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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Tensions in Mine Homes

The wives and children of coal miners experienced a considerable amount of stress. An underlying tension in an otherwise happy home is still a vivid memory in the minds of some miners' children.

Because domestic coal was a highly seasonal product, there was always the well-founded fear that the breadwinner would be laid off. For example, in Lethbridge, for a period in the 1930s fully-employed miners worked only 138 days per year—and the majority were not fully-employed! Work for two or three days a week was almost the norm except in boom times such as the two world wars. It was a boom-and-bust, highly unstable occupation at best.

Mining tended to be a relatively risky occupation, hence there was constant fear of injury or death. Lethbridge's Galt Hospital became noted for its treatment of concussions and broken bones, largely because its doctors and nurses got so much practice in treating these injuries among the miners of the region. Regional histories, such as Walker (1984), tell of wives listening anxiously for the sound of whistles that signified an accident in the mine. In the 76 years from 1886 to 1962, 113 men died in mine accidents or of related causes in the district and several hundred were injured, many seriously. There was a well-founded fear, among dependents of miners, of the union calling yet another strike. Generally, these were of short duration but on occasion they lasted for months. Attendant economic hardships bore directly on the families of the miners. The wives hated strikes but felt obliged to support husbands.

It was a dirty occupation. Miners breathed and worked in coal dust throughout their shifts and did not wear masks or respirators. "Black lung," a form of pneumoconiosis caused by breathing tiny particles of coal, was an occupational hazard elsewhere although one does not read about it in relation to the Lethbridge field, which tended to be wet. However, a 1948 Department of Health survey indicated a silicosis hazard in Galt No. 8 mine (Mine No. 1464). The big mines provided washing-up rooms although they were only occasionally used, many miners preferring to clean up at home. At the end of a shift, a tub of warm water would be placed in the kitchen of many of the two- or three-roomed miners' cottages, so that the man of the house could have a private bath or scrub to the waist and a change into clean clothing.Lethbridge Its Coal Industry

This article is drawn from Lethbridge: Its Coal Industry by Alex Johnston, Keith G. Gladwyn and L. Gregory Ellis (Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, Lethbridge Historical Society, Occasional Paper No. 20, 1989). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank the authors and the City of Lethbridge, which is the Year of the Coal Miner lead, for permission to reprint this material.

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