Blue Heron, or Mine 18, came late to the Stearns mines and was electrified from the beginning, but was not mechanized in 1937. Gone were the small mules hauling coal cars out of the mine shafts, but men still used pick and shovel and carbide lights on their hats before the days of battery pack lights.
During the hand loading days, men were paid by the number, putting a tag of each coal car they loaded. At the end of the shift, a man’s tonnage would be tallied. Some men remember loading as much as twelve or fifteen tons of coal a day. In the early days they got less than sixty cents a ton for loading coal.
National Park Service
The most often mentioned change for mining at Blue Heron, was the addition of the "Joy" loader which changed the way of processing coal from the mine, assigning work and paying the men.
The "Joy", so named for the company that produced it looked something like a scorpion, and scooped the coal that had been cut or shot down from the coal wall onto a conveyor to be loaded into shuttle cars which took it out of the mine to mine cars.
With the passing of hand loading, miners were no longer paid by the ton but by the shift, and where a man was assigned the mines no longer dictated how much money he could make. It was the age of the hourly or daily wage.
At the beginning of mining at 18, great quantities of #1 coal were expected. Stearns Company, however, did no core drilling to test the height or extent of the coal seam. Mine 18 played out early with even #2 coal, much higher in sulfur, in short supply with seams only around 32 inches in height on average.
Some say that Justus mine was the mine that Blue Heron should have been. Others say that the Company kept the Blue Heron mines going to keep people employed, but kept losing money on the operation.
Listen to the men who worked deep in the mines.
It was all together a different world in there I'll tell you.
In the mines there, the way the coal runs, you be going just level as this house floor. Then all at once that coal would go over a big mountain and then go into a valley like. Then it would turn in another hill.
One day we were just working there and mind you knowing something like thunder. I asked them tellers what is that? They said, "That the top is a breaking way up in the mountain."
When I started in the mines it was very frightful. It was scary when I got in there. And then it wasn't long before I really liked the mines. I enjoyed it.
What there was then was the coal gathered by mules. The air was controlled by doors. They had to have somebody open them doors and shut them for the mules. Well they could not afford to pay a man. They paid a boy fifty-four cents a day.
They would mine out a considerable area and have that as a mule barn inside the mine. And I'm told there were mules that were born in there, were hauled back and forth, and never saw day light. When they stopped mule haulage I don't know. But it was long before 1937.
Mine 18 looked like it was going to be a big operation. It had five openings when we went there.
It could bring coal from Worley or anywhere and dump it in there, run it over that tipple and grade it you see. We could load nine different kind of coal there.
Every man had their own room. If they hit good coal they couldn't go if they had more seniority and run the other feller out. They took it as they went. What they were given, that was theirs.
To be a good superintendent of a hand loading operation you had to be known as a very fair man. So if you had Joe here where there was only forty inches of coal and he had worked there for three months and we move him to another place, you were supposed to see he got forty eight inch coal the next time.
Sixty-two cents a ton is what I got for loading it and I had to handle it twice. I was wet because the coal was real low. I don't remember how high the coal was. But the coal was so low and was so small that I had to throw it out from the face then come on over and throw it in the car. And doing this was in the water. I thought it was cruel for a man to have to handle a coal twice. And I was only getting thirty-one cents a ton for loading it. I was wet to my waist and had to keep working or freeze.
Right there at the mouth of the mines they had a big board. Up there you had a check number. You hung it every time you loaded a car of coal with your number on it. That's what you checked in and out by. In the morning you hung that up. Then by the evening you got out and took it down. If you didn't, they know you are still in there and something was the matter with you.
We could tell if they had gas in there by taking our light and sticking it up that auger hole that they had bored. If the gas is in there? Stick your light and, poof.
That's a good thing about that old carbide light. It warned you that you were getting into bad air. That old battery light, he burned right on.
It made a better light but that battery got awful heavy. Seemed like it weighed four or five pounds hanging on your belt back there.
I think we had so many tragedies in the coal mine. People got too use to it. There's no way anybody should ever get too good in coal mining.
We had one or two fatal accidents there in the mines when I was there.
I found two men who had passed out in there. Both of them was smoke. One of them was powder smoke, the other was cable smoke.
The car ran over my heel and cut my heel off.
During the war they began mechanizing and putting their first mechanical mines in. They first bought joy loaders and at the same time they bought shuttle cars. Joy loaders removed the coal. They removed the coal mechanically with arms. The coal goes on sprocket chains. They take it back to what they call shuttle car which is a rubber-tired vehicle. They carried it to what is called a loading point and put into a pit. It is loaded from there into mine cars. That was the extent of their mechanization. That is what they called mechanical mining.
If you ever seen these old scorpion lizards? Now that's more what a Joy looks like. You can bend that tail around any way which you wanted to handle it, up or down or swing it, either way to get it in the shuttle car the best way. Them arms on the front of it, they just break that coal up on a conveyor. It runs out into the shuttle car.
They had what they called Sullivan cutting machines. In order to get them to the face they had a series of ropes and pulleys. The men were very adept at getting those up there running off a motor and taking up them to the face. It was really an art.
They had about ten motor crews down there. The day just start was the crossbars put over top to hold the rock up what they called timbers. You know the top. You just had enough room for your motor to miss that timbers to get in there.
You could do as much work with a Joy I say with hand-loading as fifty men. The Joy was so much better it was easy. It was easy mining and it was more safety. It was more safer than the hand loading. Sometimes it could be so dusty you see. Sometimes they would be shooting, drilling, cutting, and loading all the same time.
If you wanted to do a good job robbing, you had to get everything in line. Just plumb. Just like this right about here. This would be your breaking point right across this whole mountain.
It sounds just kind of like thunder, low thunder going on.
We had a series of things happen. There was fire in the seam underneath there the Worley seam which we were fearful would drift up and get into we called the Camargo section. We just pulled out of there almost overnight. We had been doing some robbing on the Barthel side and it was getting pretty puny. We made two attempts to make new entries into coal on the west side of the river and neither one of them were successful. Sixty-two, it was just obvious we'd run the stream out.
It was heart breaking.
Ain't no house over there now. Not at 18. I mean Barthel either. Ghost towns.
I guess I would of made a life time job out of it if had a held up you know.
I would not go back in the mines no matter what about of money they gave me. I would not go back in the mines to work now.
It's all I knowed, you know.
It was something. A job that I liked. I enjoyed seeing the coal, the process of coal, and the use of this coal for the nation that needed it.
In the mean time we had got into mine sixteen. We went to a new phase in the company. We began a different type of mechanization. Justus was going to be our great performance it was going to be the Mine Eighteen that worked.
To continue your visit through the Blue Heron Mining Community, choose the next "ghost structure" you wish to visit.