True grit and coal dust
Everyone has a story, and, as a rule, every story has a twist.
Such is the case with Claude Sharp, of Marlinton, the sixth child of the late Milburn and Pearl Beverage Sharp.
Sharp has been a farmer on Jerico Road for many, many years – making hay in green pastures - but the story of his mining career goes from black to white.
Sharp was 20-years-old when he first went to work in the mining industry on Sharp’s Knob in Pocahontas County as an employee of Cherry River Coal and Coke. And he well remembers the first time he went underground in January 1952 as an employee of Thermal Fuel.
And like most miners, he questioned his decision that first day.
What would possess a young man to go down into a coal mine?
“Money,” Sharp said. “It was the best money around.”
Things were different back then and that money was hard-earned.
Working the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, miners used cutting machines and hand-loaded all the coal onto pan lines, sending it out of the mine on a belt to be loaded onto trucks and hauled to Richwood.
As for safety training at that time, Sharp said there was none.
“You wanted to go to work,” he said. “You went to work and you worked with someone with a miner’s certificate.”
Sharp knows the dangers of the industry.
“Three people were killed at Sharp’s Knob from rock falls,” he said.
A mine is a bad place to lose friends, and Sharp lost some of his – Tony Sams, Hughie Jackson and Johnny Mace.
Sharp remembers that Jackson and Mace were both just 33-years-old.
He lost another friend – Jim Sharp – when they worked for Donegan Coal and Coke Company.
“I worked on the day shift, and Jim worked ‘hoot-owl,”’ Sharp said.
There is a bond among miners, he said. You are responsible for each other.
Sharp found a way to become more responsible for his fellow miners when he joined Thermal Fuel’s and Maust Coal and Coke Company’s First Aid teams.
The Maust team put an end to Pardee-Curtin’s six year winning streak in 1957, when they took first place at the Annual Safety Day at Camp Caesar.
The team took first place in 1959, as well, at a time when First Aid was all that was available for injured miners.
An article in the August 13, 1959 edition of the Richwood Republican newspaper reported that “The Maust Coal and Coke Company First Aid Team, winners of the 1957 Meet, won the 1959 meet with a score of 1,496 points out of a possible 1,500.”
And the attire of those competing First Aid Teams in no way resembles the picture that comes to mind when you hear the title coal miner.
Dressed in white with black, shiny shoes, with the Pardee-Curtin team even sporting bow ties, it more resembled a Barbershop Quartet competition.
Mine Rescue was in use at the time, as well, Sharp said. And there were a lot of competitions.
There were four national meets – two in Louisville, Kentucky, one in Buffalo, New York, and one in Charleston.
“I don’t remember how many state meets we went to,” Sharp said. “But there were a lot of them.”
It was the First Aid Team that kept Sharp on the dayshift. He worked the same as the other miners, but he was responsible for taking care of the injured, as well.
“It was more or less like an EMT is now,” he said.
Sharp said he trained a month or two in the summer. The State and Federal inspectors taught First Aid and those classes were in the evening when the work shift was over.
Sharp was working at an Allen Creek mine at Worth. He would drive home after his shift, and then back to Craigsville for first aid practice at night.
Sharp put his training to work, but was never working nearby when injuries occurred.
“I brought them out,” he said. “but I was never near them when they got hurt.”
Sharp noted some of the changes that have taken place since his days in the coal mines.
“There is more air,” he said. “And there is water on everything now to keep the dust down. Early on, we didn’t have that, but later on they did put water on the cutting machines and drills.”
As for oxygen tanks, Sharp said, “never heard of them.”
“There were self-rescuers that you carried on your belt. They were good for thirty minutes to an hour.”
Still carrying a concern and remembrance of miners, Sharp added, “At Sago, they did not work.”
One would think that there is no difference between working days and working the “hoot-owl” shift, because the light never changes underground.
But Sharp liked the day shift and when he was laid off from Allen Creek, he went to Sewell #1 where ‘hoot-owl” was the only shift offered to him.
“I didn’t like it, so I quit and went to work with Ray [his brother] cutting timber,” he said.
When asked if he would do it all over again, Sharp responded, “Probably. I liked it pretty good.”
Sharp is rightfully proud of his work with the First Aid teams and the competition wins they put under their belts.
The State and Federal competitions continue today, incorporating EMT contests, as well.
Miners come together from all across the country, not for monetary gain, but to put their skills to the test, ensuring they will be prepared if and when they are needed.
Jaynell Graham may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org