the daylight. There was an instant's creak
of machinery, and then the landscape, that had been framed for us by the
door-posts of the shed, disappeared in a flash. We were dropping with extraordinary
swiftness straight into the earth. It was a plunge, a fall. The flames
of the little lamps fluttered and flew and struggled like tied birds to
release themselves from the wicks. "Hang on," bawled our guide
above the tumult.
The dead black walls slid swiftly by. They were
a swirling dark chaos on which the mind tried vainly to locate some coherent
thing, some intelligible spot. One could only hold fast to the iron bars
and listen to the roar of this implacable descent. When the faculty of
balance is lost, the mind becomes a confusion. The will fought a great
battle to comprehend something during this fall, but one might as well
have been tumbling among the stars. The only thing was to await revelation.
It was a journey that held a threat of endlessness.
Then suddenly the dropping platform slackened its
speed. It began to descend slowly and with caution. At last, with a crash
and a jar, it stopped. Before us stretched an inscrutable darkness, a soundless
place of tangible loneliness. Into the nostrils came a subtly strong odor
of powder-smoke, oil, wet earth. The alarmed lungs began to lengthen their
Our guide strode abruptly into the gloom. His lamp
flared shades of yellow and orange upon the walls of a tunnel that led
away from the foot of the shaft. Little points of coal caught the light
and shone like diamonds. Before us there was always the curtain of an impenetrable
night. We walked on with no sound save the crunch of our feet upon the
coal-dust of the floor. The sense of an abiding danger in the roof was
always upon our foreheads. It expressed to us all the unmeasured, deadly
tons above us, as if the roof were a superlative might that regarded with
the supreme calmness of almighty power the little men at its mercy. Sometimes
we were obliged to bend low to avoid it. Always our hands rebelled vaguely
from touching it, refusing to affront this gigantic mass.
All at once, far ahead, shone a little flame, blurred
and difficult of location. It was a tiny, indefinite twig, like a wisp-light.
We seemed to be looking at it through a great fog. Presently there were
two of them. They began to move to and fro and dance before us.
After a time we came upon two men crouching where
the roof of the passage came near to meeting the floor. If the picture
could have been brought to where it would leave had the opposition arid
the contrast of the glorious summer-time earth, it would have been a grim
and ghastly thing. The garments of the men were no more sable than their
faces, and when they turned their heads to regard our tramping party, their
eyeballs and teeth shone white as bleached bones. It was like the grinning
of two skulls there in the shadows. The tiny lamps in their hats node a
trembling light that left weirdly shrouded the movements of their limbs
and bodies'. We might have been confronting terrible spectres.
But they said, " Hello, Jim," to our conductor.
Their mouths expanded in smiles—wide and startling smiles.
In a moment they turned again to their work. When
the lights of our party reinforced their two lamps, we could see that one
was busily drilling into the coal with a long thin bar. The low roof ominously
pressed his shoulders as he bent at his toil. The other knelt behind him
on the loose lumps of coal.
He who worked at the drill engaged in conversation
with our guide. He looked back over his shoulder, continuing to poke away.
"When are yeh goin' t' measure this up, Jim ?" he demanded. "Do
yeh wanta git me killed ? "
"Well, I'd measure it up t'-day, only I ain't
got me tape," replied the other.
"Well, when will yeh ? Yeh wanta hurry up,"
said the miner. " I don't wanta git killed."
"Oh, I'll be down on Monday."
"Humph ! "
They engaged in a sort of an altercation in which
they made jests.
"You'll be carried out o' there feet first
"Will I ?"
"The dead black walls slipped swiftly by."
Yet one had to look closely to understand that they were
not about to spring at each other's throats. The vague illumination created
all the effect of the snarling of two wolves.
We came upon other little low-roofed chambers, each
containing two men, a " miner," who makes the blasts, and his
" laborer," who loads the coal upon the cars and assists the
miner generally. And at each place there was this same effect of strangely
satanic smiles and eyeballs wild and glittering in the pale glow of the
"Two men crouching where the roof of the passage
to meeting the floor."
Sometimes the scenes in their weird strength were
absolutely infernal. Once, when we were traversing a silent tunnel in another
mine, we came suddenly upon a wide place where some miners were lying down
in a group. As they upreared to gaze at us, it resembled a resurrection.
They slowly uprose with ghoul-like movements, mysterious figures robed
in enormous shadows. The swift flashes of the steel-gleaming eyes were
upon our faces.
At another time, when my companion, struggling against
difficulties, was trying to get a sketch of the mule, "Molly Maguire,"
a large group of miners gathered about us intent upon the pencil of the
artist. " Molly," indifferent to the demands of art, changed
her position after a moment and calmly settled into a new one. The men
all laughed, and this laugh created the most astonishing and supernatural
effect. In an instant the gloom was filled with luminous smiles. Shining
forth all about us were eyes glittering as with cold blue flame. "
Whoa, Molly," the men began to shout. Five or six of them clutched
" Molly" by her tail, her head, her legs. They were going to
hold her motionless until the portrait was finished. " He's a good
feller," they had said of the artist, and it would be a small thing
to hold a mule for him. Upon the roof were vague dancing reflections of
red and yellow.
From this tunnel of our first mine we went with
our guide to the foot of the main shaft. Here we were in the most important
passage of a mine, the main gangway. The wonder of these avenues is the
noise—the crash and clatter of machinery as the elevator speeds upward
with the loaded cars and drops thunderingly with the empty ones. The place
resounds with the shouts of mule-boys, and there can always be heard the
noise of approaching coal-cars, beginning in mild rumbles and then swelling
down upon one in a tempest of sound. In the air is the slow painful throb
of the pumps working at the water which collects in the depths. There is
booming and banging and crashing, until one wonders why the tremendous
walls are not wrenched by the force of this uproar And up and down the
tunnel there is a riot of lights, little orange points flickering and flashing.
Miners stride in swift and sombre procession. But the meaning of it all
is in the deep bass rattle of a blast in some hidden part of the mine.
It is war. It is the most savage part of all in the endless battle between
man and nature. These miners are grimly in the van. They have carried the
war into places where nature has the strength of a million giants. Sometimes
their enemy becomes exasperated and snuffs out ten twenty, thirty lives.
Usually she remains calm, and takes one at a time with method and precision.
She need not hurry. She possesses eternity. After a blast, the smoke, faintly
luminous, silvery, floats silently through the adjacent tunnels.
|In our first mine we speedily lost all ideas of time,
direction, distance. The whole thing was an extraordinary, black puzzle.
We were impelled to admire the guide because he knew all the tangled passages.
He led us through little tunnels three and four feet wide and with roofs
that sometimes made us crawl. At other times we were in avenues twenty
feet wide, where double rows of tracks extended. There were stretches of
great darkness, majestic silences. The three hundred miners were distributed
into all sorts of crevices and corners of the labyrinth, toiling in this
city of endless night. At different points one could hear the roar of traffic
about the foot of the main shaft, to which flowed all the commerce of the
"He who worked at the drill engaged in conversation with
We were made aware of distances later by our guide,
who would occasionally stop to tell us our position by naming a point of
the familiar geography of the surface. " Do you remember that rolling-mill
yeh passed coming up ? Well, you're right under it." " You're
under th' depot now." The length of these distances struck us with
amazement when we reached the surface. Near Scranton one can really proceed
for miles, in the black streets of the mines.
Over in a wide and lightless room we found the mule-stables.
There we discovered a number of these animals standing with an air of calmness
and self-possession that was somehow amazing to find in a mine. A little
dark urchin came and belabored his mule "China" until he stood
broadside to us that we might admire his innumerable fine qualities. The
stable was like a dungeon. The mules were arranged in solemn rows. They
turned their heads toward our lamps. The glare made their eyes shine wondrously
like lenses. They resembled enormous rats.
About the room stood bales of hay, and straw. The commonplace
air worn by the long-eared slaves made it all infinitely usual. One had
to wait to see the tragedy of it. It was not until we had grown familiar
with the life and the traditions of the mines that we were capable of understanding
the story told by these beasts standing, in calm array, with spread legs.
It is a common affair for mules to be imprisoned
for years in the limitless night of the mines. Our acquaintance, "China,"
had been four years buried. Upon the surface there had been the march of
the seasons; the white splendor of snows had changed again-and again to
the glories of green springs. l our times had the earth been ablaze with
the decorations of brilliant autumns. But "China" and his friends
had remained in these dungeons from which daylight, if one could get a
view up a shaft, would appear a tiny circle, a silver star aglow in a sable
Usually when brought to the surface, the mules tremble
at the earth radiant in the sun-shine. Later, they go almost mad with fantastic
joy. The frill splendor of the heavens, the grass, the trees, the breezes,
breaks upon them suddenly. They caper and career with extravagant mulish
glee. A miner told me of a mule that had spent some delirious months upon
the surface after years of labor in the mines. Finally the time came when
he was to be taken back. But the memory of a black existence was upon him;
he knew that gaping mouth that threatened to swallow him. No cudgellings
could induce him. The men held conventions and discussed plans to budge
that mule. The celebrated quality of obstinacy in him won him liberty to
gambol clumsily about on the surface.
Mule stables. Putting in a team.
After being long in the mines, the mules are apt
to duck and dodge at the close glare of lamps, but some of them have been
known to have piteous fears of being left in the dead darkness. We met
a boy who said that sometimes the only way he could get his team to move
was to run ahead of them with the light. Afraid of the darkness, they would
follow.To those who have known the sunlight there may come the fragrant
dream of a lost paradise. Perhaps this is what they brood over as they
stand solemnly flapping their ears. Perhaps they despair and thirst for
this bloomland that lies in an unknown direction and at impossible distances.
In wet mines, gruesome fungi grow upon the wooden props
that support tile uncertain looking ceiling. The walls are dripping and
dank. Upon them, too, frequently grows a mosslike fungus, white as a druid's
beard, that thrives in these deep dens, but shrivels and dies at contact
with the sunlight.
Great and mystically dreadful is the earth from
a mine's depth. Man is in the implacable grasp of nature. It has only to
tighten slightly, and he is crushed like a bug. His loudest shriek of agony
would be as impotent as his final moan to bring help from that fair land
that lies, like Heaven, over his head. There is an insidious, silent enemy
in the gas. If the huge fanwheel on the top of the earth should stop for
a brief period, there is certain death. If a man escape the gas, the floods,
the "squeezes" of falling rock, the cars shooting through little
tunnels, the precarious elevators, the hundred perils, there usually comes
to him an attack of " miner's asthma " that slowly racks and
shakes him into the grave. Meanwhile he gets three dollars per day, and
his laborer one dollar and a quarter.
In the chamber at the foot of the shaft, as we were
departing, a group of the men were resting. They lay about in careless
poses. When we climbed aboard the elevator, we had a moment in which to
turn and regard them. Then suddenly the study in black faces and crimson
and orange lights vanished. We were on our swift way to the surface. Far
above us in the engine-room, the engineer sat with his hand on a lever
and his eye on the little model of the shaft wherein a miniature elevator
was making the ascent even as our elevator was making it. Down one of those
tremendous holes, one thinks naturally of the engineer.
Of a sudden the fleeting walls became flecked with
light. It increased to a downpour of sunbeams. The high sun was afloat
in a splendor of spotless blue. The distant hills were arrayed in purple
and stood like monarchs. A glory of gold was upon the near-by earth. The
cool fresh air was wine.
Of that sinister struggle far below there came no
sound, no suggestion save the loaded cars that emerged one after another
in eternal procession and went creaking up the incline that their contents
might be fed into the mouth of the " breaker," imperturbably
cruel and insatiate, black emblem of greed, and of the gods of this labor.
Last sight of the "breakers" from the town.