Little Miners U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) http://www.msha.gov/CENTURY/LITTLE/PAGE1.asp Little Miners
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U.S. Department of Labor
Mine Safety &
View of the Ewen Breaker of the
Pennsylvania Coal Company, January 10, 1911
The dust was so dense at times that the view was obscured. This dust penetrated the utmost recesses of the boys lungs. A kind of slave driver sometimes stood over the boys, prodding or kicking them into obedience.
Hughestown Borough Coal Co., Pittston, PA, January 16, 1911.
Boys worked underground as nippers and spraggers. The boys holding the pieces of wood were spraggers. Only the fastest boys could be spraggers because they controlled the speed of the mine cars as they rolled down the slope. They worked in pairs. Each boy had about twenty or thirty sprags.
As the mine cars rolled downhill the spraggers ran alongside the cars and jabbed the sprags into the wheels. The sprags worked as brakes, slowing the cars down. The job was very dangerous. The car could fly out of control and jump the track and crash into the mine wall if the wheels were not spragged properly.
The nipper was the door keeper. He was the youngest of the boys working underground, usually eleven to thirteen years old. His job was to open the heavy door when he heard a coal car approaching, then quickly close the door after the load passed through.
The nipper sat long hours by himself in the dark with only his carbide cap lamp for light. He was often bored and sometimes whittled long pieces of wood into sprags or trapped the rats to pass the time.
When the nipper heard an approaching car, he opened the door to let the mule and the driver pass through with their load of coal.
It was very important that the nipper did not fall asleep and allow the coal car to crash through the door. The door was vital to the mine's ventilation system.
The most exciting job for the boys was mule driver. The job was usually held by an older boy in his early teens. The mule driver traveled all through the mine coupling full cars together and leaving an empty car behind in the work chamber. The boy started out with one mule and then worked up to a six-mule team. When he was able to drive a six-mule team, he was given a man's wages.
The mule driver sat on the front bumper of the coal car and used his voice to direct the mules. If the mule was stubborn, he used a black snake whip. A good mule driver was respected by both the miners and bosses. He had no problem obtaining a job as a miner when he was older.
Boy running "trip rope" at a tipple. The tripper is a device that discharges material from a belt conveyor. It has a double pulley that turns a short section of a conveyor belt upside down in order to dump its load into a side chute.
The boy looked to be about 13 years old. He worked 10 hours a day at a Welch, WV, coal mine.
He never got used to the noise, the dust, or the threat of danger. He was proud to earn money to help his family. That was the life of a miner's son. Fathers and sons knew no other work.