Pappap's Pick-Axe

It was snowing again last night as I drove back from the assisted living home to the house my mother was born in, and it was cold - very cold. It was supposed to get down to around 10° F, with windchills as low as -5 to -15. My route took me past the bathhouse (third picture down on that page) my grandfather used to use before and after his shifts in the coal mine. Mom and I had been talking about Pappap and his miner's pick-axe.

I thought about our conversation as I drove by the bathhouse. I tried to imagine what it would have been like, on a winter's night much like this one, to be in that bathhouse preparing to go down in the mine for midnight shift. How would it be, to spend eight hours deep underground on one of the coldest nights of the year? To go from dark cold night to darker cold coal seam? Mom often talked about Pappap and other men in the mine walking home from work after their shift was done. To get a sense of this experience, perhaps you could take a look at the first photo on this page. Now, imagine walking from the mine complex at the bottom of the hill on the far right all the way up to the village on the left. Do this after eight hours of back-breaking labor. In the cold.

I have been told that my grandfather began working in the coal mines around age 12, which would have been sometime around 1915. Mom and I were talking this evening about Pappap sharpening or shaping his pick-axe. According to mom, this would have taken place sometime in the late 1930's to very early 1940's. Mom's family had a coal stove in the kitchen, and there was a small door on the side that her dad, my Pappap, would open to insert his pick-axe into the bed of coals, until it was red hot. Then he would take it down into the basement and, as she recalls, pound it with a hammer, and then also file it. She is not entirely sure what exactly he was doing, but as best we can figure, he was reshaping and sharpening the pick-axe.

Of course, this meant he was using a pick-axe at work to bust up coal, or rock that needed to be gotten out of the way to get at the coal. You'd want a nice sharp well-shaped tool for work like that. You might think that the company that employed you would supply you with such a tool but according to my mom's memory, her dad owned his own tool for this work. No doubt he had to purchase this tool at the company-owned store in town.

It is almost more than I can comprehend, that as late as 1940, my grandfather was carrying his own pick-axe to work at the coal mine. If you go to this page and scroll down to the video and click on the link to watch the sample, you will see a miner using a pick-axe.

I remember Pappap mostly in his retirement years, and I was too young when he died, only seven years old, to even begin to think about asking him about his days as a miner. What I would like to do now is to ask my mother more about her days as a coal miner's daughter and a coal miner's wife, but it isn't easy. She has never been very self-reflective or even very talkative about herself. It is difficult to draw her out. These days the main topic of conversation that gets her animated is Pittsburgh sports teams (you can bet we have been hashing over the Super Bowl!) My sisters and I once took her to the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State's Fayette Campus (do visit if you are ever in the area), and a very nice historian there did an interview with her. Even the trained historian had a difficult time drawing my mother out.

What was more successful was just walking around the museum, looking at the various artifacts, and seeing my mother's response to them. "Oh, we had one of those!" "Oh, my mother had one of those bardo [phonetic spelling of Slovak word, really roll the r] looms, and I used to help her make rugs on it. We would work for a while, then switch sides and keep working, because she could pull harder on her side than I could on mine. We could keep the tension even if we kept switching sides." I have two small kitchen rugs my mother bought for me from an elderly gentleman in a nearby town who made them on one of these devices. This rug is, I think, very close if not the same in style to the rugs I have.

Mom was shy about giving the rugs to me. I think she was afraid that, what with me being a "world traveler" and all, my tastes might have evolved beyond these simple homemade throw rugs, but I treasure them. I know she didn't make them, but when I see them, I think of her telling us that story about making rugs with her mother, and I feel connected to both of them. I never got a chance to know my grandmother; she died of cancer before my parents even married. I know her mostly through knowing how keenly my own mother felt her loss throughout her life. Even now when mom talks about her mother's death, the pain, loss, and sense of betrayal come through strongly - "the doctors said she had only three months to live and I thought, well, we'll have her for Christmas, and then she died in November." All over again she is bitter at God's cheat and the doctor's lie.

It is through my mother's repetitious and keenly specific ways of lifelong grieving for her mother that I have come to realize, there is no real getting over the loss of your mother. At least I suspect this will be so for myself. I treasure these hours I have to spend with her, attending to her needs and worries, hearing stories about Pappap's pick-axe, trying to do what I can to bring some pleasure into her days, even when the time spent with her is physically and emotionally draining. All too soon the days will be gone, and I will have leisure to curse the doctor's lie.

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Zuska: "there is no real getting over the loss of your mother." So true, I lost my mother in 1982 when I was 21 and am now older then she was when she died. While her doctors gave her such and such time to live, I did not believe it. For me death was sometime still very unreal. When she died it hit me like a brick. In my mind, these thoughts are the most vivid, and tears come even having to think about it now, after so many years. My ten year old will never know her. Enjoy the time you have left with your mother.


The need to heat and pound was the reason why Pappap had that old, foot-long hunk of rail in the basement. It was his anvil. (By the way, in the earliest days, they had to pay for all their tools, their clothing including their hard-hats, their cap-lamps and carbide, their powder and caps, their shotfire cable and battery, and their timbers and posts. Everything was bought at the Company store, because that was the only place at which your pay, given to you in Company scrip, was good. Nowadays, the Company pays for all of it except the clothing... But you knew that, Zuska. 8) )

The heating, pounding, and filing had two purposes: One, as you noted, was to shape and sharpen the dulled point of the pick. A sharp pick-point splits the coal, especially if you aim carefully and hit a weak point in the coal. A dull pick-point smashes the coal and does not penetrate very far, and so the energy of the swing is wasted. The duller the pick-point, the greater the waste of energy, and so the more forcefully you must swing the pick. Of course, as the shift goes on, you become tired... just as the pick-point is becoming dull. You must swing hardest when you are tiredest.

The second purpose of the heating, pounding, and filing was to harden and then to temper the steel. You heat and pound, and the slow cooling softens the steel, making it easier to pound into shape, i.e., more malleable. After all of the shaping is done, the steel is heated and quenched (usually in water) to harden it. It is then heated again, to a slightly lower temperature, and allowed to cool slowly. This slow cooling tempers the hardened steel, making it less brittle, so that it will be both hard and strong, so that it will not dull quickly yet will neither chip nor shatter.

Today's picks are much smaller than the picks the old-timers used; in fact, the old-timers at Shannopin Mine (where Pappap worked) called them "toy picks." Today's picks are not only lighter, they have replaceable, pre-tempered, pre-sharpened points. All I ever used them for was digging ditches and cutting manholes.

I always found the points challenging to remove. You had to hold the side of the pick against a rail at just the right angle, with the joint on the edge of the rail, then hit the joint with a sledgehammer. Really hard. With one hand.

Of course, if your aim was not perfect, or if you held the pick-head at (even slightly) the wrong angle, the sledgehammer-blow would have no effect, so you would have to reposition the pick-head, raise the sledgehammer, and swing again. I got so I could do it with one lick, just like the old-timers. (They would laugh and make fun of you if you needed more than one blow.)

The good thing about going into a coal mine on Midnight shift (well, going into Shannopin Mine) was that, once you got well into the mine, it was significantly warmer than it was outside. Usually, it was about 45 to 60 degrees once you got all the way in, even if it was zero outside. Now the bad part was coming out of the mine at the end of Midnight shift in cold weather. After working all night and sweating like a horse, you would ride out on a mantrip moving 15 MPH into the incoming intake air moving at 15 MPH--so you got a 30 MPH wind-chill. The closer you got to the bottom in those sweat-soaked clothes, the colder the air got. If your clotes were wet enough, they would freeze.

Then you would have to stand and wait for the elevator. Of course, the entire shift was there, maybe 150 men, and you would have to wait your turn to get on the elevator.

It took aboout 20-25 minutes for everyone to get out of the mine. If you were the last to arrive, you had to stand there at the bottom of the intake shaft and shiver the whole time. This was great fun if you happened to have a cold or the flu. Then it took a million years...

--- BBQDad

Oh holy jeebs. Thanks for taking time to write that, BBQDad. Can I just say how very, very glad I am that you don't have to go down in the mine anymore?

There needs to be more story-telling like yours, however. Most people have no idea how much knowledge, skill, and craft it took (takes) to be a coal miner.

I'm sitting here at work fighting back the tears that rose up while reading this post and thinking about losing my mom. She's 87 and fully independent, but has outlived her siblings who had all signs of being stronger. I'm fortunate that I live near to her and thank you for reminding me to treasure the time.