By Joy Neighbors
“Workin’ in the coal mine
Goin’ on down, down
Workin’ in a coal mine
Oops, about to slip down.”
Boomers will recognize those lyrics, sung by Lee Dorsey in 1966, and more recently by Devo in 1981. The song attests to the fact that the life of a miner isn’t easy.
Indiana has produced coal for over two centuries. The majority of Hoosier coal mines can be found on the western side of the state, as far north as Fountain County, and south through Spencer County with the heaviest concentrations of mines in Warrick, Pike and Sullivan counties. The majority of surface mines (above ground) can be found in Warrick and Spencer counties, while underground mines are more prevalent in Knox, Sullivan, Green and Vigo counties.
At one time coal was the largest industry in Sullivan County. Dugger, Indiana, has been home to Hoosier coal miners for more than 135 years. Francis Dugger, his brother William, and Henry Neal started the first mine in town, known as the “Old Dugger Mine, in 1879.
One hundred years later, in 1979, two local residents, Martha Marlow and Ruby King, were instrumental in founding the Dugger Coal Museum. The women wanted people to know about the vast coal mining history and traditions of the region, so volunteers gathered artifacts, photos and stories from local miners and their families for display in the museum
The day I visited, museum board secretary Mendy Smith gave me a tour. The shotgun-style building is jam-packed with interesting mining artifacts, photographs and history from the days when “coal was king.”
“Just about everyone had someone in the family that worked at the mine in those days,” Smith said. “They’d start at 12-years-old and spend their lives working in the mines. It was just expected that if your family worked in the mine, you’d work there too.”
Besides mine operating equipment, the museum has everyday items used by miners like carbonic lamps, miner safety kits, a vintage collection of miner’s hats and trinkets carved from coal. A large wall display conveys the heritage of the local United Mine Workers Association, which began in the county in 1890.
Unfortunately, with a job as dangerous as mining, sometimes there are causalities. A section on regional mining disasters is featured and includes the four major disasters that occurred in this region during the 20th Century.
The worst catastrophe happened at the City Coal Mine near Sullivan on Feb. 20, 1925. A spark from an engine inside the mine ignited coal dust and gas causing a massive explosion that ripped through the tunnels that morning. Officials worked frantically through the day, with some rescuers overcome by mine gases. By late that night, it had been determined 51 men had lost their lives, almost half of the day shift’s workforce.
In January 1931 another explosion rocked the Little Betty Mine near Dugger, killing 28. Five years later, in July 1937, another 20 miners died in an explosion at the Baker Mine in Sullivan. The last major regional mining disaster of the century occurred on March 2, 1961, when 22 miners were killed in an explosion at the Viking Mine in Terre Haute. Thanks to better equipment and higher safety standards, mine explosions are now uncommon occurrences.
A great number of mines closed during the latter half of the 20th Century, but the coal mining tradition continues in Sullivan County. Coal may no longer be the largest employer in the county, but many families still work in the mines. The Bear Run Mine, located south of Dugger, is the largest surface coalmine east of the Mississippi. Comprised of over 15,000 acres, the mine produces over 8 million tons of coal annually. Bear Run is owned and operated by Peabody Energy, one of the largest energy companies in the world.
Most former mining lands have been reclaimed in the area. East of Dugger is the Redbird State Riding Area, located on what was the former Redbird Mine. The operation produced over 2 million tons of bituminous coal from 1945 to its closing in 1950. The RSRA maintains motorcycles and ATVs trails for outdoor riding enthusiasts.
The Greene-Sullivan State Forest is made up of over 3,000 acres of land donated by coal companies in the 1930s. Today, the forest has over 9,000 acres of rolling woodlands and more than 120 lakes stocked with bass, bluegill and sunfish.
Strip pits have been left open to collect rain, which in turn creates numerous lakes throughout the county. The Department of Natural Resources stocks them with fish for recreational sport enthusiasts. The Minnehaha Fish and Wildlife Area is one such site, located on 12,000 acres of a reclaimed surface mine. There are 3,500 acres of wooded bottomland, with over 100 acres made up of strip pit lakes.
If you happen to be in Sullivan County at the end of September or the first of October, check out the Dugger Coal Festival. The weeklong event began in 1979 and now includes live entertainment, special dinners, a carnival, parade and cruise-in rallies.
The Dugger Coal Museum is open every day during the annual festival from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Otherwise make an appointment on the Facebook page (Dugger Coal Museum), or phone (812) 798-6200 to schedule a tour.
Dugger Coal Museum
8178 E. Main St.
Open by appointment