Travel back in time, at the Big Fork National River and Recreation Area, in Oneida, Tennessee, to a time when coal was king as fuel. Once used to power locomotives, coal was also used in many American homes as a source for heat.
The mines, which were created across the country, to supply the demand for the burgeoning coal market, were reliable sources of employment for resolute men determined to provide for their families. Located in Oneida, Tennessee, the Blue Heron Mining Community, at the Big South Fork, is a memorial and museum to those individuals who once worked and lived at one of those mines.
For those used to the mobility which Americans have come to expect in their daily lives, the lack of mobility of the miners, to come and go as they wished, at the Blue Heron, should be understood first, in order to understand the concepts and culture of coal mine life in the early Twentieth Century. According to wikipedia.org, many miners willingly entered into life at the mines, but later felt entrapped by the role they had taken on. The song, Sixteen Tons, expresses their languor: “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”
Prior to the invention of mechanically loaded coal mine shuttle cars, which also eliminated the mules needed to haul the coal cars out of the mine shaft, miners wearing carbide lights on their heads, loaded coal into cars by pick, shovel, and hand. They were paid by the ton of coal loaded, an incentive for the able-bodied to increase their production, in exchange for cash.
In 1937, when the Stearns mine called the Blue Heron, or Mine 18, first opened, this is how coal was mined. A few years later, when the mine began using a new mechanical loader, and a coal tipple, used to sort coal of various sizes, however, cash incentives for loading coal were dropped, and men began to receive hourly or daily wages. In December, 1962, the mine closed, due to the rise of gas and electricity as power sources, which eclipsed coal’s use as fuel.
Gone was the scrip, printed company money, advanced pay for miners, who then had to work it off. Gone also was the company store, which sold everything from fabric for sewing and clothing, to jackknives and sugar, the place where the scrip was exchanged. The company store had also been the local post office and the location of the company time clock.
The Blue Heron Mine fell into total disrepair, as its buildings decayed or were removed. When the National Park Service acquired the land in the 1980s, a decision was made to recreate the mining community, as an outdoor museum, in order to preserve its legacy for future generations. Open, metal shells of buildings, called “ghost structures” were erected at the sites of the original buildings. Within the structures, photos of the mining community and its people were hung, and many of their everyday items were placed on display, including items used by resident mine families.
In the Blue Heron Mining Community, women were responsible for maintaining company-owned residences, as mothers and wives. They raised children here, from birth to adulthood, and cooked the meals the men carried daily into the mines. Some contracted respiratory infections due to the ever-present coal dust which blanketed their lives.
During the early days of the mine, most children received no more than an eighth grade education at the company school. As transportation improved, since automobiles were rare at the mine, teenagers, who were willing to leave home at 5 am, and return at approximately 5 pm, were then able to attend the local high school, and acquire 12 years of education.
Each structure, at the Blue Heron Mining Community outdoor museum, contains its own audio program, including the actual voices of the women and children who formerly lived here. Those who begin their tour at the depot, where the train which serviced the mine, once stopped, will hear the voices of miners as well, in addition to the memories of high school students who once rode this train.
The depot also contains the history of the Stearns business operations, which included holdings in timber, and a railroad, in addition to coal mines. A model of the 1950’s Blue Heron mining town is on display there.
The Blue Heron Mining Community is part of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, one of the newest National Parks. Located on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, it is a short drive from Jamestown, Tennessee, and can be visited during normal park hours of operation. Further information about the Blue Heron can be obtained at www.nps.gov/biso.