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Clothing in the washroom of an abandoned mine.

28/September 1995/Illinois Issues


By DENNIS McMURRAY

Remembering coal country:
The mines are disappearing from our landscape, and so
are the workers who spent their lives digging underground.
One observer recalls some of the changes he's seen

In 1920, Macoupin County in central Illinois had 19 operating coal mines employing 6,500 workers and producing more than 6.3 million tons, about 10 percent of the state's total. By 1970, when I first became familiar with Macoupin as a rookie reporter for the Alton Telegraph, there was only one mine. It employed 171 miners and had a start-up production of 261,563 tons, about one-third of 1 percent of that year's statewide total.

A statue of an Illinois coal miner still stands proudly on the Illinois Capitol grounds, but it is increasingly a symbol of an occupation and a way of life that's rapidly disappearing. As recently as 1979, Illinois had 71 operating mines employing 18,500. Scattered across the state from the north near Wisconsin to the south at the Kentucky border, they were owned by large companies like Peabody, Big Ben and Consol and small local companies with names like The Little Dog. As of the end of June, there were only 26 mines still operating in the state employing 6,100 workers.

Macoupin itself has a rich coal heritage. The mines were largely responsible for drawing a diverse ethnic mix to that downstate rural county. Italians, Scots, Welsh, English and Croatian immigrants were among those who came to work underground and settle towns like Gillespie, Benld and Mount Olive, south of Springfield.

Many of those immigrants found jobs at the four Superior Coal Co. mines clustered in southeast Macoupin. Established in the early 1900s, all of the mines' production was used to stoke the steam engines of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, which owned Superior Coal Co. At their peak in 1926, the Superior mines employed 3,000 men, and by the time the last of them closed in 1954 they had produced a total of 122 million tons. But when the railroad switched to diesel locomotives, the coal was no longer needed.

In the 1930s, Macoupin County was also one of the major battlefields of organized labor. Union miners were pitted against the coal companies in frequent and sometimes violent strikes. These wars also pitted the insurgent Progressive Miners union against the established United Mine Workers run

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by the dictatorial and legendary John L. Lewis. At the Progressive mines that dominated Macoupin County, a share-the-work clause was part of contracts, an effort to avoid mass layoffs during the Depression era when shutdowns were common. The miners simply agreed to work fewer hours to spread the work around, even though it meant lower incomes for everyone.

A co-founder of the Progressives and an advocate of the share-the-work approach was Jack Battuello, who worked at Superior No. 4 in the Macoupin town of Wilsonville. I've always regretted not being able to meet Battuello, who died in 1979. In his youth, Battuello had travelled the West as an organizer for the radical International Workers of the World or "Wobblies." The IWW was co-founded by the fiery Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, who is buried beneath a monument in Mount Olive that also honors slain striking Macoupin County miners.

While his entire life story would make a splendid novel or screenplay, Jack Battuello's greatest moment was in 1937 when he led miners at Superior No. 4 in the only sit-down strike in an underground coal mine.

I did meet Tillie Battuello, Jack's widow, and Colombo Battuello, his younger brother. Tillie recalled how, after they were first married in 1923, Jack had worked as a "powder monkey" delivering explosives early in the day. "If he got three days in two weeks at $5 a day, we considered ourselves real lucky," she recalled.

Tillie was a widow living outside Brighton, near Alton, when I interviewed her. But Jack's brother, Colombo, was still living in Wilsonville when I met him in 1985. As we sat at his kitchen table sipping coffee, Colombo said one of his most vivid memories was the long whistle signifying another serious injury or death at Superior No. 4. "It scared my mother to death," he said solemnly. His mother had lost another son, Camillo, in 1921 when he was crushed at age 19 between empty coal cars, one of four deaths in a six-month period at Superior No. 4.

I also talked with Colombo's neighbor, Alfred "Tuffy" Dumez, then 83. Dumez showed me a photo of his father, Emil, who had worked in coal mines starting at age 11 in his native France. Tuffy worked in Superior No. 4 all the years it was open, starting in 1918, when he was 16. "I loved to work in the coal mine. You did your work and nobody would bother you," he told me, comparing it to his later job at an Alton steel mill where "there were too many bosses it didn't seem you could ever satisfy them."

About the photographs. . .
C. William Horrell (1918-1989) photographed the southern Illinois coal belt during a 20-year period from 1966 to 1986. Horrell, who taught photography at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was interested in the community created by the mines. But he also documented shifts in the technology of mining. His craft reflects the commonplace: tools, clothing and dinner pails. These photographs are among those collected in Southern Illinois Coal: A Portfolio, published this year by Southern Illinois University Press. We have reprinted them here with permission from the press.

Nevertheless, by the 1940s, there were fewer mines for folks like Tuffy to work in. The smaller and less efficient mines started to close. In 1940, Macoupin had 11 mines with about 3,000 workers. By 1960, as coal markets started to disappear, all but one of them had closed. Ironically, coal experienced a revival in the 1970s and 1980s, just as many of the old miners were dying off.

The first time I went down into an underground coal mine was in 1980, at Monterey Coal Co. Mine No. 1 near Carlinville. After a brief safety training course, we suited up in coveralls, donned our hard hats with battery-powered miners' lamps and stepped into an elevator that quickly descended 300 feet underground. We rode through tunnels in small open motorized trucks into a netherworld of frenzied activity. There were machines that would bolt the roof and other machines with giant teeth that would gouge great chunks of coal and dump them into transporters. The floor was a maze of tubing. Except for the headlights on the machines and our own headlamps, it was very dark. But that darkness was filled with the rumbling sound of the continuous miners, bulldozer-like machines with steel teeth that gulped nine tons of coal at a bite and spit it into a waiting truck. Each crew had personalized these machines, usually with pinups of naked women.

At the time, Monterey No. 1 had never experienced a layoff. There were about 500 union miners working shifts 24 hours a day five days a week, producing about 3 million tons of coal per year. That's nearly half of what it had taken 19 mines and 6,500 miners to produce using mules and picks and blasting powder in 1920. Monterey No. 1 opened in 1970, the beginning of a relative boom time for coal mining in Illinois and across the nation. Coal was the nation's largest energy resource, and Illinois had the most reserves of any state. President Jimmy Carter made coal one of the centerpieces of a national energy plan for greater self-sufficiency after the oil embargo in the Middle East.

By the 1980s, though, Monterey had trouble selling its high-sulfur coal due to the competition from less polluting pit mine Western coal. There were periodic layoffs and production dipped. It was a "very difficult period," said John Turner, a manager at the mine for 17 years.

But, thanks to some lucky geology, Monterey No. 1 had untapped reserves of some of the lowest sulfur coal in the state almost adjacent to some of the highest sulfur coal, which it had been mining. In January 1991, Monterey signed a new 20-year contract with Central Illinois Public Service Co. to supply coal to its Coffeen power plant. The contract was conditioned on Monterey being able to mine its lower sulfur coal. CIPS can burn that coal and still comply with the more stringent standards for power plants established under the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, which took effect the first of this year.

This summer, I went back to Monterey No. 1 to learn more

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Surface mine welder, 1967.

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about how it had managed to survive, while 26 other mines around the state had closed in the past five years. Besides having access to a large vein of lower sulfur coal, Monterey had a corporate parent (Exxon) with the resources to make a heavy capital investment in a longwall mining technique, according to John Lanzerotte, the mine superintendent. The longwall method uses an enormous machine that creates its own roofing and cuts the coal face in large continous swaths. Without that technology, "we would have died last year," said Lanzerotte, who started working as an hourly miner at Monterey No. 1 in 1973 and became the first to work his way up the ranks to superintendent.

Lanzerotte and safety director Dick Mottershaw were my guides as I stepped back into the same elevator I had taken underground 15 years earlier. The changes I saw in the next three hours were dramatic. We soon left the tunnels with solid limestone roofs that had been mined for 24 years. We entered the new area where the roof is soft shale, often crumbles like confetti, and is held in place by miles of steel mesh and thousands of long steel bolts. We stopped at an enormous new moving bunker that stores coal until it can be moved to the surface.

A plaque recognizes by name the Monterey workers who had tunnelled and constructed 187 steel support arches in 1992 without a single accident. The old coal miners I interviewed in 1985 had frequently talked about the dangers underground, but a sign at the mine entrance noted that 204 days had passed without a single work day lost to accidents. Lanzerotte said there had not been a fatality since 1978.

Eventually we reached "the face" where the actual mining was under way, and I saw the longwall machine that has been operating since last year. At 750 feet long, the length of 2 1/2 football fields, it cost $16 million. Its 25-foot-wide steel shears slice 30 inches into the coal face, making a pass along the entire length in about 30 minutes. Computer-controlled steel shields held up by high-pressure hydraulic arms literally can support the weak roof overhead while the coal is being cut. But piles of shale had fallen in the "gutter" area next to the face and had to be pushed out with the coal on the conveyer system. These lower-sulfur reserves had not been tapped before because of the higher cost and danger associated with the weak roof.

In contrast to the frantic activity I saw 15 years earlier, the mine seemed almost deserted, although much better lit and less dusty. It now takes only about 60 miners underground per shift and just five to directly operate the longwall machine. Back in 1980, eight or nine continuous miner machines were being used per shift, each with crews of 10 or 11, to produce less coal. The reduced need for manpower means the mine only requires 234 hourly workers and about 60 managers. Yet the process can produce well over 3 million tons a year if customers can be found. Last year, the mine produced 2.1 million tons.

However, there are other costs to the new technology. Because longwall mining results in immediate subsidence or sinking of the surface, typically a total of three to four feet, Monterey No. 1 also had to buy more than 5,000 acres of farm land above its low-sulfur reserves. The total cost of longwall conversion is nearly $60 million, said Turner.

"We fully intend to be here for the long run," he said. But the prognosis is not good for other Illinois coal mines without access to Monterey's advantages. Statewide, an average of 1,000 coal miners have lost their jobs each of the past seven years, and that trend is expected to accelerate as a result of the Clean Air Act.

When I visited Monterey, Lanzerotte noted an announcement the previous day that the owner of two large coal mines in southern Illinois was evaluating whether to close. "I think we're in another major shakeout period in the industry and only the most efficient producers will survive," he said.

Despite the shrinking workforce and the new technology, I found one constant among both generations of coal miners I interviewed in Macoupin County. Virtually all of them said it was the best job they ever had. "I loved my job. The pay was the best in the area [typically about $40,000 a year for hourly union workers] and the people I worked with were great," said Mark Binney, who started at Monterey in 1979 but didn't have enough seniority to make the cut for the shift to longwall.

I talked to him in August, but he reminded me of Tuffy Dumez nearly 10 years earlier.

Dennis McMurray has been Springfield bureau chief for the Alton Telegraph since 1978. He has covered the coal country in central Illinois for 25 years.

Illinois miners: A short Labor Day reading list

While mapping the Illinois River valley, the French explorer Louis Jolliet first noted deposits of "charbon de terre." But the residents of the Illinois Country waited until the 19th century to begin mining coal in Murphysboro. During the early decades of this century, the miners dug with pick axes and shovels. They used mules to pull wagons underground and horses to haul scrapers along the surface. At the peak, as many as 1.3 million made their living in Illinois mines. Then a reduction in the use of coal, an increasing need for cleaner burning fuel and shifts in technology reduced the number of available jobs.

For more about the history of Illinois coal mining and miners:

Carl Oblinger's book Divided Kingdom is about the mining wars in central Illinois during the Depression.

Saul Alinsky's John L. Lewis is a biography of the United Mine Workers leader.

Dale Fetherling's Mother Jones the Miners' Angel includes information on the Progressive Mine Workers of America.

A Jack Battuello oral history, conducted by Bobbe Hearndon and Nick Cherniavsky, is in the Illinois State Historical Library.

Brian Lee

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