In 1928 at the age of 17, my dad, Webster Warren Bateman, went to work in a coal mine in New Salem, North Dakota. The historical fiction novel I’m writing, Cat Skinner: A Story of Lust, Love and Loss in the 1930’s will include this experience and many others during his youth.
I was talking to my husband, Scott, about dad’s experience in the mine. This led to a Google search of the Carbide Lantern. What I found gave me a whole new appreciation for Dad’s own written description about the experience. The lantern, so small it could be held in a man’s hand, had two chambers. The bottom was for the solid carbide chips. It screwed into a top chamber that held water. A drip system allowed water droplets to reach the carbide creating acetylene gas. A lever on top of the lantern regulated the length of the flame which came straight out the front, brightened by a round, metal reflector plate behind the flame. Once lit by a spark from a striker wheel on the reflector plate or a match, the lamp gave off a bright, warm light. Still, I can’t imagine that as a miner’s only source of light 300 feet into the earth. Webb’s own words follow:
One of my next jobs was for a coal mine in New Salem, North Dakota (1928). My earnings were the mainstay for the family that winter.
I worked for a few days for free with another miner to learn how to mine coal. We dug coal rooms working in about 5 inches of water most of the time. We wore the same dirty, crusty long-handled under-wear, overalls and rubber boots every day. Each man had to get out 10 – 1 ton car loads of coal and a car of slack (fine powder) each day or you got no bottom cut by a machine that night.
You had to lay a short length of rail-track and bore the shot holes with a hand auger, make your black powder shots and load the coal. The mule-skinner brought empty cars to the entrance and pulled out the loaded cars. The mules lived in the mines until they had to be changed.
I was only 17 years old, the youngest miner ever there and maybe the poorest because of lack of experience. I would almost always be last to ring for the pump-man to lower the cage 300 ft. to haul me up to the shower room but I’d have my cut out.
We were paid .50 a ton for the coal mined. The car of slack was free. We furnished the black powder, dynamite and fuse. Our only light was a carbide lamp fastened to the cap on your head. It put out about a 2 inch flame. Sometimes it would go out. No one but an old miner knows what darkness is. You had to make your lamp work again in total blackness. From then on you know no fear of anything.