An Inspection Visit to the Vienna Coal Company Mine, 1871

In July 1871, the Vienna Coal Company's mine in Vienna Township was the focus of a larger debate in Ohio and the United States about owners' responsibility, miners' rights, and the role of government in protecting citizens. What was found during an investigation of the Company's mine helped to create miner safety laws in Ohio in 1874. The investigation's report offers a first-hand account of Vienna miners' working conditions.

Background: Mining Safety and Government Action
Gilded Age businessmen felt that government should stay out of the business of privately held businesses. Nevertheless, a recent event had made mining safety a public concern. On September 6, 1869, a massive fire erupted at the Avondale Colliery in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. The wooden lining of the mine shaft caught fire, igniting the coal breaker above it. (A coal breaker is a wood structure above the mine opening in which coal is sorted for size and its impurities removed.) The mine had only one entrance and exit to the mine. The miners were trapped. One hundred-eight miners were suffocated. Two rescuers died. The disaster led to safety regulations being instituted in Pennsylvania--the first state to do so. Ohio's investigation of its mines was likely in response to the Avondale disaster.[1]

The Ohio General Assembly passed legislation in May 1871 that "leading mines" throughout the state be inspected. A commission of three men--Charles Reemelin, a mine owner from Dent, Hamilton County; Andrew Roy, from Churchill, Trumbull County; and B. M. Skinner, a merchant from Pomeroy, Meigs County--visited these sites throughout the state and reported on the conditions. Mine operators resisted this study, understanding that the concerns about safety and working conditions may lead to legislation and costly action to conform with the required changes.

Commissioner Andrew Roy (born 1834; pictured at upper right) disagreed with the findings of his fellow commissioners that generally dismissed miners' concerns and sided with mine owners in recommending that a permanent state mine inspection agency was unnecessary. Roy issued his own report. Of the three Commission members, only Roy had been a miner. As an eight-year-old boy in Scotland he had entered the mines, and emigrated with his family to work in the Ohio coal fields. A veteran of the Civil War and self-educated, he took an active role in Ohio miners' mine safety movement.[2]

In 1874, against the protests of Ohio's mine owners, Ohio passed legislation for the inspection of mine safety. Andrew Roy was appointed Ohio's first State Inspector of Mines.

Local Debate
Andrew Roy and his fellow Commissioners visited the Vienna Shaft, owned by the Vienna Coal Company. There they inspected the mine and interviewed at least one miner, John Whalen.

The Commissioners' visit to Vienna did not go unnoticed. A letter, signed "S," to the editor of the Western Reserve Chronicle (published on August 16, 1871; reproduced at left [click to enlarge]), asserted that the Vienna Coal Company's owners and operators were not interviewed but that a "discharged miner," presumably John Whalen, was. The Commission's report noted that owners and operators were slow in responding to requests for interviews, so this letter may be understood as a political strategy on the part of the Vienna Coal Company's owners.

Commissioner Andrew Roy responded to the charges in this letter in the very next number of the Western Reserve Chronicle. After asking the author "S" to contact him, Roy noted that the Vienna mine manager, John Rosser, met the Commissioners at the bottom of the shaft and took the team on a tour of the mule stable but no other part of the mine operation. Then Roy turned to what he had witnessed at the mine:

Well, as regards the Vienna shaft, I will here state, for his particular satisfaction, that the works and machinery of this shaft are of the first class order--everything well and substantially constructed; but there is but one outlet to the mine, and there are neither safety catches nor covers on the cages, and the ventilation is very bad. In many of the working places a light could scarcely be maintained, and the sluggish serial current was heavily charged with carbonic acid gas emitted from the lungs and skin of the workmen and mules, and the combustion of the miners' lamps.

John Whalen also responded in the September 6, 1871, issue of the Chronicle. Noting a strike the previous winter as evidence of widespread concern, Whalen emphasized that the miners were in peril of their health and safety without a second mine opening through which to escape in case of emergency. Whalen also noted that the issue was not merely one between owners and laborers:

I am in the employment of the land owners and miners, to see that they get their just weight of coal at the Vienna Coal Shaft. Of this the Company should not complain, if they desire to deal fairly with the miners. I have been discharged because I am a member of the Miners’ Union, and demanded justice for myself and my fellow miners, at the hands of our employer. If there is anything criminal in that they can make the most of it.

Andrew Roy's Report of the Vienna Mine Mine inspector Roy's concern about the Vienna Coal Company mine is expressed in the 1871 Report of the Mining Commission (page 57).

VIENNA SHAFT.

The next mine visited was the Vienna Shaft, in Trumbull county, owned by the Vienna Coal Company. Their shaft is one hundred and twenty feet in perpendicular depth. It has very excellent and capable machinery for hoisting coal and pumping water, which is well and substantially constructed. This mine has been in operation for about two years, and has but one outlet. The shaft is divided into upcast and downcast compartments, for the purpose of ventilation, by a wooden partition. There was no furnace or other ventilating force at work to create a circulation of air. The ventilation had wholly stagnated, and the workmen were plunged into a highly deleterious atmosphere. The lights burned with a dull, heavy flame, and became extinguished upon the least motion. Many of the miners had their maps hung on posts or on the pillar-sides, and slanting downward, that being the only position in which a light could be maintained. When the air became so vitiated that the lights would no longer burn, a stream of water was turned down the shaft, which displaced the foul air. As this water all had to be pumped up again, it was let on very sparingly. Were a fire to break out among the wooden buildings which cover and surround the mouth of the only opening to this mine, the consequence to the poor imprisoned subterranean men can easily be foretold. There would be simply a repetition of the Avondale and Pittston horrors, which so recently occurred in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. The air of the mine, already almost too foul to support life, would at once be withdrawn by the rarefaction produced by the fire, and the miners, cut off from all means of escape, would speedily and inevitably perish. The owners of the mine have in contemplation the construction of an air-shaft, which will also serve as a means of escape in case of such accident. The sanitary condition of the mine, not less than the dangers to the lives of the miners, however, only proves that such openings can not be too soon provided.

Vienna Miner John Whelan's Testimony
Vienna miner John Whelan offered sworn testimony about his experience in and observations of the Vienna Mine. This account appears in the Report of the Mining Commission (page 106).

VIENNA SHAFT MINES, NEAR YOUNGSTOWN, MAHONING VALLEY.

July 19th, 1871.—John Whelan, being duly sworn, deposeth and says, in reply to interrogations: I am a miner by profession, and am now engaged in checking weights of coal in the mines called Vienna Shaft Mines, being employed by the lessors to the Vienna Shaft Mine Company, and half my expenses being paid by the miners. I am a native of this country, but my parents were Irish; and my father was a miner for sixty years. I have been a miner about twelve years.

The Vienna Shaft mine commenced about a year ago to dig and ship coal. It took them about two years to get started. They mine now on average 130 tons per day. The probability is that they will increase the amount, and they have a capacity to mine 400 tons a day. It is bituminous coal, of the Briar Hill order. About seventy-two men are employed, of whom sixty-three are miners. The men do not sharpen their own tools, there being a blacksmith. The miners pay 50 cents a month for the blacksmithing. Miners get from 70 to 80 cents per ton for mining, and they can mine, according to the thickness, from two to three tons a day, the thickest vein allowing them to mine the most. Outside laborers get $1.75 per day; inside laborers get $2.25. Miners pay all their own expenses, such as powder, maps, picks and shovels. The mules in the mines are at the expense of the company.

The shaft is 120 feet down, perpendicular. The engine is of sufficient capacity to pump the water out satisfactorily. There is but one outlet now, and that is by way of the shaft and a hoisting apparatus, where rope is used. There are no safety-catches; in my opinion, they should be provided; it would be an equal benefit to miners and operators. The ventilation is not satisfactory; the difficulty is increasing. The remedy is another opening, with a furnace in the proper place in the mines, so as to create a current of air. No lives have been lost in these mines; one man had his arm broken while the shaft was being sunk. An accident, by fire, came near occurring some two weeks ago; had it not been put out, it would have been serious, and the miners would have lost their lives. There would have been another Avondale disaster. The shops and engine-room being once on fire, the engineer could not maintain his position, and the miners could not get out. The smoke would descend, and the miners would have suffocated. Slopes are less dangerous than shafts. Slopes are no advantage as to ventilation. There is a mining boss, under whose care the mines are managed. The officers at the offices in Youngstown and the proprietors are not much about the mines. They do not go under the ground, or at least very seldom. The Superintendent, who is one of the proprietors, comes once a week, but does not go into the mines. No scientific man, like a chemist or geologist, is among the officers. The mining boss was formerly a miner. A board of examiners should be established to examine mining bosses carefully as to their technical qualifications, and none but competent men should be appointed. The proprietors should be responsible for the bosses they employ. In my opinion, the owners would be more cautious in the employment of men, if they wee responsible for all their employes, and I think, also, it would contribute to greater security for all.

Boys should be prohibited by law from being employed in mines until they have arrived at the age of 12 years, and can read and write.

JOHN WHALEN.

Sources and Links
Kerr, K. Austin. "The Movement for State Regulation of Coal Mines in the 19th Century." Business and Economic History, 2d ser., 4 (1975), pp. 82-97.
Report of the Mining Commission Appointed Under Joint Resolution of the General Assembly of the State of Ohio, Passed May 2d, 1871, to His Excellency the Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, November 14th, 1871. Columbus: Nevins & Myers, State Printers, 1872.

Contributor: Shirley T. Wajda


[1] Andrew Roy wrote about the Avondale mine disaster:http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/mmh/gildedage/content/Avondale.cfm
[2] The image of Andrew Roy at upper right originally appeared in Roy's book, The Practical Miner's Companion, or, Papers on Geology and Mining in the Ohio Coal Field, published in 1885.