For the next six months, the Raleigh County Public Library’s Beckley Branch will be hosting a Miners’ Memorial Exhibit. The three-sided exhibit describes the dangers of coal mining in West Virginia since the early 1900s and memorializes miners who lost their lives.
On March 6, 1900, an explosion at the Red Ash mine in Fayette County killed 46 miners and marked the beginning of decades of deadly mining accidents in West Virginia. Mining had long been known as a dangerous industry, but the increased use of explosives and the faster pace of mechanized mining in the early 1900s led to an unprecedented number of accidents and fatalities.
After a December 1908 explosion at the Lick Branch mine in McDowell County killed 50 miners, the company adopted the check tag system. Miners received a silver dollar sized steel tag with a number on it, and tags left on a board outside of the mine tracked which workers were underground.
The Miners’ Memorial Exhibit has a check tag board in memory of fallen miners. There are blank check tags on hand that family members can imprint with letters and numbers and hang on the board in memory of a loved one.
“Seeing the tags, reading the bold statements about the losses of life and viewing the film truly brings to life the stark realities of West Virginia’s history of mining accidents,” said librarian Amy Stover. “Most West Virginian’s have a family story of someone who worked in the mines and frequently stories of someone lost to the mines.”
Shirley Henson Maddox placed the first check tag on the board in memory of her father Grant Henson, who died in Junior 8 mine in Newtown in 1954. Ms. Maddox had the original idea for the Miners’ Memorial Exhibit.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum created the memorial exhibit in 2016 with the help of designer Liz Pavlovik and retired miner Dan Collins as well as funding from the West Virginia Humanities Councail.
In addition to the check tag board, the memorial exhibit features information on the dangers of mining and a video interview with Dr. Paul Rakes of West Virginia University Institute of Technology. Rakes, who worked in the mines before pursuing a career in history, has published articles and book chapters on the history of mine safety.
“Visitors to the library frequently are pulled in by the video and then slowly start to read the placards, look at the tags and then want to share their own stories,” Stover said. “Young or old, everyone has to stop and look.”
The Miners’ Memorial Exhibit will be on display from now through October. For more information, contact Amy Stover at the Raleigh County Public Library at 304-255-0511