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Miner Recollections:
by Bucky Schriver
For the Frostburg Express

Lonaconing's Men of Steele

 

Photo taken about 1897
1st row: Jean (Fillans) Steele, David Steele
2nd row: James, George, John, & Claude Steele
3rd row: Andrew, William, Thomas, Margaret & John Steele

Driving up the winding and narrow Old Beechwood Road in Lonaconing, few living today are aware of the bustle of activity that once took place in Beechwood. There were numerous coal and clay mines, a huge wooden railroad trestle, and a magnificent brick plant.
The Beechwood brick plant, complete with a modern electric tram, was built in 1916-1917 by the Maryland Coal Company. Only one load of bricks was ever shipped from this facility. According to the 1922 Maryland Geological Survey, "the volume and quality of the clay have not been up to expectations, and the property is idle at present."
The children who grew up in Beechwood had their own rustic roller coaster, and found great sport in riding the cars of the abandoned mines. With its own store and schoolhouse, Beechwood was a self-sufficient community.
The Central Coal Company's Koontz Mine No.1 was one of the earliest and most productive coal mines in the Western Maryalnd region, dating back to the creation of the Central Coal Mining and Manufacturing Company in 1853. In the early 1880s, when the Georges Creek and Cumberland Railroad appeared in Beechwood, the miners had started to remove the roof pillars, and the retreat from Koontz Mine No.1 had already begun.
Beginning in 1908, a series of different companies mined the site of Koontz No.1, to recover the remaining Big Vein coal. From 1916 until 1920, the McKee Coal Company mined the outcrop of the former Koontz No.1, re-identified as McKee Mine No.2.  The last 15,000 tons were extracted by the Koontz Coal Company, before the mine dropped permanently from the records of the Annual Report of The Maryland Bureau of Mines.
In the latter years, the over-worked state of the mine created ventilation and roof problems.  According to the mine inspector at the time, "at no place in the region is the Big Vein mined under more trying circumstances."
On the steep northeastern hillside above Beechwood hollow stood a gable-roofed two story home. Covered with red brick pattern asphalt siding and sitting on an uncoursed rock rubble foundation, this home was within sight of Koontz Mine No.1. The house was most likely built by John Steele (born in 1845) and his son, Claude. The home was complemented with a coal shed, a chicken house, a privy, and a family cemetery.  In the contemporary spirit of self-sufficiency, family members were born, lived, died, and were buried at home.

 

The Steele Family Home ~ Beechwood


John and Jean (Fillans) Steele's son, George, was born on November 4th, 1885.  At 5pm on October 23rd, 1923, George Steele was killed in a roof collapse at McKee Mine No.2.  According to the accident report, George was laboring in the second left heading with his brother and two nephews, working to remove the "stump" (the pillars) that supported the roof. With only a few cars of coal remaining, George had set three props under a section of roof rock, but had not supported the heavy end. The rock slid, knocking out the three props.  A boulder struck the back of his head, crushing his neck across the back of the coal car, killing him instantly. George Steele was laid to rest in the family cemetery in Beechwood.
On January 8th, 1931, death in the coal mines came to haunt the Steele family again. Twenty-one year old John "Jack" Steele was killed in an accident that was eerily similar to the one that killed his uncle just seven years prior.
Jack was working the night shift at Consolidation Coal Company's No.17 Mine in Klondike.  To facilitate the movement of a machine that was designed to cut the coal face, Jack removed a roof support that had been placed by the workers on the previous shift.  William Cutter, who was working with Jack Steele at the time, testified that Jack knocked the prop out with a pick, and the prop did not appear to have any weight on it at the time.  The roof rock that had initially stayed in place fell unexpectedly, badly crushing the victim's head.  Jack was working with his brother, Tom, and two other miners at the time of the accident.  Jack's father, Andrew, was working in another section of the mine.
Jack Steele was the son of Andrew and Elizabeth (Todd) Steele.  He was a member of the Junior Order of Mechanics, and sang in the choir of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Lonaconing.  He was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lonaconing, leaving behind his parents and twelve siblings. Jack's older sister, Margaret, was the captain of Lonaconing's Central High School girl's basketball team in the early 1920s.  One of the outstanding powerhouses in Maryland basketball history, the team went undefeated for four consecutive years, winning sixty-five consecutive games.
The brutal circumstances surrounding the deaths of George and Jack Steele were repeated many times in the history of underground mining in Allegany County.  The coal mines of the 1800s and early 1900s were the scene of numerous horrific calamities.  There was no other profession where the family provider's life hung from such a tenuous thread as this one.

The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of an educational memorial near the crossroads of state Route 36 and the National Road in Frostburg. A bronze statue will honor all of our Georges Creek miners and name those who perished while mining. Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to the

Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF, P.O. Box 765, Frostburg, MD 21532.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation.
Email:
Polla Horn at
jph68@verizon.net
or
Bucky Schriver at
bucky1015@comcast.net
to share your thoughts and stories.
Be on the lookout for future Miner Recollections.


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