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W. Va. unmarked graves from 1912 mine tragedy influence debate on coal mine safety regulations

Miners Graves West Virginia
Posted at 5:39 PM, Dec 05, 2022

HAVACO, W.Va. (AP) — Mayapple plants sprout in the sunken soil where the bodies lie, their leaves sheltering the unmarked graves like tiny umbrellas. The forgotten burial ground is overrun by four-wheel tire tracks near a path strewn with discarded bottles and other trash.

More than a century of overgrowth on this West Virginia hillside has erased any trace of the graveyard known locally as Little Egypt, the resting place for dozens of coal miners who died in a 1912 mine explosion. Most people living in McDowell County — a dwindling community that once was the world's leading coal producer — don't know this place exists.

"There are 80 people here that nobody has said a prayer over in a long, long time," said Ed Evans, a state lawmaker and retired public school teacher as he side-stepped a patch of sunken earth on a rainy summer day.

For Evans the burial ground is a reminder of the sacrifices by workers who inspired safety regulations when the coal industry was rapidly expanding in the early 20th century, the deadliest era for miners in U.S. history. It's more important than ever now, he said, amid a push to undo regulations as the industry declines.

West Virginia's Republican supermajority has introduced multiple bills over the past year that would eliminate worker protections in an attempt to bolster the shrinking coal industry, including a sweeping overhaul of the state agency that inspects coal mines.

The bill, which would strip the state's power to cite coal companies for unsafe working conditions, failed to advance after union representatives and dozens of miners came to the Capitol to testify against it, as well as Democrats like Evans, who recalled Little Egypt in a Feb. 25 speech on the House floor. That same week, a miner was killed while working in a mine in McDowell County.

Evans said he worries about what will happen now that many advocates of mine safety regulations, himself included, were defeated in the Nov. 8 election.

In a state where the coal industry has been severely diminished by both market economics and a shift toward cleaner energy, coal interests still wield considerable power to push back against regulation. With Republicans gaining an even tighter grip on the Legislature, lawmakers are expected to make another run at further deregulating the agency that monitors mine safety.

The scars left by the mining industry are ubiquitous in West Virginia, nowhere more so than in the southern coalfields where abandoned mine tipples tower beside mountains disfigured by long gone coal companies. Less obvious are sites like Little Egypt, a silent monument to what Evans calls West Virginia's "ugly history," where vulnerable workers were exploited for profit and forgotten.

There's a tendency to glorify the coal boom, he said, while the legacy of brutal exploitation of cheap labor in Appalachia is glossed over — forgotten or literally overgrown.

"And what do they get for their sacrifice? All these people have are the bushes that grow around them and the rattle of the coal trucks that drive by from an industry they passed away from," he said.

Amid hollows crowded with houses darkened by coal dust, the unincorporated community of Havaco is nestled near a bridge on the Tug Fork River, across railroad tracks where trains still move tons of coal.

There are no active mines in Havaco now, but families who lived there for generations have passed down the story of Little Egypt. Their ancestors came to work in the mines, living in "coal camps," rows of modest homes built by mining companies.

Buford Brown, a 73-year-old retired coal miner and Vietnam veteran, remembers seeing the graves as a child. Even then they'd started sinking into the earth.

"They didn't care about them people years ago," he said.

The unkempt dirt path to Little Egypt begins at the end of a dead-end road, hidden by sugar maples.

On March 26, 1912, the site was a chaotic scene of hurriedly dug graves as bodies were recovered from the depths of the Jed Coal and Coke Company mine, placed in wooden coffins and carried down the mountain. The underground explosion was set off when a miner's open-flame lamp ignited methane gas — the cause of many mining disasters at the time.

Members of the community gathered around the mine shaft, desperate to know if their loved ones had survived.

"Many held babies, others cuddled fatherless children," read an account in the Washington Times. "Old women, many of whom had tasted the bitterness of West Virginia mining life before, sought vainly to comfort them."

"With the rising of the sun hope fled, and the faltering women settled down with mute stoicism to await the inevitable — the identification of the mangled bodies of the dead."

Many of the miners killed were European immigrants from countries like Italy and Poland, who came to the U.S. with very little and were employed to work the most dangerous jobs underground. Half of West Virginia coal miners at the time were Black Americans who fled the Jim Crow South or immigrants, many recruited by mining companies as they arrived on Ellis Island. When a miner was killed or disabled, his family was kicked out of company housing and left destitute.

A 1912 report by West Virginia's Department of Mines praised the growth of the state's mining industry, even as it said 409 people were killed in mining operations that year.

The Jed mine employed non-union workers. A push to organize the coal fields in the ensuing years led to the 1912-1921 West Virginia mine wars, the area's first major effort to unionize.

In the decades following, safety regulations gradually increased, often precipitated by disasters. In 1969, the U.S. government passed a law requiring four federal mine safety inspections per year, in addition to four by state inspectors.

The bill proposed by GOP lawmakers this year in the West Virginia Legislature would remove almost all penalties mining companies faced from the state for safety violations. The proposal's sponsors said the existence of federal inspectors made state inspectors redundant, and that companies would feel freer to bring up concerns about safety violations if they weren't at risk of being fined.

Under current law, companies can face thousands of dollars in fines and even prison time for failing to implement safety measures. The state can also close down portions of a mine, or even an entire mine.

The proposed bill eliminated the requirement for a minimum number of annual inspector visits and the mandate that mines not be warned ahead of time. It also cut the requirement that a miner representative attend — something the union adamantly opposed because it would take away a vital avenue for miners to voice concerns.

When he took to the House floor to decry the bill, Evans recalled the miners who lost their lives because of lax safety in West Virginia coal mines — and he spoke of the derelict burial ground called Little Egypt.

"We forgot about them," he said of the men and boys buried in Havaco. "Are we going to forget about today's miners, too?"

Last year, 10 people died while working in coal mines across the U.S., including six in West Virginia. Four West Virginians have died in mines so far this year. The last major mining disaster — at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch, in which 29 people died — was in 2010 and resulted in a coal operator being convicted of a misdemeanor for conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. He was sentenced to one year in prison.

Mike Hairston, 75, lives on Jed Bottom Road between the shaft of the old Jed mine and the graveyard. He is the last of four generations of Hairston men to work the mines.

He's known about Little Egypt since he was a child but has never been there, he said.

He recalled the day 15 years ago when a woman from Florida pulled up. She said she was looking for a place called Little Egypt where she'd been told one of her ancestors was buried. She'd stopped at the county courthouse for information, but couldn't find anyone who knew anything about it.

Hairston drove her to the dead-end road and showed her the path, but he didn't venture down it himself.

When Hairston's generation is gone, he said, this will all be forgotten. "Hardly anyone here knows about it now," he said.

As Evans gazed at the burial plots, rain cascading over the hood of his jacket, he offered a brief prayer: "Lord, I ask that you bless the souls that left us and departed us in that mine."

"They didn't get the recognition they deserved at the time," he said. "What they got were these laws that were put in place to prevent disasters like this from happening again."

"The mine safety laws are written in blood. They're all written in blood."