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Bill Ellis: Grandpa Perry's mules hauled the coal out

Feb. 20, 2010 @ 10:43 PM

It is impossible for me to recall a time when coal was not important in my young life and for all my family. The reason being that I was born on Jan. 25 in Wevaco, a small mining community near the head of Cabin Creek, and it was not a balmy summer-like day.

There was not one bit of insulation in our house. No carpets on the floors or storm windows to keep out the cold winds. A fireplace in each room and a kitchen with a coal-fed cook stove heated our three-room house. On many winter mornings, ice would be frozen in the water bucket.

Were it not for coal and the efficient manner in which it is mined and turned into energy, our county, state and much of the nation could not exist. Try to imagine what life would be like without the heat and electrical power that comes from coal.

Coal was first discovered in Putnam County on the Pocatalico River in 1798, but was not commercially mined until the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, coal-mining companies were operating between Raymond City and Plymouth on the north side of the Kanawha River.

Working in coal mines throughout the state and nation has never been easy. Some men worked in coal seams that were as low as 25 to 27 inches. Kneepads were necessary.

When writing about coal mining, I often talk with James and Newton Thomas, Jr., if I have questions. Newt Thomas confirmed for me that my remembering "Bug Dust" was entirely correct. "Bug Dust" is what they called the very fine coal that remained after the coal had been cut. His first job out of college with the Carbon Fuel Company taught him that such coal was removed by using a long-handle "Bug Dust Shovel."

The coal industry, for many years and to the present, has sought ways to mine clean coal and keep dust to a minimum. "Rock Dust" was spread over the coal dust to prevent explosions and fires.

My uncle, Alex Perry, Jr., was the foreman at the Carbon Fuel Coal Company No. 9 Cleaning Plant at Wevaco. He and all the company foremen as well as all the men involved put safety at the top of their list of important things.

Ira Gamm, vice president for public relations, and the receptionist, Karen Cobb, at the office of the International Coal Group at Scott Depot, housed in a new large modern three-story office building, were very helpful in giving me some of the latest information about the coal industry and Putnam County. Some of that will be included in a subsequent story.

One thing more. What about Grandpa's mules? In the early 1900s, he lived up Sugar Camp Hollow, at Decota. The legendary Mayor of Hurricane, Raymond Peak, lived at Decota through his high school years. Grandpa's mules were used to pull the loaded coal cars to the outside so the coal could be dumped out and find its way to the tipple and be loaded into railroad cars and transported to places where it would be transformed into electrical power and energy in the furnaces of industry.

Bill Ellis is a syndicated columnist who can be reached at P.O. Box 345, Scott Depot, WV 25560; phone 304-757-6089.