Monday, April 13, 2015

Women in Mining Camps

I thought I'd share the seminal research that sparked my interest in women in mining camps, and ultimately inspired my upcoming novel, When Doves Fly. Women often have no voice in history, having been immersed in the maintenance of their families, stifled by discrimination, and denied a lasting outlet for their thoughts and ideas. One of my goals in my writing is to give them a voice and acknowledge their impact.

This will be a two-part post, so check back next week for the second part.

Group of mine workers...and one woman. c. 1895-1905

History studies consistently neglected women until relatively recently. While interest in women’s roles and their contributions to every aspect of society, culture, politics, medicine, and economic development has surged, huge gaps of knowledge and understanding still trouble us. When we read about mining towns, from early mining in Pennsylvania and Virginia to the California gold rush period and later to established mining operations throughout the United States, we find a vision of rough, dirty men engaged in dangerous manual labor. Women remain mostly absent from this picture. When offered a glimpse, we see only the stray barmaid or prostitute in the tavern or saloon. It is difficult to comprehend women’s impact on mining communities in the 19th century. Mining camps needed women and offered women a drastically different life and opportunities unavailable elsewhere. The women in these areas encountered hardships, prospects, and lifestyles unseen by women in urban areas. Ultimately, they changed how women were viewed and changed their communities in sometimes subtle but inescapable ways.

The earliest mining communities in the eastern United States were established in the beginning of the 19th century.1 At this time, areas east of the Mississippi River remained largely unexplored. Throngs of immigrants flowed into eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky to find land and fresh opportunities. Businessmen in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston searched for new sources of revenue. Industrialization swept the country. Additional resources were needed to fuel these changes, and the discovery of anthracite (coal) in the Allegheny Mountains provided one of the richest foundations for this growth. By the 1820s, farmland and uninhabited areas sprouted small mining camps as investors and landowners realized the enormous potential of the reserves under the soil.2

Men established these camps, and initially, all of the workers and supporting labor were men. During the period of speculation for a mine, small operations employed a dozen or two hands, and women stayed home in the urban areas or on the farms.3 Once a large vein was discovered, and the mine proved profitable, more men arrived, and practically overnight a community sprang up. A town could go from one hundred inhabitants to thousands in a few years.4 Owners and investors encouraged and even financed the growth, because population development around the mining district brought even more profit. In 1835, a mine investor planned a community in Pennsylvania and envisioned "'a first Town within the Coal Range, and in the midst of a great mining district.' In addition to the profits from royalties on coal, the development of the Westwood Tract would bring additional financial benefits from the sale of town lots, mill seats, and timber and an extensive 'home trade' could be expected…"5

Further, development of the communities, which required women and families, could benefit the operation of the mine itself. "'Nothing can equal the neatness and Comfort of these snug dwellings…the wife keeps all in order at home, every child at 7 or 8 years gets to work among the Coal or in the Neighboring Manufactories…Saturday Night collects all the wages and all the family together…'"6 In this instance, we see women in the communities illustrated as they were elsewhere at the time: as the wife of the working man, keeping a comfortable and respectable family life at home. With these eastern mines, the mining company planned orderly communities, and often, even before the mining operation was fully constructed, a town grew nearby to provide necessary services. As quickly as they could build housing, the families of the miners, artisans, and craftsmen moved in, providing a "family life" for workers.

Even in relatively large communities, the lack of single women resulted in large numbers of working single men who needed services normally performed by a wife. Laundering, cooking, gardening, sewing, and many other services were performed by married women who operated (but rarely owned) boarding houses or worked from home. They moved frequently, following their men to new operations. They had to assimilate in communities often hostile to immigrants. They provided the comforts of a home without many of the supplies and amenities available in urban areas.

By the middle of the 19th century, with mining communities expanding in the East, textile mills sprang up near sources of industrialization. While the men worked in the mines, some women began working outside the home in several fields, often related to clothing.7 Women and children, with their smaller frames and hands, could often perform tasks in cramped spaces or work which required dexterity many men lacked. The mills required long hours in harsh conditions--and the female workers often still had to run the house when they arrived home. Some of these women were integral to the start of the Labor Movement. Many of these industries, and the women workers they relied on, provided the capital for costly mineral exploration and made mining possible.

The women in these early, Eastern mining towns were essential to the mine's operation, as they performed the menial household work and supplied necessary services. They allowed both married and single men to pull treasure from the ground without worrying about the time-consuming daily tasks of living. This dictated a hard life for the women, even more so as America moved westward.


1. Anthony F. C. Wallace, St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town's Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987), 3.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Ibid., 70.
4. Ibid., 96.
5. Ibid., 78.
6. Ibid., 79.
7. Doris Weatherford, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930 (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1995), 205-206.

 Image courtesy of Library of Congress -


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Storm Coming

Insidious fingers reach inside, through the layers of flesh, seeking delicate filaments. Claws of heat and ice, tipped with needles, burrow and tunnel until they find their mark. They tease, light, gentle—oh so gentle—as they explore the innermost reaches of my soul. The fingers whisper of a storm coming, like a breeze that ruffles flower petals on a lazy, muggy afternoon while dark clouds swell on the horizon.
I brace myself for the storm. Cover the flowers, close the windows, and retreat to the deepest, darkest corner in search of shelter. I hide and wait for it to pass.
Will it spare me this time? Might the frenzy pass me by? When I emerge, will I find my world intact?
Not this time. The wind and whispers grow louder, into a howl of thunderous glee, a scream of fury. The tender exploration turns savage when the fingers find a rift in my defenses. Talons rip through tissue and slake their bloodlust. Like lightning striking a tree, the fingers seek the heart and set it afire, burning and charring until nothing remains but a blackened, wispy skeleton.
The storm rages, the beast ravages. Nothing could survive the tempest. Yet I must, I do. Until the fingers whisper again.

Image courtesy of prozac1 at