Working Conditions in Mines and Mills

From 1884 to 1912 about 43,000 miners died in accidents as result of management’s refusal to provide safe working conditions. Child labor was one of the most problematic situations in the mines. In 1901, about 6,400 boys under 14 worked in the anthracite coal mines in northeastern Pennsylvania. “Young boys labored at tasks which stunted their bodies, ground their brains, and warped their souls.” (Korson, Minstrels of the Mine Patch, Songs and Stories of the Anthracite Industry, p. 94.) Commonly, boys around 8 years of age started in the mines as slate pickers. Then, at 10 or 11, they went into the mine itself to be door-tenders; and, later they became mule drivers at 14 or 15. After which, they labored as full-fledged miners. (Id.) The work day for these youngsters was 10 hours; later legislation was passed to reduce the work day to eight hours. (Id. at pp. 97, 105.)

The following two songs paint a picture of the mine worker at the beginning as a child and at the end as a man too old to work any longer.

“A White Slave of the Mine,was written by Sam W. Boyd, a Wilkes-Barre, Pa. newspaperman in the late 1800s. (Korson, p. 97.) Sung by Jay Smar, in his CD “Heritage and Coal Mining Songs of Northeastern Pennsylvania.” (looking for audio)

I’m a little collier (miner) lad, hardworking all the day, from early morn ’til late at night, no time have I to play.

Down in the bowels of the earth, where no bright sun rays shine, You’ll find me busy at my work, a white slave of the mine.

Chorus (sung twice) Our lot is full of strife, but we make no murmur or sign, For daily we toil down deep in the soil, the white slave of the mine

When the daylight comes I go to work, when the dark, I go to bed, The money that my labor earns, keeps us in meat and bread

Poor father, he was killed one day, Yet mother for him pines, And that is why you see me here, A white slave of the mines

But after all when life is done, and God has called the roll, I hope to find He’s not forgot the little collier soul

Hard work and toil has dwarfed him so, and ground him down so fine – And that is why you see me here, a white slave of the mine.

“The Old Miner’s Refrain, (traditional) sung by Joe Glazer. (

I’m getting old and feeble and I can work no more,
I have laid the rusty mining tools away.
For forty years and over I have toiled about the mines,
but now I’m getting feeble and gray.

Chorus: Where are the boys that worked with me in the breaker long ago? There are many of them now have gone to rest; their cares of life are over and they’ve left this world of woe; and their spirits now are roaming with the blest.

I started in the breaker and went back to it again, but now my work is finished for all time.
The only place that’s left me is the alms-house for a home, that’s where I’ll lay this weary head of mine.


In the chutes I graduated instead of going to school, remember, friends, my parents they were poor.
When a boy left the cradle it was always made the rule, to try to keep starvation from the door.
At eight years of age to the breaker I first went, to earn the occupation of a slave,
I was certainly delighted, and on picking slate was bent, my ambition it was noble, strong and brave.


At eleven years of age I bought myself a lamp, the boss he sent me down in the mine to trap.
I stood there in the water, in powder smoke and damp, my leisure hours I spent killing rats.
One day I got promoted to what they called a patcher, or a lackey for the man that drives the team,
I carried sprags and spreaders and had to fix the latch, I was going through my exercises, it seems


I next became a driver and thought myself a man, the boss he raised my pay as I advanced.
In going through the gangway with the mules at my command, I was prouder than the President of France.
But now my pride is weakened and I’m weakened too, I tremble till I’m scarcely fit to stand
If I were taught book learning instead of driving teams, today, kind friends, I’d be a richer man.


I next became a miner and laborer combined, for to earn my daily bread beneath the ground,
I performed acts of labor which came in a miner’s line, for to get my cars and load them I was bound.
But now I can work no more, my cares of life are run, I am waiting for the signal at the door.
When the angels they will whisper, “Dear old miner, you must come and we’ll row you to the bright celestial shore.”

Many famous labor songs arose out of the deplorable working conditions found in the coal mines of Appalachia and elsewhere and the strikes initiated by the workers that sought to improve those conditions. The following songs describe some of the wretched working conditions.

“Only a Miner, unknown author, is believed to be derived from an 1879 poem by John Wallace Crawford entitled “Only a Miner Killed.” This song has been called “The American Miner’s National Anthem.” (Wells, p. 79-80.) It was recorded by the Kentucky Thorobreds in 1927.   (

The hard-working miners, their dangers are great,
Many while mining have met their sad fate,
While doing their duties as miners all do
Shut out from the daylight and their darling ones, too.

Chorus: He’s only a miner been killed in the ground,
Only a miner, and one more is found;
Killed by an accident, no one can tell
His mining’s all over, poor miner, farewell.

He leaves his dear wife, and little ones, too
To earn them a living as miners all do.
While he was working for those whom he loved
He met a sad fate from a boulder above.


With a heart full of sorrow we bid him farewell,
How soon we may follow, there’s no one can tell.
God pity the miners, protect them as well
And shield them from danger while down in the ground.


“A Prince among Men (Only a Miner), was written by Andy Irvine (1993), and sung by Jeff Moore. ( It provides another picture of the life of a coal miner.

His dad was a miner and his granddad was too
There was never much question about what he might do
By the age of thirteen he had laid down his pen
And become a coal-miner and a prince among men.

My goal as a young lad from a bright early age
Was to follow my hero down in that cage
Fairy lights and Pit Ponies were the stuff of my dreams
Never thinking how hard my dad worked at the seam

Chorus: Only a miner killed under the ground
Only a miner and one more is found
Killed by accident no one can tell
Your mining’s all over, poor miner, farewell.

Dad worked like a Trojan his money to save
I’m afraid that he worked himself into his grave
And my schooling was paid at the cost of his lungs
Dad was an old man at the age of forty-one.

I never will forget how his face lit with pride
When I got my diploma, he was there by my side
And I try to remember him as he was then
A rare moment of joy for a prince among men.


A gold watch and chain inscribed James Doyle
Never seemed much reward for a life of such toil
But I keep his lamp burning and his old union card
And his bones rest here in this sunlit graveyard.

My dad was a miner and a prince among men
Well loved by his wife and his family and friends
And his hardship and toil gave me the one chance I had
And generations of slavery died with my dad.


Black Lung is a disease, found mostly in coal miners, that results from breathing in dust from coal, graphite, or man-made carbon over a long period of time. The name comes from the fact that those with the disease have lungs that look black instead of pink. Those with the condition usually have severely impaired lung function. The song “Black Lung” was written and sung by Hazel Dickens (1981). It gives a look at the fate of a miner with Black Lung. (

He’s had more hard luck than most men could stand
The mines was his first love but never his friend
He’s lived a hard life and hard he’ll die
Black lung’s done got him, his time is nigh
Black lung, black lung, oh you’re just bidin’ your time
Soon all of this sufferin’ I’ll leave behind
But I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind
To send such a devil to claim this soul of mine
He went to the boss man but he closed the door
Well, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor
You ain’t even covered in their medical plans
And your life depends on the favors of man
Down in the poor house on starvation’s plan
Where pride is a stranger and doomed is a man
His soul full of coal dust till his body’s decayed
And everyone but black lung’s done turned him away
Black lung, black lung, oh your hand’s icy cold
As you reach for my life and you torture my soul
Cold as that water hole down in that dark cave
Where I spent my life’s blood diggin’ my own grave
Down at the graveyard the boss man came
With his little bunch of flowers, dear God what a shame
Take back those flowers, don’t you sing no sad songs
The die has been cast now, a good man is gone