by Bucky Schriver
for The Frostburg Express
Alexander Smith & Family
From Scotland To Tannery; Another Inclined Plane Tragedy
Alexander Smith was born to Thomas and Janet (Bryce) Smith in Newmills, Scotland on October 27, 1856. The family had relocated to Whitburn, Scotland by 1861, and it was there that Alex spent most of his formative years. Alex's wife Margaret Ryan was born in Scotland on March 5, 1858. The couple were joined in marriage in 1877. Three years later, they immigrated to America with their two young daughters, Margaret and Jane, hoping to find a better life in the Georges Creek Valley of western Maryland.
Alex and Margaret added nine more children to their family in the twenty years that followed. According to the 1900 Federal Census Report, ten of the eleven children were still living, and Alex Smith was employed by the Georges Creek Coal and Iron Company as a coal miner, working at the Columbia Mine.
The Columbia Mine was located approximately one-quarter mile above the present site of St. Joseph's Cemetery in Midland. Opened as early as the mid-1850s, the mine was originally operated by the Hampshire Coal & Iron Company of Virginia, and was identified as the "Midland Mine." In 1881, when the founding company was reorganized as the Baltimore & Hampshire Coal Company of Maryland, the Midland Mine was in retreat and the miners had already started removing the roof pillars.
The Midland Mine was operated intermittently for the next dozen years. It remained idle from 1893 until 1902, when the Georges Creek Coal & Iron Company created several new drift openings. The site was re-indentified as the Columbia Mine. Amazingly, coal mining operations continued sporadically at this location for another eighty years. The site proved to be one of the longest operating coal mines in the history of the Georges Creek Valley. Surface-mined in the latter years, the operation was finally abandoned in 1961.
For nearly a half century, coal was shipped to a rail siding on the Cumberland & Pennsylvania Railroad, which was connected to the mouth of the mine by a 1750 foot inclined plane. Underground mines in the 1800s and early 1900s were extraordinarily dangerous places, exacerbated by the presence of these inclined planes. Alexander Smith and his fellow miners relied on the old "teapot" lanterns, which burned oil by use of a cotton wick. These early oil-burning lanterns had no reflector like the carbide lantern, which was introduced to the mining industry in 1915. Mine tunnels were vary narrow, especially at the ribs which supported the roof. A miner could often not see much farther than 15 feet. The Columbia Mine had very steep grades, and an inclined plane was used to lower the loaded cars. Alex's regular job was digging coal, but on this particular day he was working with two other men, repairing tracks on the inclined plane inside the mine. On that Tuesday, March 25, 1902, 45 year-old Alexander Smith met his tragic end. One of the men alerted the others to an approaching trip of mine cars. In the process of making way, Alex accidentally stepped in front of the cars. He was run over and killed instantly. Alex's body was carried a short distance to his home in Tannery, now known as Gilmore Hollow. Funeral services were conducted two days later at the Smith family home by Reverend Wagoner. The International Order of Odd Fellows, of which Alex was a member, had charge of the interment. Burial was at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lonaconing.
One can scarcely imagine the horrific scene that transpired as Alex's body was carried home to Tannery on that fateful day. A brave Scot and his family had embarked on a long journey across the Atlantic to earn a coal miner's wage. This patriarch's tragic loss of life consigned his wife and children to an existence punctuated with sadness and poverty. This tragic story was often repeated in the dark, damp tunnels of the Georges Creek Valley coal mines.
The Coal Miner Memorial Statue Fund is accepting contributions for the placement of a bronze statue that will honor all of our Georges Creek 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.
We welcome updated information and encourage your participation.
Contact Polla Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bucky Schriver at email@example.com
to share your thoughts and stories. Be on the lookout for future “Miner Recollections.”