A Coal Miner's Life in the Early 20th Century: The Story of Witteville, Oklahoma

Updated on December 12, 2017
Urbane Chaos profile image

Eric Standridge is a historian and author that focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau, Oklahoma.

Witteville was once a prosperous mining town during the early 20th century. Located just three miles west of Poteau, the Witteville coalmines drew hundreds of workers from all over the world. During an age where coal was king, the mines in Oklahoma employed over 7,500 men and boys. Often times, children as young as 14 would work in the mines, receiving around a mere five cents for each ton of coal they extracted.

When the mines first opened, miners had to rely on brute strength to extract the coal. Heavy machinery did not come to the Witteville mines until around 1905, just a year before the massive Witteville coalmine explosion. This explosion ultimately led to the end of the coal miles on Cavanal Mountain.

Today, the existence of the massive coal mining operations on Cavanal has been virtually wiped out by the forces of nature and progress. Modern homes populate the area where hundreds of miners once worked. The mines have either collapsed or become so overgrown with vegetation that their locations are almost a mystery. Very few people still know the whereabouts of the original mines.

Still, the Witteville coal miners left behind a legacy that endures. While the railroads brought people to Poteau, the mines kept them here.

The Witteville Coal Mines
The Witteville Coal Mines
The Witteville Coal Mines
The Witteville Coal Mines

Life in the Coal Mines

In the early 1890’s, mine workers from Poteau would travel to the Witteville coal mines along the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad (K.C.P. & G.R.R.) or the FortSmith,Poteauand WesternRailway (Ft. S. P & W. R. R.) to reach the Witteville mines. These railroads were spurs off the main railroad lines that ran through Poteau. Remnants of this old railroad bed run along what are today Mockingbird Lane and Witteville Drive.

After traveling the 3 ½ miles to the Witteville coal mines, miners arrived at the tipple, where they would travel further up the mountain by rail until they reached the mines. A tipple is essentially a loading station. This is where coal brought down from the mines would be loaded into the freight cars that would carry the coal across the country.

Due to the steep slope up to the mines, the tipple was located almost a quarter mile away from the mines. From this point, miners would ascend the steep slope and ride the cars along the motor line to the mines entrance.

Once at the mines, the miners would begin the long and tedious job of extracting coal. Relying on hand tools, the miners could easily spend 10 to 12 hours a day underground. Many times, boys as young as 12 years of age could be found working alongside of older men, as many of the regulations regarding underage employment were not established until 1914. The Clayton Act of that year stated, "…the labor of a human being is not commodity or article of commerce", and further established the first labor laws in the United States. Until this point, miners were considered expendable, and could be let go without a moment’s notice.

Work in the Witteville mines was intense. Dark, crowded spaces generally had a detrimental effect on the miners moral. The mineshafts, or slopes, were typically six feet wide and five 1/2 to six feet high. Miners constantly had to stoop over as they moved about. The main slopes weren’t much better as they averaged eight feet wide and ranged from 5 feet 8 inches to six feet two inches high.

The Witteville mines employed the room and pillar mining system. Large rooms were excavated adjacent to the main shafts, with large pillars left to hold up the roofs. These rooms typically measured 155 to 187 feet in length, and 25 to 30 feet wide. The central pillars averaged 20 to 25 square feet thick. Timber used to shore up these rooms and tunnels was obtained from Cavanal Mountain. Timbering was not used frequently, except in places where the roof is especially weak. Generally, the pillars were sufficient to hold up the ceilings.

As the coal was mined by hand, vertical cuts were made in the surface rock by pickaxe and black powder to extract the coal. Miners would create V-shaped cuts in the face of the rock surrounding the slab of coal. Black powder or dynamite was then inserted into the cuts and ignited. The resulting chunks of coal that were dislodged from the blast would range from six to eight feet long. After each explosion, air would have to be circulated through the area to clear the air of the ever-present dust that lingered.

Once the coal was removed from the rock, it was then loaded by hand into cars located within the mines. Workers would then push the cars to the room’s entry point, after which they were hauled by motor or by mule power to stations located at the slopes entrance. From the slopes entrance, the coal would then be hauled off to the tipple.

While moving the coal from the rock to the tipple was tough work, it could have been a lot worse. The mules were closely located to the slope openings, housed in stables located at the head of the gulch nearby. This ensured that plenty of the work-beasts could be brought quickly to the mines, and that their strength was sufficient for the work they needed to do.

In addition, the mines themselves had a nominal 6 degree pitch to the northwest, which meant that the floors were relatively level. Entrance to the mines was almost level with the “gangway”, or main rooms. Most of the gangway’s and other rooms were laid out almost horizontally. Many mines during this period were not so horizontal, and greater pitches required more effort to move the cars.

Once the coal arrived at the tipple, it was then loaded into the railroad cars that would carry it across the country. After the coal was loaded into the railroad cars, scatter tags, small thin metal disks, were then sprinkled in with the coal in the railroad cars. These scatter tags were used as a form of advertising, as the end-user who found one of these tags would know where the coal originated. If the buyer liked the quality of the coal, they would usually ask for the same kind next time.

Layout of the Witteville Coal Mines
Layout of the Witteville Coal Mines | Source

The Witteville Mine Explosion in Indian Territory

Coal mining in the early 1900’s was always a dangerous occupation. Across the country, thousands lost their lives due to human error or machinery malfunctions. At the Witteville coalmines, accidents were common, but none exuded the horror of the 1906 explosion.

The day began as any other typical day in January at the coalmines. A thin sheet of ice covered everything, and the miners could see the heavy mist of their breath as it rose in the air. Dismal faces looked stoically forward as they loaded themselves into the pit cars for the descent into the yawning mine.

As they moved deeper into the pit, it soon became apparent that the air pumps were not working correctly. Still, nobody said a word; for most, they simply needed the money. Their families were waiting at home, many of them barely surviving off the meager income the miners brought home. Blackdamp, the mixture of air after the oxygen is removed, began to accumulate heavily throughout the day. The pit lights on the miner’s caps burned dimly as breathing became difficult, but the men worked steadily on, seemingly oblivious to the disaster that would soon come.

The nervous men tried whistling or singing while they worked, but nothing seemed to diminish the ominous feeling that surrounded them.

On January 24th, at 1:45 in the afternoon, mine No. 6 exploded, sending an array of splintered wood, jagged rocks, and limp bodies through the air. The explosion was set off by the massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas in the air. Of those who were in the mine, none survived.

Just moments after the initial explosion occurred, a secondary aftershock rocked the other mines. Those miners in No. 3 were saved purely by luck, as the old No. 3, now abandoned, absorbed most of the shock and blocked the inferno from entering, but those in No. 4 weren’t as lucky. Fire and rock set off by the aftershock engulfed the miners, instantly killing everyone inside.

Every one of the six slopes in operation suffered damage. Rescuing the surviving miners was not an easy task, nor could it be completed quickly. Before rescuers could begin the task of searching for the living and retrieving the dead, massive air pumps had to be installed in order to clear the air inside the mines. Once it was safe to enter, they had to remove fallen rock, dirt, and heavy timbers from the bodies of the dead. Many of the workers were crushed by the explosion, and their twisted and distorted bodies had to be removed for rescuers to continue.

Outside the mines, anxious wives and mothers waited for news of their loved ones. Hundreds of residents rushed to the mines after hearing the explosion, eager to help or simply staring in stunned silence.

The bodies of the dead were conveyed the next day in put cars to the surface, where they were carried to the powerhouse by tram. The bitter cold that infiltrated the long night and morning did nothing to help ease the process.

During the next few days, some families identified the deceased workers while others were joyfully reunited with the living.

Because of the extensive damage, the number that died from mine No. 6 is unknown. Fourteen miners from mine No. 4 lost their lives in this tragic accident. Among those that died are John and William Alexander, Peter Dunsetto, Angelo Reek, J. H. Harp, James Duffey, Thomas Reek, Joseph Battley, F. Frankman, James Thomas, Angelo Spariat, Frank Reek, Joseph Turk, and A. H. Dunlap.

Today, nothing remains of the old Witteville mines besides a small but steady stream of sulfur water.

The Witteville Coal Mines
The Witteville Coal Mines
Cavanal Hill in Winter
Cavanal Hill in Winter

To learn more about Poteau's history, visit the Passport to the Mountain Gateway.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Eric Standridge

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      • profile image

        Don Manlove 

        8 months ago

        Robert Eugene (Gene) Manlove moved us to Poteau in November, 1942. He came there to find work in the Witteville coal mines. Jim Caldwell hired him and later said he never met a harder worker than Gene Manlove.

        I think he worked in the mines for about 10.years. There were two cave-ins and he suffered a broken leg each time. The same leg. After the last one Momma talked him in to going to work for H.E. Frank as a painter and decorator.

        There was another near fatal accident involving Daddy. I learned about it from Jack or Daddy Jack Davidson after Daddy passed away.

        Jack and Daddy were cutting coal and accidentally cut into the abandoned Magnolia slope that was flooded. They both almost drowned.

        Daddy never told us that story or anything about the cave-ins.

        I remember standing out in the yard of our little rent house on a cold night listening to the steam whistle on the mountain and my Momma and other women crying, not knowing if they'd see their husbands alive again. When there was a cave-in that whistle blew all night and into the day.

        However, the morning my Dad came home driving our 1935 Ford with a full cast on his leg. My Dad and Mom were the finest two people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They loved each other and their children with all their hearts.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        4 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        During the late 1800's and early 1900's, this area was teeming with coal mines! There's still a few around, one of the largest being down towards Heavener. They've been working on putting in a new one as well.

        With the explosion at the Witteville Coal Mines, from what I understand of the mine reports, it was a combination of methane and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide isn't flammable, but may explode when it comes in contact with an electrostatic discharge. This becomes entirely possible when exposed with metal powder or dust. My guess is that they were using heavy machinery that day and there was an excess of carbon dioxide in the air. That machinery must have set off a spark that caused the carbon dioxide to explode.

        With the explosion, it ignited the methane in the air. They used safety lamps that helped detect methane gas, so I would assume that the levels that were there were pretty safe under normal conditions. But, with the explosion, it set off a chain reaction that caused such a violent effect.

      • profile image

        caddymech 

        4 years ago

        Methane I can see causing an explosion...but carbon dioxide? Don't they make Co2 fire extinguishers? Just curious. I worked with coal very near to Cavanal mountain and Poteau, Ok....Ironically they ship massive amounts of coal INTO the area these days...to run the coal fired power plant at Shady Point....where I worked as a painter on the high steel frame of the power plant when it was under construction. The coal comes in on rail cars and there is a huge machine that grips and flips each rail car over to dump it's payload of coal through the tracks and grating below into the storage area..then the coal gets lifted into the power plant on a very large conveyor. I never knew that there used to be coal mines anywhere near Poteau....But I sure know there are some excellent BBQ joints in the area.

      • CharlieClaywell profile image

        Charlie Claywell 

        4 years ago

        Excellent article -- I find the history of American workers interesting, and I am always amazed by the hardship and disaster so many of them endured -- especially the coal miners. Besides the extremely hard and dangerous work they did, like you point out, they did it for low wages.

      • Adriennemarie profile image

        Adrienne Lawton 

        4 years ago from Deptford, NJ

        I found this topic and the way you wrote the story to be very interesting. I am fascinated with the history of the hard working coal miners throughout our country who put up with so much just to feed their families. I live in New Jersey and find that Pennsylvania coal country is a fascinating place with a rich history. It was nice reading about Witteville as I never heard of it.

      • Colleen Swan profile image

        Colleen Swan 

        4 years ago from County Durham

        Interesting historical perspective. Myself from County Durham in the UK, I am surrounded by memorabilia of the those times. Thank you for some intriguing insights.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        6 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        Dani, I've searched for photographs of the town, but unfortunately I haven't came up with anything yet. I have been able to get a lot of information on the mines, and we have a pretty good idea of where Witteville was and how it originated.

        If you would like (and you have a Facebook account), send me a message there and I can share some of the other information I have. I go by "Oklahoma Traveler" on Facebook. We also have a page for the book that we're putting together on Poteau, which can be found at www.facebook.com/The.Birth.of.Poteau

        I would like to get some more information from you so that I can do a little more research.

      • profile image

        dani 

        6 years ago

        I now live at the base of Cavanah supposedly where the actual town of witteville was located. Is there a picture of the town anywhere. I own property near a large pond. Any historical facts on it?

      • Dr Rockpile profile image

        Dr Rockpile 

        6 years ago from USA

        Really nice hub! I can't imagine how hard this work must have been.

      • Trish_M profile image

        Tricia Mason 

        7 years ago from The English Midlands

        Hi :)

        Yes, my grandfather was a lovely and talented person ~ but blighted by ill-health, as were his some of his brothers.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        7 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        Trish,

        Thanks for the comment!

        I always knew that mining conditions in the early 1900's were rough, but I never realized how rough until I started doing research for this article. I would assume that it'd be the same way no matter where you are; in South Wales or Oklahoma. ...and working that young, that just baffled me. I guess that's just the way it was back then. And here we complain if we have to work an hour over 40!

        I'm sure your grandfather was a great man. It seems that many, especially those who had people working under them, took their jobs - and their life - very seriously. It was a different age, and work ethics were a lot different than they are now.

      • Trish_M profile image

        Tricia Mason 

        7 years ago from The English Midlands

        Hi :)

        Life for coal miners was very hard ~ here in Britain, as there in the USA.

        This article interested me, particularly, because my grandfather, his brothers, their father, and various other relatives were coal miners in South Wales.

        By the time my grandfather was 14, he was in charge of his own group of boys at his own 'heading'.

        Silicosis, pneumoconiosis and various other mining-related health problems meant short lives and / or poor health for the men of this family.

        Avery interesting piece!

      working

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