Old Coal Mining Towns of Appalachia Linger in the Past

Updated on August 14, 2016
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis knows that upon Mother Earth we must walk softly in Peace and Harmony and strive to heal our planet.

Coal Miners of the Past

Coal miners in Hazelton, Pa c. 1905
Coal miners in Hazelton, Pa c. 1905 | Source

Ghosts of the Past

Some of the old coal mining towns of Appalachia are fading away, some have been taken back by nature -- yet they all linger in the past. Some, or most, spirits may have found a better home, but in the silence, one can hear sounds of long ago.

A once lovely front porch where family members used to gather after supper and talk about the day now waits for time to take it. Concrete steps, covered in moss, once felt the footsteps of everyone in town. Once they took folks up to the entrance of the company store, they now lead to nowhere and look out of place in the woods. In some places, there are little or no traces at all where a coal mining town used to be. Now only memories of such towns linger in the past.

Down in the hollow one may hear echos of the drills that bore into the hillsides, eking out mines with seams so narrow in some places that miners had to move through on their knees. If anyone could go down into the mines now, there might be sounds from the distant past -- pick axes, hammers and other tools still chinking away in the dark underground.

One might hear voices of the miners calling back and forth to each other to keep in touch and to know they were not alone down there. In some mines, the men worked, lived, ate and slept for a week at a time, not seeing daylight till a Sunday rolled around.

Reflections

Spirits and Tommy Knockers

There were many miners who did not come back up to see the sunlight. Cave-ins and fires took some to linger on in spirit with the Tommy knockers, wandering the tunnels, picking away at the rock, their hammers and picks can be heard echoing back and forth. They are the underground spirits of the past who walk in the dark.

Above ground, away from the mines, were the flimsy, cheap houses the company had built for the miners and their families. One may be able to hear the sounds of children as they laughed and chased each other, or played hide and seek in the nearby woods -- or maybe hear their mothers calling to them to come in for supper.

Even though the houses were not mansions, women made them cozy and charming homes for their families. Kitchen gardens out back provided fresh vegetables, maybe some flowers once grew out front around the porch. If the husband and father was lost to the underground, the family had to leave the town and abandon their home.

Changing Shifts at the Mine

Changing shifts at the mine portal in the afternoon, Floyd County, Kentucky, 1946
Changing shifts at the mine portal in the afternoon, Floyd County, Kentucky, 1946 | Source

Tommy Knockers

What are Tommy Knockers?

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The Town, a Lone House

The little town would have had a post office, a store where food and supplies could be bought, maybe some trinkets for the kids to play with.

A now empty church, that once rang cheerfully with song and prayer, stands forlorn, guiet, ready to give up and let nature reclaim her territory.

Down a barely visible old dirt road, might be one lone house that managed to hold together a bit longer than the others. A dusty window, where a child's face may have looked out of on a rainy day, now hides what is inside.

Another window, broken out long ago, shows a tattered curtain panel, its dark gray lace that once gleamed white in the sunshine, billowing in and out as if trying to escape the lonely house.

The back door that leads to the kitchen hangs open, rusted hinges creaking loudly in the wind, bemoaning the loss of family and days when the cooking aromas poured out each time it was opened by someone.

Inside the back door is a darkened pantry, once stocked with all that was needed for the family's table.

If one stands still, very still, for some time, a faint hint of baked goods may be detected, or a lingering scent of spice.

On the dusty floor, dried and torn lies part of a jar's label. This door, too, creaks and moans as it is opened, calling out to the kitchen door in answer to the lonely call. This was once a home, the heart of the home, this dusty old kitchen and pantry.

Old Coal Mining Town

Red Ash, Virginia photo by  Jack Corn, 1929
Red Ash, Virginia photo by Jack Corn, 1929 | Source

Coal Company Town

Coal company town in Jenkins, Kentucky, photo by Ben Shahn in 1935
Coal company town in Jenkins, Kentucky, photo by Ben Shahn in 1935 | Source

The Church and Graves

Away from where the town and row of houses were, deep in the woods by the church, is the cemetery.

A few tombstones can still be seen, sinking into the moss and soft floor of the forest. Nearly completely covered with vines and moss, one may be able to see a name here and there, and maybe a date of birth and death.

No one visits the graves anymore, except the occasional explorer or photographer, looking for signs of the people who lived and died there. As one stands there in silence out of respect, the faint sound of voices from the church may be heard, singing the lost soul to Heaven -- but, it is only the wind in the trees, lamenting.

Old Forgotten Graves

Old graves long forgotten
Old graves long forgotten | Source

Traces of Memories

These memories and traces of a way of life are not from a fiction story -- they are as real as the woods and time that have taken over and hidden many old abandoned coal mining towns throughout the Appalachian Mountains.

Time has taken a toll on these old towns that once thrived with life. Few people are left now who lived there and some of the towns may be forgotten and lost forever. Yet, as long as there are historians, photographers and writers who find traces of the past, these coal mining towns will linger on in the pages of history.


Coal Mining Towns Fading Into the Past

Postscript

Cornish miners would not go down into a mine until the boss assured them that the Tommy Knockers had already begun the job of making sure all was well. Tommy Knockers are very similar to Irish Leprechauns -- they could be helpful, mischievous, or down-right mean. If any mishap occurred, if someone's tools or lunch was stolen, the miners blamed it on a Tommy Knocker. Sometimes, the miners gave blessings to the Tommy Knockers for warning them of impending disasters.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        24 months ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Bill. Glad to know you relate so well to this hub. I am often researching into abandoned places. It fascinates me that one can visualize how life was in the past by studying even the smallest of artifacts. I appreciate your very kind comment ("I hope I can instill in my work, some of the stark, somber reality that you put in yours.") I know you will do just that, Bill. When one connects to the past, come amazing thoughts and writing comes forth. Thank you, Bill, for reading and commenting.

      • profile image

        Bill Russo 

        2 years ago

        You captured the loneliness and desolation of a part of America that is fading fast. Progress to me, all too often resembles a hiker who casts off his canteen when it is empty; oblivious to the fact that though he's drained it, the device can still be useful in future. I'm 25,000 words deep into a new book, set in the ghosts towns of Oklahoma. Born of the boom from black gold in 1920, they died two decades later when the oil ran out. I hope I can instill in my work, some of the stark, somber reality that you put in yours. Great Job Phyllis.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        You are awesome, Randy. Thank you so much for this very kind comment and the votes. With you being a master of historical articles, this means so very much to me. Thanks again.

      • Randy Godwin profile image

        Randy Godwin 

        3 years ago from Southern Georgia

        I enjoy reading anything historical and this one was especially enjoyable, Phyllis. Voted up and away! :)

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Lady G. Thank you so much for stopping by, reading and commenting. This hub gave me such a melancholy feeling -- I felt I was in the past and could imagine the daily life of the families, the children playing, the church gatherings, and the times of sorrow. I was almost lost in the past when writing it. Your family history is very interesting. Thanks again, Lady G.

      • Lady Guinevere profile image

        Debra Allen 

        3 years ago from West By God

        I liked this one and I can resonate with the coal mining and the towns. My ancestry is from Wales and they were coal mining and came to the Us in the 1800's. I was born and all my family is from a town named Frostburg, Maryland.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Peggy Horn, and thank you so much for the lovely comment. I, too, would love to visit these abandoned towns and communities. They have the spirit of the past. Thank you again for your visit. I hope you come back and read more of my articles.

      • profile image

        peggy horn 

        3 years ago

        How beautiful hunting & so sad I felt like I was there passing the homes walking across the train tracks. A look back in time. Thank you so much you are gifted. I would love to take a year and go around &visit. It takes your breath away. Maybe some day I can. In the meantime there is you. Thanks again

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Sheila. I bet your grandfather had some stories tell about a coal mining life. It would be interesting to put together an album or scrapbook about him. Thanks for the visit and comment. I always appreciate your visits.

      • profile image

        sheilamyers 

        4 years ago

        I've been to some of these little towns which are no longer towns. They're sprinkled all over Pennsylvania. Thanks for providing a glimpse at the life of a coal miner. As I read, I thought about my grandfather who worked in a mine for part of his life. Your hub brought back some of my family's history that I learned in bits and pieces from my grandfather.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Genna. My goodness, I am overwhelmed with your praise of this hub. I wrote it with so much emotion, not just for the miners and their families, but for a way of life, the houses that were cheaply built yet became cozy, warm homes for the family, the graves forgotten and forlorn. It is always very emotional for me to go back in history and revisit a lost way of life. Thank you so much for your visit and comment, for the votes and for sharing.

      • Genna East profile image

        Genna East 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

        The way you take us on a tour of the ghosts of these coal mining towns is fascinating; the lone and abandoned houses still tell tales about the lives of yesterday; as well as the cemetery where “no one visits the graves anymore.” There is a deep sadness in the epitaph that remains. Excellent hub, Phyllis. Voted up and shared.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Hi Francesca, thank you for visiting and commenting, I appreciate it. Yes, you are right, those miners and families deserve a lot of respect -- and gratitude.

      • Francesca27 profile image

        Francesca27 

        4 years ago from Hub Page

        I lived in a coal mining town in PA. Such hard working people like those people deserved much more respect than they got. Great hub, thanks for writing it.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Bill, you are most welcome. Thank you for reading and commenting, I appreciate it.

      • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

        William Leverne Smith 

        4 years ago from Hollister, MO

        I've always been fascinated by abandoned home sites, whether urban or rural.. thanks for the reminders of all the memories that are represented there... ;-)

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Eddy, greetings to you and thank you so much for the read, votes, share and comment. I really appreciate it. Have a wonderful evening.

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 

        4 years ago from Wales

        Such a wonderful read Phyllis and voting up across and share for sure.

        Enjoy your day.

        Eddy.

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Ruby, greetings - hope all is well with you. I am glad you liked the hub and that particular phrase, " Underground spirits of the past who walk in the dark. " I enjoyed exploring old mining towns and felt many mixed emotions while writing the hub. Coal mining is a very controversial subject. The other side is the fact that the mining companies are destroying beautiful lands that have been enjoyed by people for generations. I chose to write on the human side and the people who had to find a way to work and support their family. I so appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Thank you.

      • always exploring profile image

        Ruby Jean Richert 

        4 years ago from Southern Illinois

        " Underground spirits of the past who walk in the dark. " Beautiful! I enjoyed reading your story about old mining towns. I also felt the journey into the abandoned homes, the church and the families who once lived there. I live ten miles from a working coal mine. Thank you for a most interesting read...

      • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

        Phyllis Doyle Burns 

        4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

        Thank you, Jodah. I love to explore history and old abandoned towns -- yet, I do find it sad that the way of life for some people depend on dangerous jobs that shorten life. In a few centuries, these old abandoned towns will become an archaeology project. Thanks again, Jodah.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        4 years ago from Queensland Australia

        Nice hub Phyllis. It is the same here in Australia. A few mining towns are now deserted. It is very sad that once happy, thriving communities are now ghost towns and being reclaimed by nature. Thank you for this interesting read.

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