From Breaker Boys to Old Men
A Story in Song

Breaker Boys

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Many young boys had to work at the breakers and collieries to help provide for their families. This image from Perry Stirling depicts this sketch of a young breaker boy. The song below, A White Slave of the Mine, tells about a young boy working down at the collier and how he works from the early morning until very late at night in the dark, cold mines. The second verse tells of how he goes to work to help feed his family and how his mother worries about him while he is at work.

external image space.gifI'm a little collier lad,
external image space.gifHardworking all the day,
external image space.gifFrom early morn till late at night
external image space.gifNo time have I to play.
external image space.gifDown in the bowels of the earth
external image space.gifWhere no bright sun rays shine,
external image space.gifYou'll find me busy at my work,
external image space.gifA white slave of the mine.

CHORUS (sung twice)
external image space.gifOur lot in life is full of strife;
external image space.gifBut we make no murmur or sign,
external image space.gifFor daily we toil down deep in the soil-
external image space.gifThe white slaves of the mine.
external image space.gifWhen daylight comes I go to work,
external image space.gifWhen dark I go to bed,
external image space.gifThe money that my labor earns,
external image space.gifKeeps us in meat and bread.
external image space.gifPoor father he was killed one day,
external image space.gifYet mother for him pines,
external image space.gifAnd that is why you see me here
external image space.gifA white slave of the mine.

Minstrels of the Mine Patch
- George Korson

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This picture depicts "When boys had to be men." Note the lunch pails they carried. Often called a growler because the can was also used to buy beer at the local tavern. The boys needed a hearty lunch and often had an apple or orange for dessert, but many did not know of other fruits as told in this song.

When my ma was the queen in the kitchen,
and manys the time she did say,
That having good health was much
better than wealth
So we'd eat miners strawberries
three times a day.

Them good old miners strawberries,
The best that you ever did see,
I was 20 years old before I was told
That miners strawberries ain't
nothing but beans.

You can bake 'em or boil 'em or ground 'em
& cook 'em for hours in a pot,
& serve 'em up cold a week or two old
But if you're hungry enough man
they sure hit the spot


Door Boys

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At the age of 13, a slate picker was advanced to "door boy." The door was put there to circulate air to the face of all workings and there was air pressure against the door at all times. This huge wooden door was in the main gangway and the door boy had to be on the alert for men coming and drivers with cars of coal. There was no signal to warn him and he had to watch through a peep hole in the door. If the door wasn't opened in time, a "trip" would crash through the door and he could be killed. His job was a very active and dangerous one and this ballad was sung by the mining minstrels of years ago. This sketch by Leo J. Ploppert depicts a door boy at the Wm. Penn colliery, circa 1911.


In the mine depths' gloom and silence,
Void of sunlight though 'tis mid-day,
There a fearless little door boy sat alone;
Unseen dangers hover round him
At his post upon the gangway,
While he works, and thinks of mother sick at home;
Without warning there's a cave-in,
Rock and timber downward crashing
Hurl the lad moaning to the rocky floor;
But his pale lips framed this message
As his breath was quick and gasping,
"Good-bye mother, Heav'n protect you evermore."
CHORUS . . .


All his thoughts were of his mother,
All for her his broken pleading
As he lay there, dying, at his shattered door:
Bright-winged angels caught this message
As his life was quickly fleeting,
"Good-bye mother, Heav'n protect you evermore

In her dreams the mother fancies
She can hear him softly calling,
She can hear him beck'ning from the starry sky;
Soon her lips will close forever,
And the bitter tears cease falling,
She will meet him where they never say good-bye.
Just a door boy in a coal mine,
A brave-hearted manly fellow,
Who lays dying 'neath the wreckage where he fell;
Deathly gasses are his mantle,
Splintered roof rock is his pillow,
Just a door boy, but a hero, fare thee well.
CHORUS . . .

Inside Boss - Knickerbocker

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This Inside Boss at Knickerbocker depicted by Leo J. Ploppert was not always liked by the miners. Here is their song about their bosses.

Up in the morning,
Down in the mines,
Work like a mule for my pay;
And that damn old boss
has nothin' to do
But hang around and bug me all day.
Dust all around me
Fillin' my lungs
Takin' my good breath away;
And when I'm too old to work
The union gives me 30
bucks a month for my pay.
Dear Lord above how I wish there was some way
To kiss this hell hole goodbye;
I curse the day that I ever came down here
I'll be minin' coal 'til I die.
Robbin' those pillars
Knowin' my fate
If one of them should ever give way;
And that damn old boss
Won't get off my back
Yellin for coal every day.
Look at that coal dirt
Deep in my pores,
I just can't scrub it away;
And the sweat rolls down
Burnin' my eyes
As I drag timber up the gangway.
Swingin' that shovel
Muckin' that coal
'til my fingers are calloused and sore;
20 car loads are filled
and I wanna go home
But that damn old boss yells for more.
Oh Lord above how my bones are achin'
from 30 years down in this hole;
Diggin and drillin' 'till my back is breakin'
There's just no relief for my soul.
Up to the washhouse
Scrub off the grime
One more shift put away.
But there's no glad tomorrow,
on my weary way home,
For the dawn means another damn day.

Fire Boss

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This sketch by Perry Stirling shows a Fire boss who checked the mine before workers entered. This song tells his story.


My name is Jenkin Jenkins,
I'm a fireboss of renown,
At three each morning
I make my usual round.
I walk through open cross cuts
To get up to the face,
To find how much gas there is
In every miner's place.

My name is Jenkin Jenkins,
I'm a fireboss of renown
I'm known by all the men and boys
That work down underground

I travel over rock and coal
That fall down in the night.
I grope my way the best I can
With my small safety light.
At my headquarters at the foot
When I return from my round,
The miners all depend on me
For everything safe and sound.
For I am the only person
That dare go in the mines,
To investigate all dangers
Before commencing time.


In your place Patsy Patsy,
I'm sure the roof will drop;
Don't let your laborer load any coal
Until you stand a prop.
In your place, Evan Evans,
I find a very bad joint,
You're not arranging your chamber right
According to the point.

Say, Davis, Smith, and Dougherty-
Where were you yesterday?
I hear you three have been drinking
Every since you got your pay.
You three cannot deny it;
I see it in your faces.
You three can now take out your tools-
I've got men in your places.

I'm a hard working man, you can see by my hands,
Although I am friendly and free.
A dollar a day is a very small pay
For a man with a large family.
I didn't come here, boys, to boast or to brag,
But just for to tell you my troubles,
I work day and night and the world I must fight
And load coal with my pick and my shovel.


I work in the mines where the sun never shines
Nor daylight does ever appear;
With my lamp blazing red on the top of my head,
And in danger I never know fear.

Just think of the poor man who works in the mines
With the mules and the rats underground;
Where the smoke is so thick you can cut it with a stick,
And can weigh it on scales by the pound.
My face it is black from the dust of the coal,
Though my heart it is open and free;
I would share my last loaf with the man that's in want,
Though I earn it hard you can see.


Now, my kind friends, I will bid you good-bye;
I cannot stay here any longer,
I'll pick up my pack, throw it o'er my back,
And I think I will make my road shorter,
I have a wife and small family at home in the house,
And to meet me I'm sure they'll be glad,
They will stand at the door when I'm on my way home,
And they'll say to their mama, "Here's Dad."

The Old Miner

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This sketch by Perry Stirling is entitled, "The Old Miner" and here is a poem that was written by William Labenburg, Frackville, in 1926.


God bless the old miner who's gasping for breath
As he lives on in agony waiting for death.
His lungs are all filled with lamp smoke and dust
As he spends day and night in total disgust.
When his mind wanders back to his boyhood days.
How healthy he was, how smooth were his ways,
His limbs were like steel, his muscles were strong
And he never complained of anything wrong.
But his days have passed as time speeds in flight,
Now he yearns for the day and dreads the long night.
He joyfully went to the breaker when nine
And when in his teens, he started to mine.
How proudly he felt when they raised him in pay,
Even though it was but a few dollars a day.
How he worked in foul air from morn until night
Yet always was happy, cheerful and bright.
But also what a pity, how sad is his case
As he gasps for his breath til he's blue in the face.
Some days when it's sunny he takes a short walk
But when you undress him he hardly can talk.
He coughs and he coughs while trying to speak
And returns to his arm chair all tired and weak.
There he sits, the old miner, and thinks of the time
When he could run up a mountain, still in his prime.
Eager, industrious, anxious to make
A neat sum of money for his family's sake.
But now he feels lonesome, heartbroken and pale
And sees younger miners still hearty and hale.
His pleasures have vanished to return nevermore
And he longs for the day when his troubles are o'er.
God bless the old miner, may his pain soon cease.
He'll soon be in a place where all are at peace
But while he is living and dwells with us here
Let us greet him at all times with a smile and good cheer.

external image retired.jpg

The mine patch minstrels sang of the tragedy, joy, grief, and humor of life in and about the mines. This song was for the retired miner as depicted by Leo J. Ploppert.


I'm getting old and feeble and I can work no more:
I have laid the rusty mining tools away.
For forty years and over I hve toiled about the mines,
But now I'm getting feeble, old and gray.
I started in the breaker and went back to it again,
But now my work is finished for all time;
The only place that's left me is the almshouse for a home,
That's where I'll lay this weary head of mine.

In the chutes I graduated instead of going to school-
Remember, friends, my parents they were poor;
When a boy left the cradle it was always made the rule
To try to keep starvation from the door.
At eight years of age to the breaker first I went,
To learn the occupation of a slave;
I was certainly delighted, and on picking slate was bent-
My ambition it was noble, strong and brave.

At eleven years of age I bought myself a lamp-
The boss he sent me down the mine to trap;
I stood in there in water, in powder smoke and damp;
My leisure hours I spent in killing rats.
One day I got promoted to what they called a patcher,
Or a lackey for the man that drives the team:
I carried sprags and spreaders and had to fix the latch-
I was going through my exercise, it seems.

I next became a driver, and thought myself a man;
The box he raised my pay as I advanced:
In going through the gangway with the mules at my command,
I was prouder than the President of France.
But now my pride is weakened and I am weakened too;
I tremble till I'm scarcely fit to stand:
If I were taught book learning instead of driving teams,
Today, kind friends, I'd be a richer man.

I'm getting old and feeble and I can work no more:
I have laid the rusty mining tools away.
For forty years and over I hve toiled about the mines,
But now I'm getting feeble, old and gray.
I started in the breaker and went back to it again,.
But now my work is finished for all time;
The only place that's left me is the almshouse for a home,

That's where I'll lay this weary head of mine.

The Miners Families

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Many miners and their wives had large families and here is a song to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean."

My children are seven in number,
we have to sleep four in a bed;
I'm striking with my fellow workers,
to get them more clothes and more bread.
Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes,
Shoes, shoes, we're striking for pairs of shoes.

The liquor is cramping my stomach
my wife is sick with T B;
My babies are starving for sweet milk,
there's so much sickness for me.
Milk, milk, we're striking for gallons of milk,
Milk, milk, we're striking for gallons of milk.

I'm needing a shave and a haircut,
but barbers I cannot afford.
My wife cannot wash withough soap suds,
and she had to borrow a board.
Soap, soap, we're striking for bars of soap,
Soap, soap, we're striking for bars of soap.

My house is a shack on the hillside,
it's floors are unpainted and bare;
I haven't a screen to my windows,
and carbide cans do for a chair.
Home, home, we're striking for better homes,
Home, home, we're striking for better homes.

They shot Barney Graham our leader,
his spirit abides with us still;
The spirit of strength for justice,
no bullets have power to kill.
Barney, Barney, we're thinking of you today,
Barney, Barney, we're thinking of you today.

Oh miners go on with the union,
oh miners go on with the fight.
For we're in the struggle for justice,
and we're in the struggle for right.
Justice, justice, we're striking for justice for all,
Justice, justice, we're striking for justice for all.

Mine Strike

external image minerswife_sm.jpg

This sketch from his book "Bootleggers, Breakers, and Beer" depicts a miner's wife taking home the coal that she picked from the coal banks to be used in her kitchen stove.

This poem, written about the Schuylkill County anthracite strike of 1870, was composed by Mrs. Harriet Mort of Girardville as a tribute to the miner's union, the Workingmen's Benevolent Association.


It was on a Monday morning,
All in the month of May;
The birds were sweetly singing,
Sending forth their joyous lay.

Yes, it was on that beauteous morning
the second day of May;
In Eighteen Hundred and Seventy,
That our Miners had their day.

They were all attired so decently,
Quite neat from top to toe;
They wore white gloves upon their hands,
As White as driven snow.

They gathered in great numbers,
From district and from branch:
And like noble hearted heroes,
To the Depots did advance.

There were iron steeds in waiting,
Deck'd with colors bright and true,
It was our Nation's colors,
Yes, it was Red, White and Blue.

Those iron steeds did snort and prance,
The fires did briskly burn,
And to the borough of St. Clair,
The wheels did swiftly turn.

Thanks be unto those gentlemen,
Who so faithfully did repair,
To address those hardy sons of toil,
From District far and near.

Through Port Carbon and through Pottsville
Did march this gallant band,
And so well did they conduct themselves,
As though princes of the land.

Their behavior was becoming,
As thus they marched along;
Which made, full many a one to cheer,
Our noble Miners throng.

They wore the star upon their breast,
And colors of the Nation;
As a mark of faithful friendship,
And of their Association.

Their handsome banners waving,
High in the balmy breeze;
The music sweetly sounding,
through Valleys, brush and trees.

All hail the Minders' banner,
All hail them ever true,
All hail the Star upon their breast,
All hail Red, White and Blue.

God speed their Picks and Shovels,
Although they've long laid still;
The Needles and the Scrapers,
Likewise the Sledge and Drill.

Success to the toiling Miners,
To the Laborers their mates;
Success to all dear little boys,
Who work at picking out slate.

Long life to all Miners and Laborers,
And God guide them in wisdom way,
Be they ever one in friendship,
Success to the W. B. A.

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Times were hard for union miners during the long strike in 1902. For five months, from May 15 to October 22, the collieries were idle and the men had to look elsewhere for income to keep their families. In Mahanoy Plane, a group of musically-minded mineworkers decided to try their luck as a traveling band. Dressed in their mining togs, felt hats, wick-lamps and proudly displaying their "No. 2" union buttons, they hit the road for Philadelphia and other cities, where they were well-received. In front are, from left: William Miller who later organized and directed the renowned Coaldale victory Band, Peter Miller and Fred Miller. In the rear are: John Coonan, Harry Cook, Freddie Brennan, who later became superintendent of Locust Mountain Hospital, George Metzger and John Norton.

This song "Thomas Duffy" was written by Martin J. Mulhall of Shenandoah who had written a song for each of the Mollies who were hanged in the 1870's.


Come all ye true-born Irishmen, wherever you may be,
I hope you will pay attention and listen unto me,
Concerning ten brave Irishmen all in their youthful bloom,
Who died in Pennsylvania on the twenty-first of June.

Thomas Duffy and James Carroll as you can plainly see,
They were murdered by false perjurers all on the gallows tree.
Thomas Duffy on the brink of death did neither shake or fear,
But he smiled upon his murderers although his end was near.

He took his brother by the hand and kissed hime o-er and o-er
Saying, "Farewell, my faithful brother, I shall never see you more,
Till your spirit from this world has fled to that celestial shore
Where perjurers can't enter to shake loving hearts any more.

"Take my advice, dear Patrick, and follow in my wake.
Let perjurers do all they can, my heart they will never shake."
He scorned his prosecutors although he stood alone,
As did many a gallant Irishman before England's king and throne.

He said, "We are not defeated; up or with our banner high,
Although our parents were treated we will show them how to die."
He mounted on the scaffold with a firm and steady tread,
Resembling a young nobleman a-going up to bed.

He looked upon the circle that stood around him there,
And smiled upon his brother whose heart was in despair.
"Give me your hand, dear Patrick, fret not for my sad fate,
But before I will bid this world adieu, the truth to you I'll state.

"I never saw James Kerrigan, the truth to you I'll tell,
Save once at Carroll residence where I treated him right well.
I never asked James Carroll to shoot a man for me,
Nor offered him ten dollars, as my God I hope to see.

"I bear no living creature the slightest hate or spite,
But as I am going to face my God my conscience it is light.
But why should I tarry longer in this dark world of woe?
My faith was never stronger and I am longing for to go."

The rope was dropped around his neck and the warrant to him read,
And in twenty minutes after, brave Duffy he was dead.
God rest his soul; he perished there to friends and country true,
And he kept his secrets to the last as Irishmen should do.

Bright angels thronged the jail yard until they saw him dead,
And taking a last look at him his spirit with them fled.
Tom Duffy was as true a man as ever blessed our sod,
And now we hope his soul's at rest with Mary and with God.

by Martin J. Mulhall of Shenandoah

Coal Crackers

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This untitled sketch by Leo J. Ploppert shows a "COAL Cracker" as we are sometimes called. The word, "cracker" was another term for a breaker and "coal cracker" was used to describe a miner. This song compares his life to that of a sailors.

Miners life is like a sailors,
board a ship to cross the waves.
Everyday his lifes in danger,
still he ventures being brave.
Watch the rocks they're falling daily,
careless miners always fail.
Keep your hands upon the dollar
and your eye upon the scale.

Union miners stand together
see how operators fail;
Keep your hands upon the dollar,
and your eye upon the scale.

You've been docked an docked my boys,
you've been loading two to one;
What have you to show for working
since this mining has begun.
All the rolls and all the rockers
In your shanty sleep on rails.
Keep your hand upon the dollar
and your eye upon the scale.

Chorus ...

In conclusion, bear in memory,
keep a password in your mind.
God provides for every nation,
when in union they combine.
Stand like men and link together,
Victory for you'll prevail.
Keep your hand upon the dollar
and your eye upon the scale.

Chorus ...