By Dwight Williamson
Thousands of men have since about 1900 risked their lives bringing coal from the mountainous hollows of Logan County. There have been hundreds of coal mine related deaths and thousands of injuries, including broken backs and lost limbs — all for the sake of producing coal. Now, with coal mining much safer, and with better laws designed to help protect the coal miners, there appears to be little need for men who desire to continue a local time honored tradition. However, there certainly was a time when coal miners were wanted, and it led to the makeup of what we now know as our beloved Logan County. Italians, Hungarians, Russians, Polish and Negros, mixed in with many other nationalities, have over the years blended together to create our potpourri of a county. Nearly all of our families came to the area many years ago seeking employment in or around the coal mines. The following account is just one of numerous true stories that relate to local times of the past.
William Grimmett, described in a 1939 Logan Banner story as a Negro, was a coal miner who lived at Omar and worked at the No. 4 mine of West Virginia Coal and Coke Corporation. Grimmett, known as “Boots” by his Island Creek friends, was 48 years old and had been working in the mines since 1923, according to the Banner report. While this information would seem about normal for a coal miner in 1939, “Boots” was anything but a normal coal miner. You see, “Boots” Grimmett had no legs and got around by means of two 36-inch crutches. Still, he had made his living through physical labor since he was a young man. In the mines, he loaded coal, run a motor, cleaned track and done other jobs required at the time. Employees at the No. 4 mine marveled at how he could get in and out of the large mine cars at the mine.
“Boots” hailed from Warrior, Alabama, where when he was four years old he lost his legs when a train struck him. “When we got into war in 1917, I was the first man to be examined for service in Warrior and the doctors pronounced me perfect physically, except for the fact that I had my legs off,” he explained. Standing at four feet and four inches tall, Boots said, “I would have been a big man if I hadn’t lost my legs.” His right leg was off above the knee, and his left was off half-way between the foot and the knee. Scoffing at those who would pity him because of his handicap, he said, “People just don’t know how little they use their legs. Just think it over and you will find the only persons who make their living with theirs are dancers.”
In the mines he placed what was left of his left foot on the rail, and with the crutches, he reportedly could walk as fast as any man. When he wanted to get into a mine car, he swung his body in the air by means of his powerful arms, and pulled himself over the edge. He always enjoyed steady work and was considered a good, reliable worker by employers. His favorite hobby was boxing and the great Joe Louis was his favorite. “Boots” said that when the “Brown Bomber” boxed, he would get a ride to Logan and place his money on Louis. “Every time he fights, he has some of my money on him,” he proudly said.
Perhaps a good example of “Boots” Grimmett’s outlook on life can be explained in a favorite story in which “Boots’ passed a one-armed beggar, tin cup in hand, who was standing on the company store porch at Omar. “Boots” dropped a half dollar in the cup and then remarked: “Poor man, it sure must be tough to be crippled.”
Feel free to make up your own moral for the William “Boots” Grimmett story. As for myself, I don’t believe I’ll be complaining about my arthritic knee anymore — thanks to a long gone coal miner named “Boots.”
ANOTHER PIECE OF COAL HISTORY
It has long been thought and even written that the first train load of coal was shipped from Logan County in 1904. The fact is, in the summer of 1903 when the railroad was still in the process of being constructed to the town of Logan, a Stone Branch mine just above Big Creek produced the first coal that was hauled on a work train to the Ohio River. The train was returning from having hauled supplies for workers who were completing the railroad track to Logan. The coal fired train always stopped on its return trip at Big Creek to take on water. According to George E. Chapman, who was a janitor at the Logan courthouse in the late 1930’s, he drove the span of mules which hauled the coal to the railroad cars.
Chapman said that he didn’t believe that Stone Branch Mine was the first to mine commercial coal in the county. He said that mines at both Holden and Mt. Gay had been mining coal and stockpiling it until the railroad reached them, which occurred in 1904. The equipment for the mine at Holden came in over the mountain from Dingess, which had become a busy and significant place because the railroad had already reached there. In fact, before the railroad reached Logan, local merchants ordered goods for their stores and brought them by horse or mules from Dingess to Logan.
“In those days,” said Chapman, “mules were used exclusively for haulage, and oil lamps, burning lard oil, furnished illumination. Day wages at the time was $1.50 and miners were paid $1 per foot but the mine openings had to be driven nine feet wide with a pick, and black powder was for blasting. A wooden track was used instead of iron, according to Chapman’s account.
Jeff Workman, a janitor at the local high school back then, was quoted as saying: “Our tipple wasn’t more than a chute to transfer the coal to the bottom of the hill and a bin that held a small amount of coal. We didn’t have any screens or crushers. We only produced run-of-the mine coal.”
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.
*Published with permission.