Date of Graduation
West Virginia's coal mining industry experienced extremely high casualty rates during the first half of the twentieth century. This study examines the cultural, political, and technological factors that contributed to the hazardous nature of mining and prevented significant improvements in mine safety. The period was characterized by rapid advancements in technology which enabled mine operations to expand significantly. However, these technological improvements unleashed dangerous forces underground, such as increased accumulations of coal dust. The adverse impact of technological innovation was incompletely understood by miners and operators alike, especially during the early years of the century. When West Virginia experienced a series of major disasters between 1900 and 1908, the general confusion and lack of certainty regarding the cause of these occurrences contributed to an inability to take the necessary steps to address the situation. Even after professional knowledge of the dangers of expanded mine operations increased, political and cultural realities prevented this new awareness from achieving effective safety reforms. Coal operators and their allies in government and business formed powerful economic and political alliances to combat legislative remedies that would threaten their control over the industry or lead to higher costs. For coal miners, the risks became part of the subculture of laboring in the underground world. Moreover, coal mining had received a reputation for inherent danger and casualties were increasingly perceived by the industry and the public as natural and unavoidable. This acceptance of risk was heightened during World War II, when coal miners were seen as the equivalent of soldiers on the homefront, ready to sacrifice their lives for the war effort. The study focuses attention on the dramatic disasters that caused multiple fatalities and generated sporadic calls for reform. However, it also highlights the day-to-day hazards of coal mining during the era, which actually accounted for many more deaths than major disasters and received very little publicity or acknowledgment. The technology of coal mining receives considerable analysis, along with how technological change interacted with political and cultural developments. By considering the complex forces that led to high casualty rates in West Virginia coal mines from the Progressive Era through World War II, the study attempts to maintain a balanced view of the industry and how it developed, avoiding the polemics that often characterize discussions of coal mining.
Rakes, Paul Hellmut, "Acceptable casualties: Power, culture, and history in the West Virginia coalfields, 1900-1945." (2002). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 9621.