By Ken Zurski
In the mid 19th century, coal mining rail cars used to carry large amounts of the valuable black rock between underground multi-leveled work chambers had no braking system. If one went down an incline too quickly, it simply kept going like a roller coaster until it derailed and spilled its contents in the process. Since miners were paid by the weight of cars they unloaded, this would cost them time and money. To keep this from occurring, boys as young as six years of age were hired to help the cars come to a stop.
They were called “spraggers.”
A sprag was a stick of wood, not quite as long as a baseball bat. Each boy carried several sprags and were positioned in areas where the cars, sometimes eight in a row, would roll down the slope. The boys would run alongside and jab the sprags into the spokes of the wheel. The sprags acted as brakes, slowing down the car until it stopped.
If this sounds dangerous, it certainly was. The sprags would get caught in the spoke and take an arm with it. Some boys lost fingers, or even hands. Some of the more adventurous types would jump on the side of the rolling car for fun and hold on while another jabbed the sprag in the wheel. This broke up the monotony of the day, but if the car failed to stop, the unfortunate passenger usually went with it, careening out of control until it broke from the rail and smashed into the wall. Of course, being a “spragger” meant you were one the fastest and most agile of the young crew. Other boys would work in the picking room as “breakers,” sorting refuse from the coal; still others opened and closed heavy doors as the coal cars approached, called “nippers.”
For many boys of this era, working in the coal mine was an honor bestowed upon by their ancestors. After all their father and grandfathers had grown up in the mines and in all likelihood their future as a fellow miner was already set. You can imagine the mothers, even if they protested, had little say in the matter. The coal mining industry was literally a “well-oiled machine” that worked if all parts were in place – even at the expense of using children to keep it moving. “He never got used to the noise, the dust, the threat of danger,” writes author Susan Campbell Bartoletti in her book Growing Up In Coal Country, “He was proud to earn money for his family. That was the life of a miner’s son.”
Although no safety records were kept back then, we can assume there were deaths, perhaps many. Eventually in the late 1800’s state laws were passed that prevented children under twelve to work in a mine. In 1902, that was raised to fourteen. But for many tight-knit mining communities there were no birth certificates, so boys younger than fourteen were passed off as simply “small for their age.”
Although the act of using children in dangerous places was already being condemned by early trade unions and women’s groups, the movement gained more traction in 1912. That’s when The Children’s Bureau was created within the Department of Commerce and Labor and later transferred to the nearly created Department of Labor.
By then reports of children being maimed or worse were surfacing. One boy, Manus McHugh, whose job it was to oil the mining breaker machinery, reportedly wanted to finish the day so badly he attempted to oil the machine while it was still running. His arm got caught first. In the investigation that followed. McHugh’s death was blamed on disobedience. “Boys will be boys and must play,” it stated. “Unless they are held in strict discipline.” No legal action was taken.
The inaugural federal child labor law known as the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on September 1, 1916, a Friday, and ironically the start of the long Labor Day weekend, since Labor Day always fell on the first Monday of September. But the bill only regulated child labor by banning the sale of products used by factories that employed children under fourteen. It was ruled unconstitutional in 1918.
The first minimum age requirement of a minor, part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, was not federally mandated until 1938.