“Sixteen Tons” brings mine wars of ’20s and ’30s alive

“Are the mules okay?” Not to diminish hard-working mules, but the mine boss’s urgent question after an accident captures the cruel reality thrust upon generations of underground coal miners, whose toil fueled America.

That authentic quote valuing mules over expendable common laborers jumps off the pages of “Sixteen Tons,” (Hard Ball Press, 2014), described as a “novel” by author Kevin Corley, a former grade school principal in the coal fields of Central Illinois.

In the nick of time, Corley recorded interviews with aging survivors of historic coal mine wars and disasters dating to the 1920s and 1930s. He also interviewed their wives and children. Oral histories from West Virginia, Colorado and other hotbeds of violence supplement his work. Two years ago during a work lull, Corley literally arranged these often stark, blood-drenched memories of life below and above ground in chronological order.

“The book wrote itself,” he says modestly of his legerdemain in using genuine quotes for a gripping, brutal narrative focused on epic civil wars between the United Mine Workers of America and the Progressive Miners of America, bloody massacres  (Virden, Ludlow and Herrin, among others), and explosive mine disasters. The “company” stance is presented as events unfold. All of the oral historians are given fictitious names. Spoiler alert: More blood flows here than in a vampire movie.

By contrast, blackened miners trudge home from work to families that are often – but not always — portrayed as loving and supportive. Wives plant gardens, walk picket lines, darn socks, serve robust meals to their striking husbands, skillfully serve as matchmakers for their children, dodge bullets and ultimately die out of loyalty.

The emblematic family is comprised of Antonio and Angeline Vacca, Italian immigrants whose struggles, joys and sorrows propel a multi-generational dynasty. They are inspired by the real-life Max Boch family that lived in the tidy coal-mining village of Hewittville, a short walk from where Corley taught school. In the book, bloody battles rage here too, near the Vaccas’ front porch.

Mother Jones, John L. Lewis (the fiery leader of the Union Mine Workers) and even rising country singer Gene Autry weave through the narrative. Over the years, numerous books have been written by others to chronicle the union wars and mine disasters. It’s the powerful, chill-inducing voices that set “Sixteen Tons” apart.  On page after page, almost all are verbatim.

I have one quibble. Not being knowledgeable about the events that strengthened organized labor and bolstered mine safety, I would have benefited from a succinct list of events, dates and impact.

Why should we care about coal, currently denounced by many in Washington, D.C. and the scourge of environmentalists? At a minimum, anyone wanting to keep warm should pay attention. Even now, coal provides 40 percent of the world’s energy needs. The Associated Press reports that 29 miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia in 2010.  The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration reported 20 coal mining deaths both in 2013 and 2012, according to the AP.

Throughout, Corley serves as an oracle, raising a bullhorn on behalf of the courageous, death-defying miners whose excruciating labors in the dark bowels of the earth will induce gasps in readers.

Squeezed into crevices,  pounding support timbers  before they could even start to extract coal, and in constant peril of restless earth, runaway coal cars and “black damp” (a deadly mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen), the miners who powered our great country finally emerge from behind the seams.


Carol Alexander is an award-winning journalist and co-author with Liberty the Pig of “The Big Squeal,” the first kid-friendly look at the Mud Circuit that prepared Abe Lincoln for the presidency.  Carol can be reached for programs and interviews at carolalex@ctitech.com.

Thanks to Tim Sheard (timsheard@hardballpress.com) of Hard Ball Press for submitting Carol Alexander’s review to Classism Exposed!

Leave a Reply