Coal Mining in Illinois

Life of a Miner

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Down in a Coal Mine
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An article from the Wilmington Advocate, April 5, 1878

Readers, suppose we take a trip to Braidwood and go down in a coal mine. Down, down, down into the bowels of the earth - the home of the black diamond and temporary abode of men and mules. With friend Maltby, superintendent of the Eureka shafts, at our elbow, and behind his spanking sorrel nag, we soon leave Braidwood in the distance and bring up at Eureka shaft, No. 2. This mine is located about 1 1/4 miles due west of the Braidwood post office, at a point a few rods south of Main Street, which thoroughfare is literally "a long lane that has no turn." Alighting, we first enter an engine room in which a steam monster of 25 horse-power works at a moderate rate of speed. Its office is to drive a huge ventilating fan, which furnishes the entire shaft in all its ramifications with pure, fresh air, an item of inestimable importance in itself. It also drives circular saws, drills, lathes, etc., in adjoining rooms in which the company have complete carpenter, blacksmithing and machine shops, thus enabling it to manufactuer its own pit cars, do its own repairing in both wood and iron and shape all roof timbers, etc. used down in the mine. We next enter the engine room proper. Here, another iron monster, double-geared and of 40 horse-power, asserts his power, spinning a huge 5-foot drum at the back of the engineer as a boy would spin a top; on this drum winds a 7/8 inch cable of steel wires, upon which depends the coal cages which journey from top to bottom of the shaft with what seemed to us a fearful degree of rapidity. Leaving the engine room we ascend to the "top" or place where the laden coal car is taken from the cage. Every two minutes a loaded car comes up; it's seized by a pusher and pushed over the iron floor to a sort of chute with grated bottom to admit of the "slack" or fine coal being separated from the lumps. Eureka pit cars contain from 1,000 to 1,300 pounds of coal when loaded; both ends of them are tight, and in this respect, unlike those of other mines. The advantage of the ends being tight is seen in the fact that when laden the coal seldom or never falls off while in transit from the cage to the chute; its four wheels run directly into an iron frame work, and by a nice adjustment in the matter of balancing, the car, frame and all turn a somersault, and thus is unloaded quickly and cleanly. In other words, the loaded car's top heaviness dumps it back to the original position, ready for the pusher to send it back to the cage and down for another load.

Stepping into the weighing room we greet friend Varley, weigher on the part of the company, and Mr. Mickeljohn, weigher on the part of the miners. Each loaded car contains a car on which is marked the number of the "room" in which that load was mined. The weight of each pit carload is ascertained when it leaves the chute and is received on the railroad car, the additional weight of each being distinctly marked. Twenty-four thousand pounds make an average rail car.

Doffing overcoats and hats, and provided with a miner's lamp, we then hop into an empty cage and go "down among the coals," a distance of about 95 feet, in an incredible short space of time. Flickering lights here and there disclose workmen, mules, trains of full and empty pit cars, a double track and then - inky darkness. We step into a pit car with our inestimable guide, Maltby; a young imp shouts, "Get up, Snowball!" and a white mule starts off on a trot with our train of "empties." From "roof" to the bottom of the roadbed is some seven feet, so we have plenty of room; the double track extends 120 feet from the mouth of the shaft thence a single track, with several switches at intervals, leads off some 400 yards. And such a ride! The passenger here must "learn to stoop," indeed, if he values his cranium. The trained mule fairly gallops into the dark, dust regions, and nothing less than Dante's Inferno, with all its horrors, fill the mind's eye of an inexperienced explorer. Walls of slate appear on either side of the track, while the roof in many places is supported by strong props and cross timbers. The vein of coal is about 3 feet by 3 inches in thickness; where the supply has been exhausted the vacuum has been filled in with slate, the old props remaining. Where a switch diverges from the main track, the mouth of such tunnel is often closed by a close gate for the purpose of bettering the ventilation.

The ventilation fan referred to at the beginning of this article connects with the bottom of the shaft by means of a large and airtight chamber; all foul air in the mine - to the most remote parts is effectively exhausted by this apparatus, and pure, fresh air, coming from another channel entirely, rushes to the vacuum. This shaft is, perhaps the most perfectly ventilated in the Wilmington field.

The capacity of No. 2 shaft is stated to be about 60 cars or 720 tons per day. The present working force is about 276 hands. The shaft was sunk in 1872, and has yielded an immense amount of coal. We must conclude without extended allusion to the modus operandi of digging coal, the never ceasing pumps, and some other features of this model coal mine to which Supt. Maltby gives his personal attention. To that gentleman and his able lieutenant, John Ormond, Esq., and others, we feel under special obligation for their courtsey in "putting us through."