Monday, July 2, 2012

Let's Explore Some Local History!

Am reading "Best Dressed Miners" by Katherine A. Harvey. It's a real treasure for me because, as I've said before, there's a lot of coal dust on my ancestors. It paints a detailed picture of the life and times of those mining coal in the Georges Creek area of Western Maryland, one of the richest mining fields anywhere, simply called The Big Vein. In 1892 it secured over 3 million long tons from the area mines, all mined by hand. Down from the previous year! I don't know much about coal mining but that sounds like a lot to me.

Before the Harvey book I read, "Allegany County - A History", by Stegmaier, Dean, Kershaw, and Wiseman, 1976. It's a wonder and treasure chest of information about the area compiled on the occasion of the county's Bicentennial. It traces the long history of the county and eventually gets around to mines, miners, and the economy of the area. AC - A History also underlines the importance of mining to the area and how the entire economy changed as the mines got mined out in the early decades of the 1900s.

Harvey gives an interesting picture of the miners and their work in her book, which is increasingly scarce as it was published in 1969. She contrasts the miners and their families of the George's Creek area with miners elsewhere. In reading it I've come to a better understanding of the area, the work, and my ancestor's relationship to it. And I've come to see yet again how important history is to a deeper understanding of genealogy!

One of the things I've often wondered about is why my ancestors all stayed so long - for generations - in this one small geographical area contained within about 15 square miles. Now I know: good work at a fair wage.

The earliest of ancestors arriving in the late 1780s were in search of farmable land and they found it in abundance. Then in the early to mid-1800s the ancestors came in dribs and drabs, often making their way from eastern parts of Maryland or Pennsylvania. The final wave came in the mid-1800s. They all stayed until work in Western Maryland became scarce after WWII. Then family members increasingly moved away. Today the cousins reside from coast to coast.

So here's a recap of salient points that shed light on my own ancestors. And I have both of those books, as well as Mom and Aunt Betty, to thank for it!

The miners of the 1800s were Welsh, German, and Irish. Some had their passage paid for by the mining companies who recruited them from mines fields in their native lands. While the various nationalities tended to live and worship with their former countrymen, they shopped and entertained together, thereby smoothing the assimilation process.

My Welsh miner ancestors lived near Welsh Hill in Frostburg and worshiped at the Congregational Church that was known early on as the Welsh Congregational Church.

Ladie's Aide Society of the
Welsh Congregational Church
Of Frostburg, Maryland
Their Picnic, about 1932.

My Irish ancestors were mostly railroad men. Interestingly, the RRs ran on Georges Creek coal. And of course they all worshiped at St. Michaels Catholic Church.

My grandfather wasn't lucky enough to be higher in the birth order so while his older brothers worked for the railroad, he had to go work in the mines. He eventually suffered from "black lung disease". Uncle Delbert remembers him coming home with 25 cents for  a day's work during the Great Depression. Good thing his father in law was the town's prosperous barber and had trained him how to cut hair in the little shop in back of the house. The income from haircuts given to miners on Saturday night carried them through the Depression.

My Grandfather,
John Lee Kelly, right,
and his brothers,
With their father the railroad man,
about 1912.

Employment in the mines was steady so miners often bought their own homes and put down roots, married and had large families. My GGF Daniel Williams was a mine supervisor and owned his own home... as well as two mines, which is another story I'll save for another day:)

This was not the case for the vast majority of mine fields. Workers tended to roam from mine to mine and sometimes state to state. They had no vested interest in the community and tended to be single and drinking men.

I keep reading and learning, soaking up as much as I can. It gives me a fuller picture of my ancestors.

If you'd like to peek into the daily lives of those living in the Georges Creek mine field in the late 1800s visit the Frostburg Mining Journal, some of which is now online through the gracious and wise auspices of the Maryland State Archive's state newspapers project. Find it at:
Click here to find the microfilm now online:

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