Saturday, April 2, 2016

One Photo, Many Emotions

Consolidated Coal Company Miners of Frostburg, Allegany County, Maryland.
I'm really lucky to belong to a closed Facebook group for Western Maryland History. This group has amazing members who know the goods when it comes to the history of my ancestors' homeland in Western Maryland. Document from the earliest times back in the early 1700s to now, members of the group bring obscure and overlooked oddities, often with links, and a short citation. There have even been some uploaded documents, especially maps. They're crazy about maps! Memories too get posted there. We have one thing so obviously in common: we love the land and history of our ancestors!
The above photo, taken in the early 1900s, got posted recently and there was a large and strong reaction. It's a group photo of a shift of coal miners all working in the very hazardous conditions that was the very nature of coal mining on what was called The Big Vein along George's Creek in Western Maryland. Men came, often with their families, from Wales, Ireland, and Germany, as well as north from the coal fields in Pennsylvania to the area for the work. It was hard and dirty work but it was a sure way to earn a decent living for your family, if you weren't killed in the process. Strikes were common as the mine owners tried once again to wring extra profits out of the operation by cutting the miner's salaries. But all-in-all, if a man was going to earn a living by coal mining, this was one of the best places to do it.

It's the faces of the miners that hooks everyone who sees the photo. The faces and expressions are clear. Young men, older men but no very old men. By the time a man reached middle age here he was too worn out and his body too damaged to work very hard. Young boys worked with their fathers and brothers for half-pay. They worked side-by-side, and lost limbs or lives in the same way as the men but earned half.

On the Facebook page, posts appeared under this photo. The comments were heartfelt, even emotional, rather than the cool factual comments that typically get posted. This photo was different. You see, many of us have strong men of the coal mines as our ancestors. Bit by bit, the lives of these miner came together as posts popped up.
I looked at it for the first time searching for my grandfather and great grandfather but I didn't see them there. My great grandfather Daniel Williams, who came from Wales to the area to work the mines, was a supervisor at one of the Ocean Mines, so he wasn't in this picture which appears to have been taken elsewhere. My grandfather Lee Kelly worked in the Borden Mines but he did so at a time later than this picture. But just from the looks of the picture, they could easily have been here because they would have fit right in.

There's my great grandfather Daniel Williams, second from the left, with a mining crew.

That's my grandfather, John Lee Kelly, about 1930 when he was working in the mines. That's Dad second from the right. No one knows who the kid on the left is.
Back to the photo up top. Do you see their lunch buckets? There in the front. Everyone had one. These men worked hard doing manual labor that burned a lot of calories, so they had big appetites. My Grandpop Kelly called it a dinner pail because that's what he called the mid-day meal. You can see the size of the bucket and imaging what all went in there. Lots and lots of food. No salads. No kale. No quinoa.
Look how clean their faces and garments are. Obviously this photo was taken at the start of the day when the men were on the way to the mines. By the end of the day they were covered in coal dust. Some homes had a "wash house" out back, for laundry but also as a place where the miners of the family could wash up and change clothes before entering the house. Grandma Kelly's house had a big back porch were Grandpop washed up.

But the killer detail in this big group photo is the lamps on the hats. And I don't use the word "killer" lightly. Those were carbide lamps and if the coal dust got bad or there was gas leaking from the mine, the carbide lamp would cause an explosion.

One of the members of the Facebook group posted that his ancestor raised canaries to be sold to the mining companies. If the canary died, well....

The mine caused all sorts of other businesses to prosper in the area. My great grandfather Gustav Zeller owned a "tonsorial emporium" or barber shop that had big bathtubs where the miners could have a bath on Saturday. He was a prosperous man!

Great grandfather Gus Zeller's barber shop on Main Street, Frostburg, Allegany Co., MD. Notice the oversized barber pole!

That's him. Can you tell he was a barber? Look at that mustache.

The 100 year anniversary of Frostburg happened in 1912. It might be said that the area reached it's prosperous zenith then. The population of the area was around 15,000 and they all came to town on Saturday, market day. Frostburg hummed on a Saturday afternoon as miners and their families came to Main Street. Those miners in the photo? Wonder how many had a Saturday bath at great grandfather Zeller's barber shop?



  1. What a great post, Diane. I love all the detail. It's really too bad you couldn't find one of your ancestors in the group photo at the top. That would have been so amazing.

    I have coal mining ancestors, too, and have written several posts about them. They were in Western Pennsylvania and I haven't heard that any migrated to Maryland. I also have a coal mining resources page on my blog with general resources and a few location-specific resources, too.

    Thanks for sharing the great photos and all the details and observations about the photo.

    --Nancy. (

  2. This is a great post with so many wonderful photos. I don't think I could ever go inside a mine much less work for hours there. But I guess they did what they had to do.