The Valley Where Coal was King

From The Sun Magazine, Sunday, January 7, 1968


By F. De Sales Meyers

Mr. Meyers, the son of a coal miner, grew up in George’s Creek Valley, in Lonaconing, where his mother still resides.  “I have many friends and close ties in the valley, ” he says, “and visit there several time a year.”
Mr. Meyers lives in Reisterstown.

Photos by William L. Klender

You could go back there now and even if you had been gone for years you would sense almost at once the deep change. If you looked carefully and knowingly you could see the changes in the colors you remembered. the rocks of George’s Creek are not stained an orange yellow anymore. You know then that the coal mines have all been closed or caved in and the streams rushing down the mountainside no longer are yellow from the sulphur released by the mines.

The hills seem greener. You wonder why, and then you see that the forest has come father down the mountain toward the little towns in the narrowing valley. Even the ugly gray slashes of the slate dumps have become obscure. The old people there are more aware of this than the visitor and they will tell you that it looks as though one day the forest will again cover this Western Maryland valley, towns and all, and it will be just as it was 200 years ago. There are no cows to cut back the underbrush, the old people say, and offer this as explanation enough for what has happened.

The essence of the change is not simply in the absence of cows or hidden somewhere along the steep paths grown over with tall weeds and wild berry bushes. It is not just that you can’t go up to Casey’s Mine anymore and not just that the railroad tracks, high on the mountainside, have become as barren as summer dry river beds, going nowhere and carrying nothing. The change is in oneself too.

Nature seals off Ocean Mine near Midland. It once yielded 7,000 tons of coal a day.

The change is in the people and not in the land, despite all the digging and gouging.

This place, this valley in Allegany county, begins just below Frostburg and follows the wandering descent of George’s Creek to where it empties into the Potomac at Westernport. the valley is only a little more than 16 miles long, yet not so very long ago its fields of coal made the region one of the more important ones in an international industrial revolution. Coal mad production spin then, and in the 12-foot seam, “Big Vein,” under Big Savage and Dan’s Mountain were large deposits of bituminous coal. The coal was known to be there as far back as 1810, but there was no market for it then and little mining was done except for what individuals dug to heat their homes. Industrial production increased, however, and the need for coal grew. In 1827 English capitalists formed the George’s Creek Coal and Iron Company. Throughout the following century, coal was King and the valley a jewel of the realm.

Vacant buildings and the absence of people give a mood of abandonment to the main street in the once bustling town of Midland in George’s Creek Valley. Right, the little town’s old Opera House.

They were great days, old people tell you. Deep mine workers from Scotland and Wales and Ireland and England descended from ships in New York and asked the way to the George’s Creek mines. They came to places like Midland and Lonaconing and Barton and Klondike and gave their names and cultures to the region. Some gave their lives to the huge rocks and suffocating dirt beneath ground. Towns grew and the forest was pushed back, and it was mark of the place that you went to the “Creek” for the best in joy and spirits.

Now you can ride slowly down the length of that valley and not see one dust blackened deep miner where once there were thousands. At Lonaconing, where the George’s Creek Coal and Iron Company had its largest mine operations, today there are no more than twelve men who go into the mountain, and they mine coal the way it was done 50 years ago, on their knees with pick ax, shovel, pony and wagon. The little tram roads all have been torn out and the miners’ paths up the mountain are gone.
In a little more than the lifetime of a man the change came. Now there are old miners who want desperately to tell you the names of the mules they had to haul out the coal, and how much they were paid for a ton and how many tons a day they dug.

Massive earth movers chop off the tops of mountains today to get at coal. In places where they have been you can see the tracks and scabrous wounds in the hills. Yet even this “stripping” is ending. The best coal is deep, and sometimes the old miners get excited when they talk of how much coal remains far beneath the mountains. Nevertheless, the coal will stay there, and that’s why the changes have come. Suddenly, in a day it seemed, there was no longer a need for coal. Changes half a continent or an ocean away made the labor of thousands of men obsolete, and it was difficult for them to understand that another fuel, another force drove the engines and powered the ships.

Outside Frostburg, an abandoned railroad that leads nowhere and carries nothing characterizes the change in the valley.

Here, then, was an area, and a people, caught between cultures, the old having vanished before the new found its place. A sense of unevenness came, and where, before, life had been attractively simple, now it was dismally complex. With the failure of the coal  economy disasters followed each other: a glass factory burned down, a silk mill closed, a bakery moved. The work force at the Celanese plant near Cumberland dropped from a pre-World War II figure of some 13,000 to less than 2,000 who maintained the same production and eventually, with automation, more.

At Lonaconing, the forest has moved farther down the mountain, as though to reclaim the town. The ugly slate banks gradually are becoming more obscure.


The dust blackened miner now is a rare sight. James Alexander, top left, was boss at Ocean Mine, now works a hole nearby.
Felix Foote mined for 46 years.
The old Hotel Brady, above, to Lonaconing, where a few rooms are rented, dates from the boom days of coal mining.
The stores at the left have been closed.

Mike’s Place, a saloon in Midland, has few customers, and the men drink quietly. Yet if you ask, they will tell you about Ocean Mine and what a good one it was.

Men with 20 and 30 years of work experience were shocked to learn they could no longer live there and support their families. After 1946 you could go down the main streets of the towns on Saturday night and see the automobiles license plates from Pennsylvania and Ohio and Washington, D.C. and Michigan. Soon they were seen only on national holidays. Now you see them hardly at all. Men who as children had awakened to the sight of coal miners going up the mountains by light from the carbide lamps on their caps, men who had known every household in sight now slept and awoke in strange cities. They had come from a place and couldn’t go back.

“Somewhere a Voice Is Calling” rolls out each evening, as it has for more than 20 years, from the loudspeaker in the Methodist Church, left center, in Lonaconing.

Still through all the years of upheaval and uprooting, something stayed in the George’s Creek Valley, something held, something endured. Now you can wait silently in Lonaconing about dusk and hear the loudspeaker in the tower of the Methodist church begin to roll out the old song, “Somewhere a Voice Is Calling,” and remember that for more than twenty years every evening has begun this way, always with the same song in the beginning.

Where the road crosses the crest of the hill above Pompey you can still see the hawks soaring overhead and believe daringly for an instant that the valley you approach does not exist. And walking down the main streets of the towns, past the empty store windows and the empty saloons, you can hear the way it was when parades were behind you, drums coming up like thunder, and the sidewalks crowded with laughing people. An age is behind you.

This spirit, this something that remains, was born and nourished in those old years. It hasn’t been given a name up there, but it isn’t called despair. There is a kind of feeling of having belonged to something that was not only important buy joyous, and perhaps the golden age will return. In geography this place is called Appalachia, a word of emotional meaning, but the people there laugh when you say Appalachia because they too know the meaning. It stands for hillside shacks and broken down and abandoned mine tipples ande hungry scared children – Government statisticians. Yes, we have Operation Headstart for children whose parents earn less than $3,000 a year, but we live in clean little towns for the most part and sing a lot. Since there is not a single noteworthy source of employment between Frostburg and the pulp mill at the far end of the valley, we are now a residential area. But sociologists from the urban universities should not refer to this as a “cultural island” and compare the benefits of our closeness to the land and each other to the horrors of the solitude and detachment of the city. The road to Baltimore is short, Pittsburgh is only across the mountain, and the television set is in the next room.

The cry for progress now and want to move forward, and beneath the pleas for a new road through the valley, a new vocational high school, new industry to bring the people back, you begin to grasp the feeling of frustration bewilderment that creeps in and you see the significance of the loss of what was old and firm. You understand the anxiety caused by what is recent and uncertain. You hear it in the voice of the high school guidance counselor who says that this spirit, this belonging to a a place, sometimes does not allow the young to escape from what m ay be a non-productive environment. If you can see three generations walking down the street in front of your home, you are witnessing a satisfying vision of permanence. Thirty-four per cent of high school graduates, a little below the State average, go on to college, but too often college is no farther away than Frostburg State or Allegany Community College. Strangely, there is no great rush to get away, and yet there is very little for the young , if they stay. The choice years back, they have heard from the old people, were[sic] so simple: you left school and went into the mines or the factories. And now the mines have gone and the mills are silent of half-empty.

Weeds grow over abandoned tram track which used to carry two-ton coal cars from the Ocean Mine near Midland.

A warning of dips in the road caused by mine cave-ins.

Hope is fragmented into a thousand expressions of concern for the state of employment at the Kelly Springfield Tire Company and how many men were hired last week at Pittsburgh Plate Glass and how many of those returning to Allegany Ballistics Laboratory were men who a few months before had been “furloughed” from their jobs there.

Coal cars, awry and decaying, choke off this entrance to the Ocean Mine, off Route 36 in Allegany county, where 1,000 men once were employed.

The young here, despite their urgent demand to move on, yearn for placidity and serenity. Sometimes they look with secret wistfulness at an old miner who almost with one turn of his head can see the place of his youth, manhood and age.

Felix Foote is a man like that. He is 81 years old and when he was 14 he went into old Shamrock Mine. Up and down the valley for the following 46 years he dug coal until he cold dig no longer. Listening to him tell who his mine buddy was in 1902 or how many sons of one family worked the mines and how they were paid 39 cents for a ton of coal, you can hear the great age of coal pass by.

He sits on the porch of his house high above the town and looks at his bare feet and remarks proudly that they are still in good condition. He laughs at the expression of his wife as she throws him his socks. Now and then he looks below to the row of houses that mark Main street and he ticks off the names of old families. He notes the absence of the young in nearly every one of them and, yes, he says the trees are coming down.

At Ocean Mine, near Midland, which once had a daily capacity of 7,000 tons, and where 1,000 men worked night and day, there are two full ton cars standing. The coal from Ocean Mine once served as the standard for purchase for the United States Navy. Ocean Mine is closed though, and the coal in the two ton cars came not from the earth below, but from trucks that brought it down from a strip operation on the mountain. A man who once worked in Ocean has piled it there in the two cars, arranging the lumps and the slack attractively, and when the coal begins to lose its shine he removes it and replaces it with the best looking load they bring down. The main road through the valley passes by Ocean, just above the old mine, and often strangers driving through see the coal cars and the tracks leading downward and they stop and take pictures and move on. They have seen and recorded a genuine coal mine. The men in the saloons in Midland drink quietly in the early evening and talk baseball as they have done for years and if you ask they will tell you that Ocean Mine was a good one, and, if you know, they laugh about this trick of the two ton cars, and now, really, that’s about the way it is up there.

Authored By: F. De Sales Meyers

How can you help?

The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of the state Route 36 and the national Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor our Georges Creek Valley miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donantions can be mailed to the Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF, P.O. Box 765, Frostburg, MD 21532.

Please email: Polla Horn or Bucky Schriver to share your thoughts and stories.

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