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Mining Towns in Alabama

James Sanders Day, University of Montevallo
Ensley Postcard
As coal and iron industries developed in Alabama, mining towns came to define the daily existence and the social order for thousands of miners and their families. Numerous towns dotted the landscape during the boom times for coal and iron production, but mining's decline in the last half of the twentieth century brought about the disappearance of many communities. Although some persisted, the absence of a viable industry forced most residents to seek other economic opportunities. After the people moved, companies typically dismantled the buildings and the materials for whatever profit they could gain. Nevertheless, multiple generations of Alabamians lived and died in mining towns such as Ensley, Aldrich, Blocton, and Margaret, and they were a significant element of the state's cultural and economic history.
Child Mine Workers
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, miners lived in camps consisting of temporary housing, saloons, and brothels that were often violent and turbulent. The outbreak of World War I, however, prompted many European miners to return to their home countries, including Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, and Poland. Meanwhile, the start of what became known as the Great Migration in 1915 marked the movement of many southern black laborers to the industrial regions of the North, creating a shortage of labor. Consequently, men with families moved from rural areas, where they largely earned a living from sharecropping and tenant farming, to take jobs in Alabama's mining areas. Mine owners expanded towns and added amenities to support this new influx that included women and children. They constructed churches, schools, libraries, and meeting houses and offered recreational activities to generate a sense of community. These paternalistic trends that developed after World War I promoted welfare capitalism, a system in which industrialists provided workers with amenities and services and used welfare societies and company unions to counter interest in labor unions. Of course, the convicts who were leased to operators by the state enjoyed none of these benefits.
Layout and Services
In the early years of mining, mules hauled coal cars from the seam to the surface, and many towns had a mule lot, harness shop, and blacksmith shop located near the mine entrance. With the introduction of electricity, mine owners added structures to house generators and engine rooms. Rising above the mine entrance, tipple operations dumped coal from the cars, and shakers sorted the coal lumps by size. At some locations, coal washers removed dirt and debris from the coal, thereby allowing operators to gain a higher price for better-quality coal.
These towns usually began their existence with the construction of a sawmill, as owners cleared land and turned felled trees into lumber for constructing administrative buildings and company housing. A company office, store, doctor's office, and engine room constituted the main operations area. Thereafter, two-, three-, and four-bedroom houses lined a number of residential streets. Mining town populations ranged between 3,000 and 5,000 when mines were at full production.
Aldrich Coal Mining Museum
Centrally located between the mine entrance and the housing area, the company store, or commissary, became the economic and social center of the community. Miners and their families relied on the store for hardware, medical supplies, automobile accessories, animal feed, and toys as well as explosives and mining tools. Prices tended to be slightly higher than at local competitors, but a delivery service for groceries, feed, and ice often made the company store more convenient. After calculating payroll deductions for various fees (such as medical care and school), many operators paid miners with company money called scrip, and shopping at the commissary enabled families to receive full value for their scrip.
Typically within close proximity to the commissary, the company office building served multiple purposes. Frequently co-located with the post office, telegraph office, railroad depot, and meeting hall, the office building served as the administrative center of the town. In addition, the nearby cashier's office enabled miners to receive their pay and spend their wages at virtually the same time. By mid-century, barber shops and beauty parlors, laundromats, drug stores, gas stations, and hardware stores created a shopping district within easy walking distance of the company offices.
Challenges
Mining operations produced an abundance of dust and numerous coke ovens generated clouds of smoke, so keeping things clean presented a daily challenge. As a result, a family's rank or station within the community could be measured by the proximity of its home to the mines and furnaces. The homes of the superintendent and administrators and other professional staff, such as doctors, dentists, preachers, and mine inspectors, were located far from the mining operations, in an area often referred to by miners as "Silk Stocking Row." Miners' homes and administrative buildings were located closer to the mines.
Life in mining towns presented a number of concerns for doctors, nurses, and social workers. Smallpox, typhoid, diphtheria, tuberculosis, hookworm, venereal disease, and pellagra were common ailments. More serious conditions required transport to a hospital in Birmingham. Nurses and social workers helped wives and mothers with prenatal and postnatal care, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, and vaccinations. Learning these basic skills was vital to enable previously isolated and self-sufficient families to live in close proximity and to help immigrants adapt to life in the United States.
Mining Company Housing
Even though miners, both black and white, performed the same tasks, experienced the same risks, and earned the same rate of pay, they lived in racially segregated housing. All miners patronized the commissary and had access to company services, but they attended separate schools and churches. In some towns, an additional form of segregation separated European immigrants from other white miners. All housing followed the same general plan, however. The standard company house consisted of a kitchen, living/dining room, and two bedrooms. Electric lights and running water might be included for a monthly fee, but most families continued to rely on outdoor privies.
Mining Town Life
Miners endured long shifts, dangerous and cramped working conditions, and serious health problems. Also, seasonal markets and cyclical demand forced miners to supplement their income and livelihood by seeking work outside the mining towns. These conditions resulted in a turnover rate in mining labor of near 100 percent for the first three decades of the twentieth century. Miners who remained supplemented their income by farming, hunting, and fishing. Farms and gardens usually produced an abundance of vegetables, and some miners cultivated small patches of cotton for commercial sale. Hogs, cows, and chickens added meat to the diet, and smokehouses and canning jars enabled families to preserve some of their food for later use. In a few towns, operators provided seeds and fertilizer, insisting that each family tend a garden and preserve a portion of their crop. Water often came from a spring or well, and some families used streams or abandoned mines to keep perishable foods cool.
Mining Company Church, Bessemer
Schools and churches helped families cope as well. As child labor laws increased the working age, education opportunities arose for young children. Mining companies constructed separate schools for white and black children and hired teachers who lived in company-owned houses. Although most schools operated for only six months each year, literacy levels increased within the mining communities. Baptist and Methodist religious services were most common and often held in the meeting hall or during off-hours in the schools. Other Protestant faiths established a presence in some towns, and Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox congregations emerged among ethnic enclaves. In many cases, itinerant preachers conducted services two or three times each month, but some companies paid a minister to live in the community.
Bessemer Industrial League Baseball Team
In addition to daily routines, miners and their families found diversions in various forms of recreation and leisure activities. Sports such as tennis, basketball, and football generated some interest, but baseball remained the popular favorite with operators sponsoring teams that participated in the so-called industrial leagues. Holiday celebrations included barbecue and a parade by local bands. Theaters hosted weekly events such as vaudeville shows, films, plays, and concerts, and traveling circuses often made the rounds once or twice per year. Fraternal organizations provided a social outlet for men, and women often participated in quilting bees or reading clubs. Many community centers had a game room with pool or ping pong, and residents gathered on porches at company stores for games of checkers, dominoes, and cards. Children often played marbles or spun tops while their mothers shopped inside.
In general, mining towns displayed similar characteristics, but each community had unique qualities derived from the founding company and employee mix. Ultimately, the company owned everything, but the rural folkways brought by the laborers and their families fostered mutual assistance, a collective identity, and a sense of solidarity. For most residents, life in a mining town was better than the hardscrabble existence they left behind.
Additional Resources
Day, James Sanders. Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.
Flynt, Wayne. Poor But Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.
Oral History Collection, Samford University Archives, Birmingham, Alabama.
Shifflett, Crandall A. Coal Towns: Life, Work, and Culture in Company Towns of Southern Appalachia, 1880-1960. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Published:  July 10, 2015   |   Last updated:  October 9, 2015