Using my Title III grant, I explored the history of coal mining in North Carolina with special emphasis on the Coal Glen Disaster of 1925. My project was one of the few to develop this topic, so the Title III grant was essential for conducting my research. The main source of data I used came from a wide variety of local and state newspapers from the time period. I studied issues of three main newspapers—The Chatham Record, the Raleigh News & Observer, and the Charlotte Observer—for information about the 1925 mining accident, as well as previous accidents in the state. I also used news clippings from several other local newspapers that covered the Coal Glen disaster. Another major source of information came from annual reports of the North Carolina Department of Labor. These reports provided a wealth of information regarding the major coal mine explosions in North Carolina history. I also gained significant primary information from an oral history interview conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Southern Oral History Program with an eyewitness to the Coal Glen disaster.
I analyzed this data in the same way I attempt to analyze any information about the past—by acting as an impartial observer. I began my research with a list of a few research questions, but my central question was, “given the history of coal mine accidents in North Carolina, was the Coal Glen Mine properly prepared in 1925 to prevent another disaster?” With this question as my guide, I went to my sources to try to find an answer. This led me to begin by finding out as much as I could about major coal mine accidents that took place prior to 1925. Most of this information was found through the use of newspaper and Department of Labor sources. I then used those same types of sources to learn everything I could about the circumstances surrounding the Coal Glen disaster. After I established a narrative of how events in North Carolina’s coal industry unfolded, my next step was to think more critically about my sources. To this end, I analyzed what safety measures were traditionally enacted in North Carolina coal mines, and how they changed (or remained the same) over time to adapt to events such as mining accidents. I also placed these safety measures in the larger context of coal mine safety in other areas of the United States. I drew parallels to the way more dominant coal-producing states regulated safety in their mines, and how extensive North Carolina’s efforts were in comparison.
In my paper I argued that the Coal Glen Mine was not properly prepared to prevent a mining accident in 1925, despite the fact that similar accidents had previously taken place in North Carolina. Prior to the Coal Glen disaster in 1925, North Carolina experienced two other significant mine accidents in 1895 and 1900. Forty-three people were killed in the 1895 explosion, and twenty more died in the 1900 blast. After the 1895 accident, North Carolina’s state legislature passed its first and only mine safety law in 1897. This law stipulated that each time a fatal accident took place in a coal mine, the cause of the accident should be investigated so that a report could be filed with the state’s Department of Labor to be used for future references. The law also called for the inspection of mines as often as possible even in the absence of accidents, but did not specify how often such inspections should be carried out. Unfortunately, this law was rarely, if ever, enforced. North Carolina’s Labor Commissioner admitted in an interview shortly after the 1900 explosion that no mine in the state had been inspected since the law was passed. This poor safety record did not significantly improve in the years leading up to the 1925 explosion at Coal Glen. After the accident took place, newspapers reported that periodic inspection in the absence of fatal accidents were never made of North Carolina coal mines, which was a key requirement of the 1897 mine safety law. The Department of Labor report on the accident blamed this oversight on the fact that the state legislator did not set aside funding so that the law could be enforced. This lack of funding meant that the Labor Department was unable to employ a mine inspector to conduct the safety inspections called for in the law. This was significant because after nearly seventy-five years of commercial mining in the state, and after more than 100 deaths in coal mine accidents since 1895, North Carolina still did not have a qualified mine inspector working in the Department of Labor.
These findings are significant because they shed light on a consistently overlooked topic. Fifty-three people were killed in the Coal Glen disaster, making it still today North Carolina’s deadliest workplace accident, yet the event has scarcely been documented in North Carolina’s historiography. This research also shows us that the safety of working people has not always been a top priority of business leaders and elected officials. The history of working people in general is often overlooked by both historians and casual students of the past, so stories such as the Coal Glen disaster are important ones to understand, as they give us a more complete picture of the past. To accurately recreate the past, we need to examine not just the political and elite classes of a society, but also the working classes and people whose voices are often left out of the mainstream discussion of history. I believe my paper helps to accomplish that goal by exploring the lives of a portion of workers in North Carolina’s history.
The majority of my grant funds were used to cover travel expenses during my research phase in an attempt to uncover information. My first trip was to the Hunter Library at Western Carolina University. While there, I was able to study microform newspaper issues of the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer. The other research trip I took was to visit the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library. The North Carolina Collection features an extensive newspaper clipping file, as well as annual reports from the North Carolina Department of Labor.
- $29.51 Gas money for travel to Western Carolina University
- $25.51 Gas money for travel to University of North Carolina
- $38.50 Gas money for travel to University of North Carolina
- $121.74 Two nights stay at Chapel Hill motel while researching at UNC
- $42.00 Purchase of four photographs from the UNC North Carolina Collection, used in public presentations of the project
- $42.74 Student Stipend
A Note on Working with a Faculty Mentor
One of the most rewarding aspects of working on this project was having the opportunity to work more closely with a faculty mentor to develop this content. Because this paper constituted my senior history project, I worked closely with my faculty advisor during both the research and writing phases. I met with Dr. Gripentrog of the History Department regularly—usually at least once a week, not including the time spent in the class—and was able to gain a stronger understanding of, and respect for, the scholarly process that historians must go through. I learned a great deal about not only finding information through research, but also presenting my findings in such a way that their historical significance was evident. I also developed a greater respect for the necessity of scholarly integrity by citing sources thoroughly and using another’s work in the appropriate way. The individual meetings I had with my faculty advisor while working on this project were most beneficial by providing me with greater access to the assistance of a professor and scholar. I hope to one day become a history professor myself, so the chance to see firsthand how historians approach their work is something I believe has helped me during this process, and something that will continue to help me as I further my education.