The death list from the Rolling Mills explosion, Johnstown, 1909
In my years of working as a newspaper writer, one of the things I came to appreciate the most was what happens in your head once you fill it with seemingly unrelated facts. The first thing that is important about this process is that there are no unrelated facts, particularly in newspaper stories, and I have now found, in novel writing. Pick a story: 9/11. I collected reports from perhaps a dozen reporters in the field, the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times News Service and the Washington Post. Then you sit in front of a television and let all that stuff mush around in your head like chili cooking in a kitchen. Your eyes take in what you see on TV, plane flying into buildings, people falling to earth from thousands of feet up in a building. The frightening sound they make when they hit the ground. What people tell reporters about witnessing this. Then you take a walk. You go lean against the side of a building in the sun. You collect everyone’s stories and think hard literally about how they stack up. Your mind picks first, second, third and onward until it settles on a framework. Then you type like your pants are on fire until you have presented everything you have collected. Voila! A big story.
Writing books is not literally like that because if its fiction, then there are few demonstrable facts. That is why it’s fiction. So you must fill your head with the next best thing, imaginary facts constucted on real things. My first level of collection came sitting on my father’s lap a long, long time ago and listening to him tell stories about coal mining. It was a violent business where people got blown up, unimaginably burned on the 440 volt lines used to power the man trips that carried them deep into the mines, scarred and blasted by rock blown out of the coal face when they didn’t give themselves enough time to hide. I did not witness any of these incidents because I was a little boy sitting on his father’s lap. But I took them all into my head and dreamed about them, imagined how they were. They were not all life or death facts. I knew where the miners went to poop, over in what was called the gob, a ditch on the other side of the mine where you weren’t working. This would come up when my father and I were fishing. I would complain about having to poop and he would point down the path and tell me to “go over in the gob” and warned me not to use any of the greenery nearby, because lots of its was poision ivy, and you didn’t want to get that on your pooper.
Then you would wash your hands in the river with whatever gritty stuff was available and dry off on your t-shirt and sit by the river for a Lebanon balogna sandwich (it was ALWAYS Lebanon Balogna) and another story. They weren’t always about mining. Sometimes they were about railroading, almost as dangerous a job. He told me once about a man with a perfect seam down his side that ran from his armpit down to his ankle. “Know how he got that?” he would ask. You would just sit there waiting. Then he would tell you about the railroader who got trapped on the tracks when a steam engine was coming. He tried to roll out of the way, but the steamer and the coal car and everything behind it got him him by the overhauls and pinned him to the track and put a 1/8th inch seam all the way up his side. My father said he was lucky to have that because he should have been dead.
If I were writing a railroad book instead of a coal mining book, I would find some way to get that in there because it scared me and was so vivid i can see that seam today whenever I think about it and close my eyes. He filled my head with coal mining stories, too, and many of them are in the book and I’m not going to tell you what they are here. You just have to wait. Okay, just one. The man who stood up and his head touched a 440 line at Sonman just outside Portage was split by knife-like stream of fire and electricity that cut him right down to his waist. He was, of course, dead.
How do you find out about coal mining and its costs, its human costs and its economic costs. You turn to Anthony Thomas Shurick, perhaps the smartest person in history on the question of how it was to mine coal. He wrote many texts, many of them in the 1920s, that examined just about every aspect of coal production, including market place fluctuations and the impact they had on profits. Not something to go into here, but something you should definitely know if you were going to write that there was always pressure on the mines to produce, even in the wake of disasters.
This turned out to be a valuable piece of information for me, because it was a piece of the foundation of what led to my book: No coal=No money. A pretty simple formula until you consider that meant that nothing, not nature, not incompetence, not even corruption shut down the digging of coal. Men died by the hundreds because of that reality.
Where were they from?
That is all in the record. In 1902, for example, an explosion of gas At the Rolling Mill Mine in the Sixth Bituminous District took the lives of 112 miners, 7 of them burned to death and the rest suffocated, the youngest was Michael Shilovinety, 17, a miner who was working beside his father, Michael Sr., 40. They were Croation. J.F. Evans was the state mine inspector at the scene.
After a long period of time, the victims were remembered on one of those Pennsylvania highway department signs you wouldn’t notice at modern highway speeds unless you knew what happened there.
Page through lists like these and you learn a lot about who was working in the mines in 1906. Look at the “Nationality” column for the dead: Italian, English, Slovene, Hungarian, Scots, Polish, Lithuanian, German, Austrian. Every one of of the dozens of pages I collected was the same way, a vast collection, mainly eastern Europeans, who died underground in Pennsylvania.
When I was reading through these darks lists and noticed the name “J.F. Evans, Mine Inspector” I went through my other hundred or so pages of deaths and noticed that each one had a different Mine Inspectors name. I wondered who they were, where they came from, who sent them.
That is where writing fiction comes in. I knew that to explain the kind of disasters I would present, fictional but based on what actually happened in mines, I would need need narrators. Look at the names on that list, imagine the kind of people you would need to question all those survivors, find out what happened, look for people who were responsible.
English could not be their only language. So I worked out a job description. Because educated miners were in short supply in Pennsylvania, I wanted at least one of them to come from Europe, and this one would have to be comfortable in a lot of the languages on these death lists. So I invented him: Anders Apostole, a Romanian miner from Transylvania (comic relief here) with an engineering background and four languages. I invented the place he would work, too, an office in the basement of the Commerce Department with the words “Bureau of Mines” on the window.
You will read that the man who headed he bureau of mines was named Edward Finn, an honest, diligent investigator, and that is all I will say about him here. Then there is his deputy, Valery Miller. This is high fiction, because there were no women as mine inspectors in that era. But she is special and I’m not going to tell you why here. Then you need a detective with law enforcement clout. He comes from the Pennsylvania State Police and I will only tell you that a more honest cop never lived. Then there are some corrupt restaurateurs, because what is a mystery without a couple of corrupt guys with big hearts who own dives where cops and mine investigators eat?
There are some others, too. A beautiful woman from the anthracite fields with a heart as black as hard coal is there. She is also an alcoholic with mental health problems. Her husband is what New Jersians used to call “a scum bag” for a lot of reasons, and then, of course there are many dead miners. How that happened I’m not going to say here. But it is a case to break everyone’s heart, even the hearts of people who have seen a lot of mine disasters.
I think I have said enough.
I am publishing this book myself with help from something call Book Writing Experts. I hope the name fits, but we will see. It’s in editing now and should be published on Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and other places too, assuming Book Writing Experts weren’t just jiving me to get my moolah.
Charles Martin Madigan, Nov. 26, 2022