by Polla Horn
for The Frostburg Express
The O’Briens: Making Fifty Cents A Ton
It wasn’t until April 27, 1876 that a mining inspector was appointed for Allegany and Garrett Counties. The duties of the appointee were to inspect all the mines on a monthly basis, attend inquests involving fatal accidents, address the grievances of miners, and write an annual report to the governor of Maryland. The first man elected to this position was 35 year-old Peter Cain. The Frostburg Mining Journal described Mr. Cain as a sound, sensible, honorable gentleman who would carry out his duties faithfully.
During the mid-1870s miners earned 50 cents for digging a ton of coal. However, their pay could be docked if the weigh master found as little as ten pounds of rock or slate in a carload of coal. The miners also had to haul timber for making props on their own time. They asked the companies to unload the timber closer to the mine openings. The owners responded that “laws were passed to protect the life and limb of the miners, not to save him labor.”
John Darby O’Brien, Sr. married Winifred (Baker) O’Brien and together they had three sons: John, Jr., Thomas, and Patrick. John, Sr. and John, Jr. worked in these back breaking, labor intensive and dangerous conditions. On May 20, 1873, just three years prior to the appointment of a mine inspector, John, Jr., aged 15, of Barton, was run over by the train cars of the Potomac Mine. One leg was severed. He sustained other injuries, causing his death shortly after the accident. Young John O’Brien had worked and died for 50 cents a ton.
Six years later, his father was the victim of another mining accident.
“John Darby O’Brien, Sr., a miner employed by the Potomac Mine at Barton, was killed last Tuesday by a fall of breast coal. He was about 45 years old and leaves a wife and several children.” (Keyser Tribune, Keyser, WV, October 25, 1879.)
Winifred O’Brien, although she had lost a son and a husband within six years, never lost her spirit of charity. She died on January 11, 1907 at age 60, after suffering for many years from cancer. Her obituary in The Cumberland Evening Times read:
“Mrs. O’Brien was a devoted member of the Catholic Church and her many charitable acts will be greatly missed by those who benefited from them.” Winifred was buried with her husband and son in St. Gabriel’s Cemetery.
John O’Brien, Jr. died three years prior to the appointment of a mine inspector. John O’Brien Sr. died three years after the appointment of a mine inspector. One can only speculate on the effectiveness of those monthly mine inspections, the degree of attention paid to miner grievances, and that annual report to the Governor.
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 Valley miners and name those who perished while mining.
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed to
Foundation for Frostburg CMMSF
P.O. Box 765
Frostburg, MD 21532.
Contact Polla Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com
if you have a story of your own to tell. Look for more “Miner Recollections” in the coming weeks.