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What Does Feeling Italian Have to do with the Monongah Mine Disaster?

What Does Feeling Italian Have to do with the Monongah Mine Disaster?

Joan L Saverino (December 9, 2016)
Joan Saverino, Photographer
Heroine Memorial and audience at 100th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony in Monongah, WV, December 6, 2007.

Autobiographical account of the intimate connections and disconnections among Italy, West Virginia, coal, and Italianness.



On December 6, 1907, the worst mining disaster in US history occurred in Monongah, West Virginia, a few miles from Fairmont where I grew up. 

In 2009, that date was federally designated as National Miner’s Day. When I was young, I didn’t know about the catastrophe. That might seem odd since my father and his siblings went to high school there and my cousins lived in a camp house that sat just above portal #6 (below in 1907 & in 2008 with wreath at site), one of two that blew out in the explosion.

Since 2007, when I attended the 100th anniversary ceremonies of the tragedy, I mark it. This year, I remember it with my initial blog post. The events were organized by an Italian American committee to honor all those who perished (probably more than 550) but especially the 171 who were immigrant Italians. Seven inches of snow arrived the night before echoing the frigid weather of 1907. In spite of it, a large crowd gathered for the commemoration in front of the newly dedicated Heroine Memorial of a woman with two children. It was erected to remember the widows and mothers of the disaster. 

Dignitaries had traveled from the Abruzzo, Molise, and Calabria, regions from which most of the Italian miners originated. The collaborative planning and gifts exchanged renewed transnational ties between Italy and Marion County.

The intimate connections and disconnections among Italy, West Virginia, coal, and Italianness were lived experiences for me, not conscious, as all enculturation is. The associations were grounded in the translocal connections of chain migration and community that developed post immigration. Quotidian life progressed along a curiously industrial rhythm situated in a rural landscape. Coal camps were scattered throughout hills and dales so that Italians did not have the same infrastructure that characterized an urban enclave. (Below: Monongah cemetery being prepared after disaster and Carolina in 2008)

Even so, my elders said we were Italians or Talies (a West Virginia appellation) and all Anglos were ‘Umericun. What those distinctions meant adults’ made clear through their behavior and words to us children.
My knowledge of the coal industry and the influx of immigrants who fed its hunger weren’t learned in the schools I attended. In the required state history course, I learned about the mineral’s benefits but nothing about its deficits, dangers or disasters. We didn’t read about the industry’s invasion when it wrested land from the farmers. I learned about that from teacher, local historian, and landowner Dice Hinkle who described his resistance of the coal barons’ attempts to get him to sign away his underground mineral rights near Tallmansville. We didn’t read about the miners’ strikes for fair wages and working conditions. I learned about those through my families’ stories of being evicted from their camp houses and living in the barracks during union strikes. (below: Fairmont barracks)

We didn’t read about the lack of environmental controls such as mine run off that ran right into the rivers. I just knew that the rivers in Fairmont were yellow and sometimes green not blue and so I colored them that way when I drew a picture.

We didn’t read about industry regulations that the companies and sometimes the miners themselves didn’t follow and how accidents could occur because of this. I didn’t need to because I heard my uncles’ stories and I saw my Uncle Jim’s hand after a mine bit drilled clean through it. (Below: Uncle Jim and me, c. 1956)

I knew that a family friend who hanged himself in the choir loft of our Italian parish did so because of the brain damage resulting from a mine accident. In high school, I witnessed the fear and anger that gripped our area after the 1968 Farmington disaster and the discussion of whom we knew who had perished. We didn’t read about the deleterious effects of black lung. I didn’t have to because I watched my gentle Uncle Tom (below with me, Easter, 1954) grow thinner and weaker as
pneumoconiosis and lung cancer ravaged his body so badly that I had to help him put on his shoes. It is strange how even the tragic aspects of a past I knew can evoke nostalgia.

My early sense of feeling Italian is tied up with an industry, people, and places that are profoundly altered. When I was born in the 1950s, the coal industry was already on the wane. My cousin’s husband, a proud union fire boss, died last year. He was the last surviving coal miner I knew personally. My uncles who were coal miners died decades ago although I remember them and the rhythm of an industrial life that affected all of us. From scores of deep mines in Marion County when I was young, only one remains. What was a proud union work force is busted. 

The industry’s presence now looms mostly in silence. Long gone is the roar under the earth that my aunt said shook the Watson camp house. Gone are the sounds of the train’s whistle as I watched from my grandmother’s window for the long snake of coal cars to end in the red caboose. Gone is the rumble of the overfilled coal trucks lumbering along the back roads. Gone too is the daily morning call to work on the radio letting me know whether #93, my Uncle Tom’s mine, would work that day. The visual landmarks are disappearing too. Gone is the slag heap’s fiery red glow we passed as our car made the winding decline down the Carolina hill from my paternal grandparents’ home in the dark. Their former house (below, April 2016) is now a shambles scheduled to be demolished soon. 

Since the 2016 presidential election, West Virginia has been in the news. Once again I feel slapped in the face by all the stereotypes that have plagued the state and me. I struggle to comprehend how people who have been so disenfranchised economically could vote against their own interests. I believe that part of it is a desire for a magical return of a past, however precarious it was, that knit kin and work together. What does it say about the history of an industrial pater like Consol Coal Company when it denied the request by the 2007 Commemoration Committee to put up a memorial sign near the portals because they didn’t want any negative publicity? 

Recently I have begun following more bloggers and writers who are from West Virginia in an effort to connect with others who share a love for the land that many of us had to leave in order to find work. This blog could manifest as a cathartic outreach to find a new kind of kindred network.

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