Immigrant Stories: A life in and around the coal mines
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.”
Intro: Rusty Ford is a retired coal miner who spent 31 years underground. He lives in Glenwood Springs with his wife, Laurine.
Ford: I was 3 years old when my mother passed away with tuberculosis. My dad got on the telephone and called three couples in the valley and basically said, “Somebody come get this kid. I don’t want him.” Jim and Ila Buttram were the first ones there, and they took me and raised me, and that’s who I consider to be my mother and father.
Actually they were taking care of me for the first three years of my life because my real mom was too sick to take care of me.
Gallacher: So your dad couldn’t take care of you or didn’t want to.
Ford: He didn’t want to. He could have, I suppose, but he had a terrible drinking problem and never really had steady work. He ended up living the last years of his life on the streets of Los Angeles drinking wine out of brown paper bag.
Gallacher: That’s a sad story.
Ford: Yeah, it’s sad but to me it was just life. That’s just what happened because I had a good life with Jim and Ila. They loved me like their own, but sometimes now I think back and wonder why I wasn’t wanted. On the one side I wasn’t wanted, and on the other side I was. It’s a strange feeling but, at the same time, I wouldn’t change my life growing up with Jim and Ila Buttram for anything in the world. Life with them was great.
Jim was a coal miner in the South Canyon mines and Ila took care of me.
I had hills to climb and places to explore. We lived about a hundred yards below the mine, and I could sneak away and play for hours. We had a huge garden and chickens and pigs, and I had rabbits. We didn’t have any cows, but my dad had horses and mules. He was the “mule skinner” in the mine. They used mules to pull the coal cars until they got electricity. We always had mules, and I always had a horse.
Jim and Ila gave me the choice of having a bicycle or a horse and I told them, “I don’t want no bicycle.” So I had “Dolly” and then I had “Ginger” and after I was grown I had “Major” and “Stormy.”
I had to leave my horses when I graduated from the eighth grade. I thought I would just be done with school and go to work in the mine like my dad. But when I told my parents about my plans. They said, “Like hell you are. You’re goin’ to Glenwood, and you’re goin’ to high school.” They very definitely convinced me that I was not going to work in the mine.
So I came to town and lived with my good friend, Joe Llewellyn, and his family for two years and went home on weekends. My folks moved to town in my junior year when my dad retired.
Gallacher: What did you do after high school?
Ford: I went to railroad telegraphy school in Pueblo, Colorado, but about a month into the program they came in and informed us that the school was disbanding because the railroad had done away with the railroad telegrapher job.
So I came home and went to work for my friend Joe’s dad, Reese Llewellyn, building a road up to Coal Basin for the Mid-Continent Mine that was about to open. When I finished there I decided to try college but after two semesters I ended up back home working.
Along the way I met my wife, Laurine, and got married. That’s when I realized I had to get serious about finding a good steady job. I tried roofing, which I hated, and then I went to work as a painter. I liked painting, but it was seasonal so I was out of work most of the winter. That’s when I decided to apply at the Mid-Continent coal mine.
My mom and dad never wanted me to go in the mines. Dad had worked his whole life underground and never liked it. So the day I got the call to come to work I walked in their house, and I could tell that they were both upset and worried. My dad had tried so hard to keep me out of the mines. I told them that it was only for a year until I could get ahead. My dad said, “That’s never gonna happen, Rusty.” Well, he was right. I spent 31 years in the mines. He beat me by a year.
Gallacher: He was worried for your safety.
Ford: Yeah, he knew what mining was like. But all the time he worked at the South Canyon mine there was never a fatal. There were accidents but never a fatality. In 1950, he got his right eye put out in the mine. He didn’t go back. He took his pension and retired. He worked as a rock mason and a carpenter and he shod horses. He made more money on weekends shoeing horses than he did in the mine.
Gallacher: Your dad didn’t like mining; did you?
Ford: Yes, I did. Of course there were times when I was ready to quit. But I enjoyed it most of the time. I started out as a laborer for two days, and on the third day they put me on a production crew.
Eventually, I was running the loaders and shuttle cars. I got my mine foreman papers. And then I got my eye put out in 1977 and took some time off to recuperate, but I went back way before I should have.
When I went back I worked in the training department. I hated that. So I took over monitoring dust and noise and that got me back in the mines where I wanted to be.
Gallacher: Were you in the mine on April 15, 1981?
Ford: No, but I had been there two hours before. I was on dayshift so I had left around 3 and the mine blew up around 4:30 or so and killed everybody or just about everybody. Fifteen guys died that day. That was the second big explosion. Seven guys died on December 28, 1965.
There were 47 men killed in or around the mines at Mid-Continent, and I was there for all but two of them. It was a tough property. On that day in April, I was part of the recovery crew. John Jerome and I were tying nametags on body bags, and I remember saying to myself, “When this is over. I am never going to set foot in another damn coal mine.”
And the next day, I was right back. If you wanted to make a livin’ in Glenwood you worked in the mine, otherwise you could work in a filling station or grocery store for a buck-and-a-half an hour. Glenwood has never been a town for a workin’ man without an education.
Gallacher: So how did that April tragedy affect you? You must have lost some people you were really close to.
Ford: It was damn tough, damn tough. It still bothers me when I think about it, today. You know every day, when you go in the mine, that it might be your last, but you have to put that in the back of your mind and keep it there because if you don’t it will eat your lunch. You’ll do something stupid or careless and it will get you killed or hurt.
I lost friends and co-workers. Danny Litwiller and Bill Pierce were just barely 18 years old. I never wanted to see those young kids in the mine. They both had a great future ahead of them. They were just there to make enough money to go to college.
I saw a lotta young kids comin’ up there telling everybody they were only going to stay a year. It never happened.
Mid-Continent had a lot of gas. It was classified as the most gaseous mine in the world until a mine in Canada opened up and took the distinction. We were piping a million cubic feet of air a minute through the mine to try and keep the gas levels down. Gas was being liberated all the time, so you really had to be on constant alert.
Gallacher: You had two daughters, but if you had had a son what would you have told him?
Ford: I would have told him the same as my dad told me, “Not just no, but hell no.”
Gallacher: Did you like working underground?
Ford: Yup, I think I liked the excitement and the danger. It was a challenge and I could see that I was really accomplishing something. We were supplying some of the world’s best coal to our country’s steel industry.
Gallacher: So if you had it to do over again?
Ford: I’d go back tomorrow. I could say I wouldn’t, but I know damn good and well that if I could turn back the clock and be a young man again, I’d head right back in.
Gallacher: You can say that even though you have lost an eye and suffer from black lung and arthritis?
Ford: What else was I gonna do with two semesters of college and a high school diploma?
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