IN THE COAL CAMPS

“You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”
– Recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1955

Coal companies built “coal camps” to house miners and their families. In these isolated areas, company-owned houses were the only place to live and the company store was the only place to shop. Workers were paid in store currency called scrip (see image above); high prices kept many miners in debt.

Amidst the noise, smoke and dust, women grew vegetables or took in laundry for extra income. Black and white children had separate schools; their fathers worked together in the mines. Along with immigrant and Native American miners, they fought for better wages and safety, in labor struggles that sometimes turned violent.

Image credits: top, miningusa.com; center & bottom, Library of Congress

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COAL TO COKE

Rows of beehive ovens heated raw coal into a purified form of fuel called coke. Coke is critical for making steel. It’s lighter and cheaper to ship than coal, so it was often made on-site. But the process produces a thick, oily smoke that coats everything nearby.

How to make coke
Build an oven with layers of stone, bricks and clay to hold the heat
Dump in five tons of coal and brick up the door
Cook the coal for two to three days at 2,000°F to drive out water, coal-gas and coal-tar
Remove the brick door and douse the fire with 500 gallons of water
Pull the hot, porous, high-carbon coke from the oven

Can you find the beehive ovens in the diorama? Follow the steps of coke-making.

Image credits: top, Pennsylvania State Archives; bottom, Library of Congress

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