A shack on a crooked bluff on the eastern fringe of a small town. A shambling thing, barely defying gravity. Looking as if the punishing January winds might sunder it, send it reeling over the bluff into the vaporous bottom lands below. Iced fingers seeping, no stabbing, through the cracks in the wall, surging through broken panes stuffed with rags and paper.
Let no one kid you. January can be a wicked month. Even the warmest fires fall in battle to January. The month comes to bite the face, make fingers rigid, curl the body until it longs for the womb. The worst of Januaries can wither a soul.
A shack above the bottoms at West Terre Haute on a January day is not a place to be with ebbing strength, all fortitude gone, hope lost somewhere along the path behind him. But that is where James Furlong found himself on January 19, 1914.
He had been there but a few days. Somehow his life had led him to West Terre Haute. Somehow he had met two men squatting in the shack who had let him join them. The shack was just a few hundred feet from a “hobo jungle” enlivened by many passers-through during warmer months (West Terre Haute was known as a good place for a handout or a day’s paid work).
Furlong’s companions went out that Monday morning, likely to scrounge for food, clothing or wood for the fire. James Furlong was alone. Did he look around and see nothing but his misery? Was his vision clouded or did the restless night and frigid morning bring him clarity? Why this day as the day of decision? Why this place? What interior vein opened to let his last drop of hope trickle out?
What we do know is that he dug into his poke. In it was his razor of silvered steel. Did he see it as an instrument of peace when he opened the blade? Even with a sharp razor it must take determination to use it. There must be some strength left in a man to impel the needed force. James Furlong used what strength remained in him, willed the blade to cut across his neck, felt it bite deep. He lay back, letting the warm blood bathe his chest.
It was then his “friends” returned to the shack, saw James in a red pool. One grabbed a rag to place on Furling’s throat, hoping to dam the flow of blood. The other ran out and down Paris Avenue looking for help. Dr. R.J. Danner was found and hurried to the shack. “Doc’ had seen a lot of blood in his life (and within ten years would see his own spilled by his lover’s enraged husband) and knew there was little to be done. He asked Furlong his name. James told him. With time fleeing he also told him he had only been in town a few days and that he was 65 years old. Danner then asked the golden question, “Why?” James Furlong gave him the quintessential answer: He “was tired of living.”
Though he knew there was nothing left to save him, Danner had Furlong sent to Union Hospital on the north side of Terre Haute. Too late.
James Furlong may have been surprised to learn that he made the front page of the Terre Haute Tribune the next day. A short paragraph down the page told his meager story. The last line said, “No arrangements have been made for the disposal of the body as he was unknown here.” One wonders how many papers in other places where James Furlong lived would have ended the story the same way.
So who was James Furlong? I wondered if I could find out, so I began a search for him, some glimpse that might tell me how or why he came to die in West Terre Haute. The only clues I had were his name and his age. I checked census records, military files, city directories, all the usual suspects of the historian’s craft. I found several James Furlongs, but none that could be said to be our James. Even eliminating those who were born at around the same time, but appeared in records after 1914 was of little help.
He was likely not in the area because he had family there. There were no Furlongs listed in any of the Vigo County records until the 1970s. I was left to surmise. Furlong is a name often associated with the Irish. His age was right for the Hungry Time of the Irish Famine. Were he and his family, victims of the famine, forced to leave their home for America. Were they of the haunted Skalpeen class, the itinerant farm laborers so effected by the terrible want brought on by the famine?
Did he once have a family, a job, a life? Was he a farmer, a craftsman, or merely a man forced to take on whatever job was at hand? Did losing them slowly diminish him? What road brought him the West Terre Haute? What happened in those two or three days in town that forever forestalled his next step?
As for James Furlong’s body. I could find no record of how or where he was buried. Most likely, the unknown man was buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown place.
Just this morning I did my annual presentation on being a historian and the uses of history for an AP History class from Carmel High School. Of course I quoted Santayana, talked about the importance of knowing history, and how history is used. I talked of primary sources, external and internal criticism, of the changeover to social and minority history, etc. But I also told them that no matter what rather high sounding rhetoric we historians may use, the very essence is to remember. And I am a professional rememberer. And everyone who has ever lived deserves to be remembered.
We only know James Furlong from his death, but he is remembered.
He wasn’t really sure what it meant on that hot day of July 8, 1863 when the draft registration man came by and wrote his name in the book with the other Vigo County men: Sugar Creek, Arthur, David M., 32, white, Farmer, married, Tennessee. In the days after that visit all everyone talked about was that Reb John Morgan had invaded Indiana. But soon the wily Confederate was run out of the state and all seemed as normal as could be with a war going on.
He had not joined the war. He was a man in his thirties, with a wife, two children, a good farm to run. Perhaps he never gave it much thought. But a year later another man with papers came and David was drafted. On October 4, 1864 he assigned to Company I of the 57th Indiana. The 57 was mainly made up from Hamilton and Wayne Counties. Soon he was on a train for Indianapolis. Luckily his neighbor Wyley Black was also now in the unit.
Things were a muddle. Many men hanging around, little or no equipment for the draftees. He thought it was all a bit of a mess. He was a farmer. He had no real training or skills for war. Nor was he to get them now.
It had been a long time since he had been back in Tennessee. But the troop train had chugged across the border a while back. Now they were in Pulaski. He had been born about 200 miles west in Knox County in 1831. But he had moved to better land in Indiana with his family when he was a teenager. He had a good wife, good land, a good life.
It was cold. Like the others he had no blanket or tent to ward off the November cold and rain. He huddled with Wyley and the others. His thoughts careened between his family and fear, and back again. Over and over and over.
The Union Army had thought it finally had a pretty good hold on Tennessee. But it seemed that Confederate John Bell Hood was going to move his army from Alabama to try to recapture Tennessee. By late November, 1864 it seemed clear that Hood’s force were moving to relieve Nashville and force out the Union Army.
David Arthur and the rest of the 57th were ordered to the Columbia area. David began days with the sound and sight of shot. Life seemed a long tremble. Finally they marched to Spring Hill. That day and night of November 29 would be the dividing line of his life,
In a December letter written to his family back in Terre Haute in December William Black, Wyley’s nephew, reported brother had seen “uncle wiley and david arthur running from the rebels.” Written by a young man not as close to the battle as Wyley and David it almost seemed if he was decrying them as cowards. What he did not know is that both had been injured. Artillery fire had blinded David Arthur. He was literally running blind to escape.
Eventually taken to an aid station, David’s day as a “fighting soldier” were over. They lasted all of seven weeks. Eventually, he was moved to a hospital in Washington, DC and assigned to the Veterans Reserve Corp, groups made up of invalided soldiers who acted as guards or performed other menial duties. The highlight of his time was meeting Lincoln.
David was mustered out in October, 1865 in Lincoln’s city of Springfield and took a train back to Macksville and his family. He resumed his life as best he could. He fathered six more children, farmed and had homes built for his family along the National Road. He received a pension of $24.00 a month as government compensation for losing his vision (actually a goodly sum for the times). Despite his blindness he remained an active, kind man. He was a founder of the Congregational Church.
He lost his much loved wife, Nancy Kelly Arthur in 1892. Seven years later he married a younger woman, alternatively named Amanda Collier or McCullough, according to various documents. David Arthur’s pension and landholdings may have added to his attractions for Amanda. The marriage was not a happy one. In 1900 David filed for divorce on the grounds of cruel treatment. He stated that he had been long time blind and his spouse knew that. Also not only that she “took no care of him whatever, but on the contrary treated him cruelly and finally under the threat of violence he was compelled to leave his home.”
In 1899 his second youngest child Lulu married William Morgan Hants. In 1901 the couple’s first child, Hilda, was born. Hilda became devoted to her grandfather, assisting him with many small tasks made difficult by his blindness.
David Marion Arthur died in 1914.
He was my great-great grandfather.
On my last research trip to Terre Haute I had the great pleasure of conducting an oral history with my aunt Eileen [Chrisman] Ellingsworth. We discussed many things but some of the vignettes struck a chord. In particular she discussed how hard my grandparents work. Among them were several that described their daily lives. It struck me that they spoke evocatively of what daily life was like in West Terre Haute, and in many other towns in the 1920s and 1930s.
As most of you have likely perceived, my family, like most in West Terre Haute, were not exactly middle class. Looking back upon things I think that if we fit into any social demographic, my family was best described as residing solidly among the working poor. Some in town were of higher status, some lower, but most shared that neighborhood where one took a deep breath and sported a furrowed brow on the day or two before payday dawned. Who relied on a tab at the local grocery store (like Tex Day’s Market) to put dinner on the table. Or were forced to borrow from family on occasion.
Eileen has never forgotten “how hard your Grandma and Grandpa worked for us.” “Oh. Tim, they both worked so, so hard.” She talked about laundry day. My Grandpa Ray would get up at 5:00 in the morning, pull on his overalls and go out to start a fire. By the time dawn arrived he would have placed two large zinc tubs on the grate above the seething fire and carried bucket by bucket from the pump to fill them. It was laundry day.
Only then would he head back into the house where Grandma would have breakfast ready for him and the kids. While Grandma would feed, change and dress my aunts and uncles, Gramps, on hot days, would go back out and soak burlap bags in cold water. He would hang these over the windows and front door of the house. The wind would blow through the sopping burlap providing a sort of primitive air conditioning.
He would then walk up McIlroy Avenue to catch the interurban to his job in Terre Haute. He worked for Western Indiana Gravel (later Terre Haute Concrete Supply). He started as a driver and eventually became a stationary engineer. After years in the mines he traded coal dust for gravel and concrete dust. Over forty years of his lungs being assaulted.
Once the kids would were settled Grandma went outside to start a long, backbending laundry day. Gramps had already set up her laundry rack. In the middle was a hand-cranked ringer. She would gather her supplies together. Laundry detergent did not become common until the 1920s so like most others she used a hard cake of lye soap. On one side of the laundry table she would fill another tub with the boiling water, place her washboard. Then would begin the toil of scrubbing diapers, bed linen, and clothes, her knuckles scraping the hard ridges of the board. As each load was washed she would turn the hand-cranked wringer and pull the laundry into a tub with rinse water. After plunging them into rinse tub she put them into another rinse tub. Then, it was to the clothes line. Bending down each piece was lifted onto the line and pinned in place. This sequence was repeated many, many times, in between feeding and checking upon the kids.
As she grew older Aunt Eileen would help. This happen once or twice a week, even during Granma’s many pregnancies (Grandma was pregnant 99 months of her life). If she was lucky, she would be done in time to begin dinner. If she did not have time, Grampa would empty all the tubs when he came home and maybe bring in the last of the dried clothes from the line.
The next day would include sorting and ironing. There was no electric iron to help with this tiresome chore for years. She used a “sad iron,) an 8 t0 12 pound hunk of iron that had to be heated on the coal stove. As the girls, my mom and aunts Eileen and Doris, would take over some of this chore (none particularly cherishing this job).
As with many during this era Monday was Grandma’s laundry day. But sometimes the weather did not cooperate and had to be done later in the week. If the laundry had to wait til Thursday or Friday, when it was done Grandma went to her part time job. The Bon Ton was a famous bakery/deli in Terre Haute. Her sister-in-law worked there. Two nights a week Grandma worked there. She did not work for money. She was paid in day-old bread or other grocery items to help feed the family. Her 13 or 14 hour day would end with her lugging sacks of food home on the interurban.
Grandma did not get an “automatic” washing machine until about 1940. My oldest uncle Art bought her one from his earnings working for a grocery store as a teenager. It may have been the same one I remember, a reliable Maytag wringer washer. When I was young I was fascinated by the wringer. She would let pull the clothes through the wringer. I really felt I was helping. And always remember her standard admonition: “Now, watch your fingers, I am reversing the wringer. I don’t want you to get hurt”
Believe it or not, West Terre Haute was once the fastest growing town in America. According to the 1910 Census Bureau report the town had grown from about 500 in 1895 to 4,380 in 1910, making it percentage-wise the nation’s biggest population gainer
I’ve mentioned the reasons for this surge before. It was built on and around land that yielded wealth to those who knew how to extract it. The coal, clay and gravel deposits made it a boomtown, just as gold, silver and lead had and would make towns flourish for a while in the west. As with many boomtowns, West Terre Haute would fade and suffer. It would not quite lead to sage brush blowing across Paris Avenue, but decline it would.
But for a decade or so, hope was something West Terre Haute’s citizens could breathe in on a daily basis. They believed that their scraggly spot along the National Road would become a vibrant, cultured, ideal small town. And they had their reasons for this sanguine outlook. They had seen just how far they had come, and they could foresee the bright decades to come.
West Terre Haute, 1895.
The townspeople, including my family, lived along dusted streets in a town that had changed only a bit since the Civil War. It was home to truck farmers, a few miners, and scattered tradesmen. Pigs, cattle and chickens were a feature of many yards in town. Saloons outnumbered churches and the town had a reputation of backwardness and more than a bit of sloth. Vaudeville comedians knew West Terre Haute was an easy mark guaranteed to make Terre Haute audiences laugh.
Outside of the new mines that were beginning open, “industry” consisted of a few stores, a lumber yard, cigar factory, shinglemaking, and blacksmiths and wheelrights. But the next 15 years were ones of rapid “progress.” Outsiders opened mines and clay plants. one of the elements that doomed many a town was that capital investment was seldom centered in the town. Instead, it was the province of outsiders who came in, extracted all they could and then looked away. (ah, the socialist, lefty historian in me came out) The railroad expanded. The interurban system opened up new opportunities as cheap mass transportation allowed workers and customers freer movement.
A new bridge and improvements to the “grade” between the towns made access to Terre Haute, and vice versa possible. Electricity came to most of the town. The telephone closed distance to the outside. By 1910 some of the main streets were paved (though it would be the 1920s before most neighborhood streets were paved and as late as the 1950s some of the streets in the far south of town were still dirt and gravel). Two newspapers were founded.
The town began to advertise itself. In 1905 issues of the two main Terre Haute newspapers featured paeans and features about West Terre Haute (no doubt paid for by the special ads featuring the town’s businesses). A year later a special supplement about the town was printed and circulated to boost the growing “wide awake” town of West Terre Haute.
The town awaited its future.
Of course, noting the physical growth of a town , and who lived there, is an important way of looking at things
This 1874 plat basically shows the town as it was laid out by Samuel McQuilkin in 1836. The town runs four blocks north and south of the National Road, and from present-day McIlroy Avenue to Fourth Street.. Not all of the neat plots were filled. There were only about 250 people living in town. It was a homogeneous population. They were mainly settlers who came from the upland South (like my forebearers, the Arthurs and Kelleys who were from Tennessee). There were likely no blacks, and most of the foreign born were from the British Isles and Germany. Coal mining was just taking hold, so most of the people were truck farmers, mechanics (blacksmiths, etc) or those who serviced the farmers.
The above 1895 plat shows the first growth spurt. The population had doubled to 500 and subdivisions were added to the eastern, northern and southern fringes of town. By this time, mining was becoming well established and it began the demographic change of West Terre Haute. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were the new citizens. Italians, Belgians, and Hungarians increasingly came to the area to work on the mines, bringing with them different languages and customs that clashed with some of the old stock. The terms bohunks, hunkies and wops were still being used to describe them when I was growing up.
The ad below (I had to combine four newspaper printouts to show the entire ad, thus its uneven look) shows how fast the town was growing. More and more ethnics were coming to the area and needed housing. Another factor in the growth was West Terre Haute becoming a “bedroom community” for Terre Haute. The new Wabash River bridge, which opened in 1903, the railroad and interurban service allowed an easy commute. That combined with a housing shortage in Terre Haute, especially for those who needed affordable housing, sparked an exodus from Terre Haute to “over the river.”
West Terre Haute land developers began constructing two and three storey buildings for businesses. This advertisement from 1905 shows a new subdivision being added to the plat. It would expand West Terre Haute closer to its present outline, pushing the northern half of the city to Ninth Street. Note the affordable pricing. It gave newcomers the chance to move to town and build their American dream. The “middle class” were to build substantial homes, but many of the mine or clay workers had to settle for less expansive housing, settling on 3 or 4 room houses or shotgun houses. I still recall 3 shotgun houses (and the thin, wiry people who lived there) in the 1960s that stood on the present site of the Post Office on Market Street.
I have been been hoping to do some photo essays about West Terre Haute. I am working with lifelong resident Jim Plew who discovered a cache of photos from the 1940s. Those are still in the digitization process and we will bring them to you soon. Until then this modest beginning with a few graphics I have collected.
Again, if any of my readers have photos from West T., particularly those showing street scenes or buildings prior to 1950, and wish to share them, please contact me.
Remnant of first building in Macksville (West Terre Haute). Inside this frame building is the remnants of the log cabin that town founder Samuel McQuilkin built in 1833. It was common practice to build frame houses or building around the original log cabins. The house stood along National Avenue between current Third and Fourth Streets. This photo was taken around 1916. Of course the building is long gone now.
Cigar making was a hand craft that required only skill, a few tools and a place to work. Like many other small towns, Macksville had a cigar “factory” employing a few men and women. From old records it seems that both my Hants and Chrisman ancestors rolled cigars as their living for a few years.
Paris Avenue, ca. 1911. looking east from Market and Paris Avenue. Paris Avenue was the center of West Terre Haute life until the 1930s. Then National Avenue (US40) began to gain ground. Paris Avenue was home to the bank, a theater, the mining company store and the telephone company. its array of bars and restaurants were filled with miners and others.
Corner of Paris and McIlroy. Ca. 1911
Nearly the same view as above, but taken from a 1905 newspaper supplement promoting West Terre Haute. Note that the town was electrified, but this was before Paris Avenue was paved and two years before the interurban tracks were laid. It is a view of town just before its “boom.”
McIlroy Store, 1905, looking east (see below)
Mcilroy Store looking west. Paris Avenue, June 18, 2013
This was the second wagon bridge across the Wabash River that connected West Terre Haute and Terre Haute. It was used from 1865 to 1903. It was preceded by an earlier wooden bridge built that opened on Christmas Day, 1846. Prior to that bridge one needed a boat or ferry to travel between the towns.
My first fulltime job was working as an orderly at the Vigo County Home. The Home was the successor to the Poor Farm. Most counties had a poor farm where the indigent, aged without family who wished to care for them, and, sometimes, the lunatic or disabled were “taken care of” out of sight of the community. I remember two patients (inmates?) in particular. One was Jake Umble. Jake was a tiny man in his 60s or 70s when I met him. His head was permanently bent downward hiding his opaque eyes and he invariably carried a mouth harp on which he would continually twang. He had spent most of his life at the Home. Ever since his demon obsessed mother had thrown acid into his eyes when he was four.
The other was Ike Smith. There was nothing straight about Ike. From his birth all about him was crooked. His arms, his legs, his body were all were twisted. His face was reminiscent of Edgar Bergen’s Mortimer Snerd. He had just enough dexterity is his right arm to feed himself. He had a raucous laugh that would echo through the halls and common room. I spent many days lifting his bent body in and out of bed. He was the sort that census takers marked as “imbecile” when toting up the population every ten years.
I had been on the job several months before I found that Ike and I had encountered each other before. He was from a family of ragpickers.
Ragpickers were a common sight in many towns up to the 1960s. They were the bedraggled lot who roamed streets and alleys picking up whatever they could find that might be sold to junk dealers. The proceeds went to feed themselves and their families, or booze to balm some pain. They would roam through the streets shouting a singsong “Any bones today, any rags, and bottles?” They would haunt the alleys behind stores and businesses snatching up anything that might sell, living off the flotsam of others.
In the West Terre Haute and Terre Haute area most of the ragpickers came from Taylorville. Taylorville was viewed by most as a neighborhood made up of human flotsam. Hard on the west bank of the Wabash between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute it was a narrow strip of the poorest. They lived in houseboats or hovels built from wood and tin salvaged from the river. It was once cited as the most unhealthy and degraded place in Indiana. It was clannish, closed in, incestuous. In my youth (and still today, I think) you were warned not to set a trembling foot into Taylorville. It was well known that even the police were reluctant to enter that enclave of the damned without backup.
According to a 1910 Terre Haute Tribune article there was a distinct hierarchy among this salvaging subset. At the top were the ragpickers who plied their trade in a horse and wagon. They were the elite who could range the farthest into the better neighborhoods and carry the most goods back to the junk dealers strung along the western edge of Terre Haute. Next came the cartmen who pushed their rickety wooden carts. It was hard work. At least two of the cartmen harnessed their “old woman” to pull their wagons, turning their wives into beasts of burden. On the lower rungs of this human ladder were the bagmen who shoved their acquired treasures into bags slung over their faltering shoulders.
Paper, pasteboard and rags usually brought a fair price as they could be pulped to make paper (not unlike modern recycling). As today, metals like brass or zinc were valued. Old clothes could be sold to second hand shops. But the best apparel was reserved to clothe the ragpicker and his family. Scraps of food sometimes became their meal.
The ragpickers were of a varied sort. There was the “hot tamale man,” whose raucous, bawdy banter would have gotten him arrested in gentler society had he been heard above the din of other pickers. One spoke in a Falstaffian voice. One was a ragpicker-preacher who picked during the day and preached the gospel evenings and weekends. There were the scoundrels who stole as well as picked. Pickers who picked just long enough to allow themselves enough money to buy booze and then slunk back to the alleys they slept, only to rise again to traverse the same alley in search of more discarded wealth. These were often the same men that the junk dealers kept a weather eye upon because after they sold a load they might try to snatch goods from the dealer’s pile and re-sell to him.
So, Ike was from a ragpicker family. They may have lived in both Taylorville and west Terre Haute. When I mentioned Jake to my grandmother she knew immediately who I was talking about. She remembered him riding on his dad’s mule-drawn wagon, his voice bawling out, his laughter echoing. Her family usually had something to give them. My very vague memory of Ike is seeing him and his father drive up the Riggy Avenue hill behind my grandparent’s house sometime in the early 60s. Though then they were riding in a jangling flatbed truck that likely was from the 1930s, the sort of truck the Joads loaded their belongings onto to carry them out of the dust bowl. Grandma had set something oot along the road for them to pick.
We have, sadly, always had those who lived their lives on the discards of others. Somehow they found their way. Equally sadly, we have them today. The Third World is full with pickers, emaciated adults and children picking at piles. Their lives are not much different than Ike’s.
In the past pickers were looked down upon. Now, picking is essentially recycling to many. Or viewed as a fun occupation. After all, how do you think American Pickers got its name?
When I asked Ike about ragpicking once, he gave me a huge laugh and happiness washed across his face. Memories. Happy ones for Ike. Good for him.
Sports played a huge role in the life of West Terre Haute from 1900 to the 1930s. In addition to school and church teams there were many adult amateur and semi-pro teams in many sports.
At any one time 4-6 amateur or semi-pro baseball teams represented the town (often with my grandfather and his brothers playing on several teams during a season). With the end of the baseball season football took over. There were the Tigers, a semi-pro football team that played in a regional league. Over the years there were several different soccer (called association football) teams that played in leagues. The soccer teams were a natural outgrowth of the large Welsh and English population of the town’s love for the sport. There was even a tri-county horseshoe league in which West Terre Haute was represented. Polo, believe it or not, was played in the area.
But the most successful – and controversial- team was the girls’ basketball teams at West Terre Haute (Valley) High School from 1921 to 1923. They were talented. They were tough. They were well coached. They were undefeated. And, some said, they were unsportsmanlike at best, cheaters at worst. Some claimed they were aided by referees so biased as to not be believed. Indeed, some teams believed they were “Van Winkled” by a certain referee they claimed was fiercely partisan for the WTH team.
Girls’ basketball… cheating… hard feelings…
It may surprise some, but girls’ basketball was a very popular sport in the 1920s. And it was all but unregulated. (Indiana did not have a sanctioned girls’ state championship until 1976.) There were few hard and fast rules governing games prior to WWII. High school teams would play college teams, town teams, church teams, whomever they could get games with. There were loose associations that tried to formalize rules in their area, but there were no overall uniform, governing bodies or regulations.
The girls’ teams could even play under different sets of rules and numbers of team members on court. In addition to regular five girl basketball that closely resembled the rules we know now, there was six-girl basketball. In six-girl games the court was divided in half. Three girls were consigned to the offense, the other three on defense. They had to remain on their side of the court, could not cross halfcourt. For example, if you were assigned to the defensive side of the court your role was to guard the other team’s offense. If the defenders stopped them they could pass ball to their offensive teammates, but had to remain on their side of the court. (It may seem odd now, but the six-girl game was used in many places over the years and until 1972 was still the “official” girls game in Iowa.)
The Valley High girls appeared to have played both types of games, though primarily five-girl basketball. And they played them well. The 1921-1922 and 1922-1923 teams were undefeated over more than twenty games`. They were coached by an aggressive Indiana State Normal (now ISU) alum and basketball star named Carrie Surrell, who credited her team’s success to hard work and “teamwork.” They played teams from all over the region, including Terre Haute teams, Clinton, Rockville, Petersburg, Concannon, etc.
Among their most bitter rivals was the Sullivan High School team. The enmity began in February, 1922. The Valley girls beat Sullivan twice, but acrimony followed. A February 25, 1922 Sullivan Daily Times article following Sullivan’s second loss to West Terre Haute opined that “The Sullivan girls played a clean game, but at no time did they have a chance to win as the game belonged to West Terre haute before the whistle ever blew for the start.” This was because again the referee was a Miss Van Winkle who the paper claimed was outrageously partial to the Valley team. It noted that the other referee, a Miss Pigg from Terre Haute, called a fair clean game assessing four fouls on Sullivan and five on WTH. Miss Van Winkle, on the other hand, called 18 on Sullivan and none on Valley.
Even discounting injured hometown pride, it seems clear that Miss Van Winkle was a just a wee bit prejudiced toward the team from West Terre Haute, as if the Valley team did have an extra player on the court. And the bitter taste in Sullivan lingered. In a summer preview of the upcoming 1923-23 season published in June, 1922 the paper recalled that the losses to Valley last season were due to “the work of an umpire who threw the game to an opponent [Valley] that was clearly outplayed.”
It was not just Sullivan. A 1922 game scheduled between Valley and Terre Haute Wiley had to be cancelled when the two teams could not agree upon referees for the game. Was this all “losers weepers” talk? Some of it may have been. Obviously in a few cases it seems Valley might have had a sympathetic referee on the floor with them, but in an age when teams had a voice in who would referee their game on imagines every other team might be looking for an edge.
Clearly, the Valley girls’ team was talented and well coached. Some of the criticism of them may have come from the fact that West Terre Haute was often looked down upon and others could not accept their team was beaten by the “river rats” from West T. A check of the roster (see below) shows that 7 of the 10 players were from working class homes and they likely displayed a toughness that other teams did not. That they were a great team for the era is clear.
They first presented their claim to the state championship in February 1923. Coach Surrell noted her team had won 19 straight games over a wide variety of opponents. She pointed out that the team had outscored the opposition 522 to 231 during the streak. That average of over 27 points per game was exceptional in that low scoring era. Again they offered to take on all comers.
Valley went on to defeat several other teams that season, but one final controversy awaited. Once again enmity with a Terre Haute team was the cause. Terre Haute Garfield and Valley sparred over scheduling a game, each claiming the other was afraid to play them. It lead eventually to the following challenge issued by Valley:
Challenge to Garfield High School Girls Basketball Team, 1923
The West Terre Haute Girls’ basketball team accepts your challenge of March 9 for a two-court game to be played at any date suitable to the two managements. We desire the following rules for the game:
One official will be selected by each team
The game to be played at on a neutral floor, such as Pennsylvania, YWCA or YMCA
The profits shall be divided equally between the two teams
The entire game to be played in an attitude of good sportsmanship and friendliness
We wonder why you have never answered the challenge we sent to you some weeks ago.
Carrie M. Surrell, Coach
Edna G. Lakin, Manager
Ivan Noblett. Principal
Was the challenge accepted? It seems not. I checked both Terre Haute papers and found no further reference to a game (tho it must be noted that several articles were cut out of the sports section that may have detailed the game).
In the end, were the Valley girls’ state champions? Two other teams initially challenged that claim. One was Sullivan, who by beating the Robinson, Illinois team in a Wabash Valley tournament, said the honor was theirs. But soon after they lost those two bitter games to Valley. The Dugger, Indiana girls team believed they deserved the honor, noting they were undefeated and one of their opponents was a college team.
In the end, though, it seems that the Valley High team was accepted as the state champs. And so they remain a source of pride to those dwindling few who remember them.
West Terre Haute was home to champions for that bright, shining moment.
1923 Valley High Roster
Gwen Hill, daughter of a Welsh miner (and next door neighbor of my grandmother’s family)
Dorothy Canada, daughter of a clay worker
Frieda Kern, her father was a bookkeeper
Hilda Trueblood, daughter of shop owner
Margaret Johnson, from a miner’s family
Gertrude Snack, whose father owned Snack’s Café (see McIlroy Avenue blog post)
Emma Dahart, born in France and daughter of a miner
Catherine Wrightson, she was born in Wales and father was a miner
Isabell Emrick, daughter of a former blacksmith
Elenore Daniels, father unemployed
Place names evoke. They have the power, for good or ill, to enfold universal memories and symbols within their stretch of letters. The world and I share many of them:
Munich, where fear and cowardice chose to mask itself in classic English tones and pitiable self-delusion against brutal, mocking truth.
Dien Bien Phu, where for the first time Western arrogance saw its coursing red blood drawn by the bite of their inferiors.
Dallas, where each shot from that Mannlicher-Carcano, guided by the self-aggrandized, nictating eye, laid mortal a thousand truths and homilies.
Some places are of no great importance for a wider world and belong only to a few.
Or to one.
McIlroy Avenue is mine
Named after one of West Terre Haute’s early merchants, McIlroy Avenue (pronounced Mac uh roy), only runs about 6 or 7 blocks south from Paris Avenue. The blocks between National and Paris Avenue were our route, mine and Gramps’. “Let’s take a walk, Buck (his nickname for me),” he would say. And off we would go. Gramps usually carried a stick (likely the handle of one of Grandma’s old brooms) because he was frightened of dogs and would wave it at them if he thought they were coming too close. Among our favorite family stories was the time Gramps was asked to bring home a big bag of potato chips for a family gathering. When he got home and the bag was hungrily ripped open an aunt found the it contained only crumbs. A dog had lunged at Gramps and he fought him off with the potato chip bag. Not a chip remained unbroken when the duel was over.
More often than not our destination was Snacks Café. Snacks tavern is an institution, having weathered the Prohibition era, when it was renamed a “soft drink parlor” (nudge, wink). It still stands, barely, serving its dwindling clientele.
I would wait in the back room while he went through the swinging door where Gramps got two quarts of beer. Falstaff and Sterling were his favorite, possibly because they were cheapest, fifty cents a bottle if I remember correctly. While he ordered and perhaps chatted with the bartender I would wait in the back room. An occasional raucous laugh floated toward me through the swinging door. But I remember the smells most of all. That ever pervading scent of stale beer and cigarettes mingling with fried onions and hamburgers is fixed deeply in my senses. Every time I pass an old tavern with its exhaust fans wafting that smell into the street (it happens a lot in Chicago, for some reason) I am instantly back again at Snacks Café.
When Gramps was done, his brown paper bag filled with beer, we walked back home, just talking.
But my stretch of McIlroy was the block between National and Riggy. No Black ever walked it. Nor any Jew as far as I know, unless it was earlier in the century and he was a salesman. A gay man walked it. But he was followed by a dialogue usually spoken from behind a hand hiding a smirk. There goes the sissy. You boys never be alone with him. Still it was my street.
On the southwest corner of National and McIlroy was “Red” Roach’s Gulf station. It sat on land once owned by my great grandfather David Arthur, and adjacent to parcel where another great grandfather’s family lived. The Gulf station was a place to get a bottle of pop or candy bar. Or, if you used what I thought was a strange gum machine in the men’s bathroom, condoms if you were one of my uncles. There was an empty lot south of the station. We played there occasionally. I remember one dark night when I was in my The Man From Uncle phase the field was a nest of foreign spies. I chased them with a highly prized plastic Beretta fitting snugly in a holster I fashioned from the leather price-labler holder Uncle Danny brought home from his job at the A&P.
Before it was an empty field it was David Arthur’s peach orchard, and evidently home to more than the fuzzy fruit. My grandmother’s youngest siblings were the twins Eva and Iva (known as Evie and Ivy). They were fun aunts. I always called them the Bawdy Bobbsey Twins. They would make my Mom laugh so hard she would pee her pants at times. They would do things like come up to you at the family reunion and ask (innocently?), “Do you know how to make antifreeze? Put an ice cube in my bra.” One day at a family get together they were reminiscing about younger days. Ivy asked Evie if she remembered the old man in the neighborhood who would sneak into the orchard and expose himself to them. Evie, in a reply that was so evocative that it sticks in my mind almost fifty years later, said, “Oh my yes. Poor old man, it looked like two old dried up peaches hanging from a dead limb.”
South across an alley was the telephone building and the Wardle’s house. It was a Bedford stone house and my favorite in town. I just liked its clean solid looks. Claude ran a lumbering business. Between high school and joining the Marines my uncle Jim worked for Claude. I remember him piling into the huge dinners Grandma would make, building a small mountain of mashed potatoes on his plate. Grandma sometimes cleaned for Jessie Wardle. Jessie was in her late fifties or early sixties and favored a drink or two in the afternoon I remember. I also remember her too-blonde hair and the low-cut blue dress that presented me with my memorable first view of cleavage.
Across the street was 101 W. Riggy, but more on that house later.
The Dog N Suds was on the southeast corner of National and McIlroy. It was an oasis of bright lights and tempting aromas. Mom worked there for a bit after I was born. Grandma loved their fish sandwiches, which were often purchased on Fridays. It was owned by Charlie Clements, and also stood on property once owned by David Arthur. Charlie and wife June, a kindly but always tired looking woman, worked the kitchen. There often treated me to blissfully cold and foamy root beers or ice cream cones. Charlie’s legs were aided by metal crutches, the kind that included supports that came up to his elbows. I often saw him struggle to move forward. He had contracted polio. I was told by his son when I was five that his dad’s polio was caused by him swallowing a bug. For a year afterward I would frantically spit out any insect that might land in my mouth lest I spend my life in an iron lung. It was not until the second grade that we all lined up in the gymnasium at Consolidated School, jiggly waiting in line to swallow the sugar cube that would save us from being trapped in that terror-inducing machine.
The Clements lived in a house behind the Dog N Suds. Their daughter Amy was my age and the first girl I became smitten with. Just south of their house was a tiny home where June Clements’ mother lived. The house had a mysterious aura to me. Perhaps because Amy’s grandmother was ill, or perhaps ill-tempered, we never were invited in there. It had a closed in, dark feel to it. I usually hastened my step when walking by there.
The next house on McIlroy was a two-storey brown shingled house. It was on property sold by my Grandma to the Clements. Mom and I lived in a second floor apartment there for a while after I was born. The first neighbors I remember were the Mattox family, Jerry, Rita, and their two girls. I liked Rita a lot, but Jerry, a diffident man who worked as a mechanic, seemed a distant sort. Between their house and the hill stood a small shed. Behind that shed a neighborhood girl and I gigglingly removed out pants and allowed each other to survey the disparate wonders of our nether regions.
So that was the stretch that led to Grandma and Gramp’s house. The street at the center of my existence. When I was 5 or 6 Mom and Grandma would let me walk up McIlroy as far as National around 5:00. Cautioned to watch out for cars I was allowed to stand by the Dog N Suds and wait for Gramps to come home from work. This would have been in his last years working, as 10 years in the mines and 37 more working at Terre Haute Concrete Supply had overcome his lungs. He would ride the bus home and get off at Paris and McIroy and walk home. He would stride across National and take my hand and lead me home to 20 S. McIroy.
I have lived in many houses. But until Robin and I bought the house we have made our home, it was truly the only place in the universe that was home to me.
The house at 20 S. was perhaps the most unusual one in West Terre Haute. Not for its splendor or stately lines certainly, but because it was basement house. It was not intended to be that, but circumstances made it unable to fulfill its full stature.
After they married my grandparents lived in several places, in David Arthur’s old house on National, in St. Marys, in Terre Haute. But they finally settled at 101 West Riggy, the house Grandma grew up in. They loved there for over twenty years. My Mom and all but two of her nine siblings were born or lived there on that triangular slice of land. Just before WWII they decided to build their own house. It was to be much larger. I know this because I sometimes pulled out the blue architectural drawing they kept in the cedar chest at the foot of their bedroom in the basement house. It would have been a fine home.
But materials shortages caused by the war and other things forestalled their dream house. Not until after the war did they start to build on the property left to Grandma by her family. They never finished it. The why is not fully known. Perhaps because their four oldest children had already moved out to start lives of their own, or money became short. Likely it was a combination of both.
They sold 101 W. Riggy and moved, leaving the home Grandma had known. Eventually it was bought by Arnold Selvia. He lived there with his family. His second wife Lois became one of our great friends. She and Grandma were close. His youngest daughter was named Susan. She was a tall girl who combined a bright smile with something forlorn living behind her eyes. At 14 she became partner of my first kiss and first love. Sadly, McIlroy and Riggy did not become the home, the safe haven, that it did to me. Shortly after high school she moved to Los Angeles, perhaps looking for that place. She died alone, in an LA County Jail cell, of a drug overdose. She was 21.
But that was later.
So my grandparents moved to 20 S.. The house was a rectangle, roughly 1600 square feet. The visible part of the shouse was about three feet above ground, topped by a tarred roof (tar had to be applied every few years to prevent leaks) and encased by brown tarpaper siding. Rising at the front was the entrance that took you down a stairwell. The ceilings were only about 6”8” high, which became a niggling problem for me when I reached my full height of 6’10.”
The stairwell was bookcased by two rooms. One might have first been used as one of the boys’ bedrooms, but later was used for storage. The other was the coal room. About once a month the coal dealer would deliver a load from one of the mines to be shoveled down into the room. Until I was about 10 the house was heated by two potbellied stoves, one in the living room, another in the kitchen. One of my jobs was to shovel out the ashes at night and the next morning. Next came the living room and Grandma and Gramps’ bedroom. I spent my first night after coming home from my birth at St. Anthony’s Hospital in their bedroom, swaddled and placed in the drawer from their bureau because my babybed was not yet put together.
The kitchen was next to the storage room. Grandma cooked on both a gas range and the coal stove. In one of the more oldey-timey, clichéd aspects of my life my early baths took place in a zinc bathtub beside the coal stove. Grandma’s Maytag wringer washer was in one corner. I was fascinated by the wringer and when I was old enough she let me work it to pull through the slopping wet clothes. Her washdays were long enough when it was just her, me and Gramps, I can’t imagine what it was like when she had seven or eight kids at home.
We were a kitchen family. That is where everyone gathered. If it was just the three of us in colder months, Gramps and I would play rummy, or Grandma and I would play Scrabble while she put up with me playing the radio loud when my favorite songs came on..
There were two bedrooms off the kitchen. The middle bedroom was often mine (I also liked to sleep on the living room couch so I could stay upe watching TV). I decorated it with scores of pictures of Mickey Mantle and other Yankees that I pasted on the walls. There was a secret (or maybe not so secret as Grandma was a sharp one) hole in the bedroom wall where two of my uncles, Kenny and Danny, hid their condoms.
All the walls were wallpapered until the 1970s, when the kitchen, living room and a bedroom were paneled. Linoleum covered the floor, except the back bedroom which was painted concrete. Each room had a single rectangular window (the kitchen had two) that barely let in enough sunlight, so lights were always turned on in the house. Indoor plumbing did not make its appearance until I was 16.
It could be stifling in the house in the summertime. Fans just did little more than waft warm air throughout the rooms. That is why Gramps and I loved rain storms. When they promised to break the heat (“Look at the upturned leaves, Buck. It’s gonna storm soon.”), we would climb the stairs and sit under the small overhang and just relish the rain. I still love to sit and watch and feel summer storms. I sometimes have imaginary conversations with Gramps.
As you can understand most summer evenings at 20 S. McIlroy were spent outside. Gramps and I would go out first. Grandma would come out when she had finished the dishes. She might water her peonies (pronounced “pineys”) and sit with us. I usually had a baseball game on the radio and a book in my hand, but the three of us would just talk. Often they would reminisce. It is because of those stories that I became an historian. They taught me a love for the past. On really stifling nights Gramps might bring up a pillow and old sheet and sleep on the roof. I tried it once or twice with him, but I have always liked my comforts.
At the back of the house was a mulberry tree whose fruit went uneaten but stained all it touched. In its notch, reachable by an easy climb, was an area that made a perfect cockpit. I shot down many a Messerschmidt 109 from there. When Gramps felt up to it we played catch in the yard. I cherished those times, though worried if I dropped a ball because he had played minor league baseball. But it was a silly worry. My Gramps never, ever said an unkind thing to me in my life. I was his boy. He and I had the sort of relationship I think he wished he had with his sons. But it is always easier with grandkids.
By the time I was 10 or so I realized how others viewed my home. I knew they saw it as shoddy and felt either sorry or superior because we lived in that basement house at 20 S. McIlroy. As a teenager I sometimes felt the pangs of unease about what they thought, but then thought to hell with them. And now…..
That house was my home. A home made by those who lived there. My only real sadness about that house is Grandpa’s end. Though Mom and Grandma nursed him with incomparable compassion and love, his body wasted in his last few months. When I went in to talk to him I often closed my eyes. I wanted to remember my Gramps as he had always been in my life. He passed away in his bed, in his bedroom, in his home in August, 1977.
A little over a year later his house had become as worn and wasted as he was at the end. Grandma was forced to move into a new house. A few years later the house at 20 S. McIlroy was leveled. Nothing of it remains to the passing eye.
I started this essay with rather grandiose allusions to the place of place in history. 20 S. McIlroy means nothing to the world. But it does to me. I think of it often. I visit in every week in my dreams.
It was, and is, home.
It’s not easy to walk six miles when you are a five-year old. Walking all the way from Sandford to West Terre Haute was not going to be easy. Especially if you have not had much to eat in the last few weeks. But mom holds your hand and pulls you along. You could take the interurban. But, no. mom does not have money to do that. Dad is home, sick. Dad has looked awful upset lately. Cars drive by and throw dust on your face. The interurban zips by. Boy, you would love to ride on that. Mom just looks ahead and says come on, “We need to get there before the food runs out.”
You wonder what strike means. And why everyone looks so upset when they say the word? Some things are hard to understand when you are just five. But most adults could not fully comprehend market gluts, depressed prices, downturns since the end of the war. They just knew a lot of people were out of work, and struggling.
The coal miners’ strike of 1922 was the largest in history. It began on April Fools’ Day, 1922. Both bituminous and anthracite miners struck under the leadership of John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. An army of more than 600,000 miners would walk picket lines, or throw rocks, or carry clubs and guns. They would later be joined by railroad shop men. Things looked rough.
The day before the strike began the Terre Haute Tribune listed the issues involved. The miners were fighting against wage cuts, wanted the current wage scale to hold. They wanted their backbreaking days to be shortened to six hours in a five day week. Wanted time and a half for overtime, and double-time for Sundays and holidays. The union-owners… They wanted wages cut back to 1917 levels. They wanted to be able to compete with the non-union-mines. The fight was on. The biggest was in Herrin, Illinois.
Frustration, fear, hunger and desperation erupted in horrible violence in Herrin in late June, 1922. Herrin was a hardscrabble mining town in deep southern Illinois. A local mine owner had imported strikebreakers to work his mine. They had dug over 60,000 tons of coal. He could make half a million dollars if he could get his coal out. Union strikers were desperate. Gun fire followed rock throwing. In a dark, bloody 24 hours, 23 men, strikers, scabs, and mine guards, were dead. It was a red-tinged feast of violence.
Luckily nothing approaching that occurred in Vigo County. There were threats, shouts and occasional rocks thrown, but things mainly stayed calm. But still there was fear, anger, and hunger.
West Terre Haute and its miners tried to help each other out. On Memorial Day 96 miner families received large baskets of food provided by the miners’ relief committee. The West Terre Haute Miners Relief Committee was not an official part of the United Mine Workers Union. It had been specifically formed to aid striking miners west of the Wabash River. Many familiar West Terre Haute names, Waugh, Silcox, Britton appeared on the committee. It had solicitation, finance and auto committees (to pick up food or provide transport for ill miners or their families). Local citizens cleaned out their fruit cellars. Some harvested their gardens to aid in the effort. Spare can goods, chewing gum, last year’s canned corn or green beans \ were offered up.
The committee set up its efforts in an empty store on National Avenue.
Outside the store signs implored them:
“Commissary Visitors Welcome.”
“Leave Orders One Day in Advance.”
“To Get Your Bread, Line Up and Take Your Turn and Keep Order”
“Bread Hours Three to Five p.m.”
“Bring Buckets for Your Lard”
“Bring Sacks for Your Eggs and Potatoes”
It was a well-organized operation. Miners had to register the day before the food giveaway. This allowed the relief organization to plan out equal shares. They allotted .50 per day for adults and .25 a day for each child. Twice a week miners were given enough food to last them and their families til the next week. Women were only allowed to pick up food if there husband was too ill to come himself. This was checked on to make sure her husband was not one of those lucky few to find another job. They did not wish those who were employed to take food from the mouths of those who were not.
People would line up for hours waiting for their name to be called. Once, a weakened miner fainted in the line. The lines were long. One week nearly 500 people stood more or less patiently. It was tough for a five-year old. But there were other kids to play with. And the crowing Rhode Island Red rooster that had been donated to look at. (The committee had coyly named the rooster Donn Roberts, after the former Terre Haute mayor who had served a term in Leavenworth for corruption.).
The five-year old likely did not pay much attention to the talk around him, which concerned the struggles of the union strikers, or that the government was not as neutral as they said. They always stick up for the bosses, not the working man. Old man Debs was right. Or about all the hardship fighting for their rights brought upon them. How many strikers had lost their homes because they could not pay rent. Why did you hear Pete LeClerc has 17 people living at his house? Or like Uncle Robert Fife standing there in line. 88 years old and a miner since he was nine. Or Mose Morgan, 77 years old. You know, he used to hold Gomer on his knee.
Gomer James was one of the leaders of the relief effort. The son of Welsh immigrants, Gomer had long worked in the mines. He wanted to do something to help his brethren. He worked hard for the committee. He worked hard for his fellow miners and their families. Now he stood long hours passing out food, with a broad smile on his face. Just trying to help.
Finally the five-year old and his mom were at the front of the line. Gomer James leaned over and asked him. “What do you want?” “I want bread,” he said looking up at the man. He got bread. And more. He and his mom took the gift of food. Now they faced that six mile walk back to Sandford. Maybe someone would give their tired legs a ride. Maybe not. But the load of food they toted back made their burden easier.
The strike would end in August. How many in that line saw the strike as a portent of what was to come? The strike was just a bitter taste of what was to become of West Terre Haute. Over the next decade mines would be played out and close. The work that had filled the town with such hope would soon splutter. The mines that brought the Welsh, the Italians, the Bohunks (a word that was still be used when I was young) to the area would soon lie upon their deathbeds, slowly fading away. And with them a town of promise.
In August of 1867 Sister Mary Joseph of St. Mary’s wrote a letter to her friend and former student Sally Rand (and yes I take sublime pleasure in noting her friend had the same name as the later famous fan dancer) telling of a new discovery. “Sally, 20 yards from the depot on our own land they have found a beautiful mine of coal. The hole or pit is 100 feet deep and 10 feet horizontally in the black stuff it burns first rate and is prime quality. When you’ll be cold come to St. Marys.”
It is unclear how quickly or extensively this vein was exploited by the Sisters. After all, they had no experience with owning a coal mine. They turned to Joseph Broadhurst. Broadhurst, a local resident, was part of the Broadhurst family from England who had dug the first coal mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846. They were the sort of “coal kings” of the area. The Sisters signed a fifteen-year lease with Broadhurst in 1868. The lease terms gave the Sisters a half cent royalty on every bushel of sellable coal and one bushel for their own use of every four bushels dug.
It was first dug by the slope method by burrowing under farm field, but by 1875 the state geologist reported a shaft had been dug to open up more of the vein. At first it was a profitable venture. The main customers were railroads, as the St. Marys depot became a fueling stop. The steam engines would pull into the depot and reload their coal bins as passengers or goods were loaded or unloaded. But due to “intriguing and underselling” by rival mine owners the mine became unprofitable. Most of the coal was then used for the campus.
Four new coal beds were found in 1894 and yet another shaft was drilled. The Sisters once again turned the mine over to a lessee. By doing so they did not have to oversee the mining operations, and hoped to make a profit. This time it was J.A Erwin who was the superintendent of the farm on the campus grounds. He agreed to provide coal to the college for .50 to .65 per ton. This would be used for the campus powerhouse, kitchens, men’s house, etc. He would also provide coal to St. Joseph’s Academy, a parochial school in Terre Haute, at a fixed rate of $1.25 per ton. Erwin also agreed to pay the Sisters a .25 royalty per ton of coal sold to outsiders.
Once again profit was elusive. Erwin asked and was granted a reduction in the royalty to .10, but that was only a stopgap. The Sisters once more took back control of the mine, and kept it. They established the Sisters of Providence Coal Company (arguably the first mining company owned and operated by women.) Their ownership did not go unnoticed. Several trade publications and Popular Mechanics published articles about the unusual St. Marys mine ownership. Mining and Engineering World featured it in a 1913 article. The first shaft had been played out and a new one was dug in 1910. It was sunk 270 feet and featured room and pillar structure. There were six entrances to the coal veins.
It was into this mine that my grandfather, his brothers and father stepped on their workdays. It was in these alleys that Gramps herded bank mules hauling coal dug by his father to the surface, pulling from the earth the nuggets of black diamond so needed for power. The daily capacity was estimated to be 60 tons of coal per day, but seldom were more than 50 tons dug, as the Sisters only had them mine what was needed. Much of the coal was hauled by trolley system (see photo below) to the campus powerhouse that held 5 dynamos to provide electricity and power the steam heating system.
The mine continued to operate. Its only “downtime” followed a 1920 fire that stopped operations for a while. The 1930s and 1940s saw the mining operation struggling to deal with labor and safety issues. Though the Sisters’ mine was exempt from some aspects of mining law (like paying an excise tax on coal mined there) due to their non-profit status, they were liable to others. As the coal played out and new safety regulations (some of which were enforced by my grandfather’s brother Hugh, by then a state mine inspector) would have required expensive upkeep, it was thought best to close down operations in 1954.
The mines are all but forgotten by most, remembered by me chiefly through the stories Gramps and others told me. On a sultry, drizzly day last August I walked much the same path from the back gate to the mine my family did. I fancied I could still see coal dust deposited by their blacked boots in the graveled, pitted road and reflections of straining men from below in the lakes that were once mines.