This year, with Labor Day next week, I decided to write about her husband, Linsey Frank Nelson.
Great grandpa Frank died mining bituminous coal in southeastern West Virginia. My mother remembered, “Maw Rosie said he talked about how loose it was and how he didn’t know how long it would hold for days before it happened.
“crushing injury, slate fall in coal mine instantly fatal.”
was the cause of death listed by the attending physician.
Why did Frank continue to go back into that mine day after day when he had such a great sense of foreboding?
Why didn’t Frank go to the fire boss, who was responsible for safety in the mine and tell him of his concerns? Perhaps he did. If the fire boss didn’t or wouldn’t red light the shaft it is possible Frank second-guessed himself and thought he had been mistaken about how sound the roof was.
Why didn’t Frank just quit and go get another job? Jobs were probably pretty hard to find during that time—the Great Depression.
From U.S. census and vital records, I have been able to gather quite a bit of information about Frank. He was born in 1891 to Coleman and Lucy Nelson and in 1910, at the age of 18, was working on his father’s farm. On 18 February 1914 he married Rosa Mary Swope of Monroe County, West Virginia. By 1920, Frank and his family were living in Avis in Summers County, West Virginia. They shared a house with the Crawford family; both of the husbands worked for the C & O Railroad. According to the census code, Frank was an engine coiler—a person who was a boiler washer or an engine hostler. Ten years later, in 1930, he was still working for the C & O—now as an unspecified laborer.
Fast-forward to 1932. The country was picking its way through the Great Depression. As the unemployment rate soared well over 20%, jobs that paid well were extremely hard to find, especially for blacks living in rural areas.
Frank was trying to provide for a wife and 15 year old daughter.
I believe he went into the mines and stayed there in an effort to provide a better life for his family.
He had worked for the railroad for at least 10 years. In 1920, according to a 1933 National Bureau of Economic Research Bulletin, the average railroad worker earned 66¢ per hour. Using an 8 hour work day, five days a week for 52 weeks we see that the average railroad worker brought home about $1,370 per year in 1920.
The coal industry in 1920 was paying bituminous pick miners up to 70¢ per ton. A good pick miner could load eight to nine ton per day. Working 219 available days a year (312 minus an average of 93 lost days per year), a pick coal loader could earn up to $1,226 in the mines in 1920.
By 1929, the average yearly wage for a railroad laborer was $888. A 35% drop in wages from the early 1920s. In contrast, bituminous coal miners were making $5.35 per day for the 219 available days and bringing home $1,170 per year.
I think about how physically hard I have to work each day (not very) and I think about how blessed we are—roof over our heads, food in the pantry and no debt. I can’t wrap my mind around loading one ton of coal—let alone EIGHT in one day.
Great grandpa Frank did it every day.
To bring home $5.35 for the day’s work.
Happy Labor Yesteryear Day.
 West Virginia State Department of Health, death certificate no. 10327, Frank Nelson (1932); digital images, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, West Virginia Vital Records Research Project (http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_view.aspx?Id=1946783& : accessed 5 June 2012.
 Winona Phillips Donnally, ‘Dirk’ Deep Within the Mountains, (www.trafford.com: Trafford Publishing), 61; download from Google Books.
 1910 U.S. census, Greenbrier County West Virginia, population schedule, Blue Sulphur District, sheet 8-B, dwelling 169, Frank Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 24 August 2015); citing FHL microfilm 1375694.
 Monroe County, West Virginia, Marriage Licenses and Returns, Nelson-Swrope, 1914; digital images, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, West Virginia Vital Records Research Project (http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_view.aspx?Id=11370506& : Accessed 5 June 2012.
 1920 U.S. census, Summers County, West Virginia, population schedule, Avis Town, sheet 7-B, dwelling 122, Frank Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 June 2012); citing National Archives Microfilm publication T625, roll 1968.
 1930 U.S. census, Monroe County, West Virginia, population schedule, Alderson Town (part of), sheet 5-B, dwelling 119, Frank Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 June 2012); citing FHL microfilm 2342283.
 Leo Wolman, “Wages During the Depression,” National Bureau of Economic Research bulletin number 46 (1 May 1933) : 4; digital image, National Bureau of Economic Research (http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2256.pdf : accessed 31 August 2015).
 Rhonda Janney Coleman, “Coal Miners and their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925 – 1941,” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XV, No. 3 (July, 2001); digital image, West Virginia Division of Culture and History (http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs1503.html : accessed 4 September 2015).
 U.S. Department of Labor, Handbook of Labor Statistics 1931 Edition (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931), 830, “Earnings of Steam Railroad Employees in 1929 and 1930.”
 Handbook of Labor Statistics 1931 Edition, 734, “Table 2. –Average Starts, Hours, and Earnings of Miners and Loaders in Half-Month Pay period, 1929 by State.”