Below The Surface In Colorado
PAONIA, Colo.--At a bar where a bear skin stretched across one wall and a moose head hung from another, 81-year-old Billie Ungaro recalled the day she led a group of women into a coal mine.
“They used to believe that women jinxed the mine,” she said. But as a coal miner's daughter, she had spent her childhood in and out of the tunnels and so she knew where to go that day in the 1940s. She said she warned the women who wanted to work in the mine that they might face hostility – that the men might urinate on them, or worse – but they insisted on going inside.
No one was supposed to know she was their guide, Billie said, but by the time she got home, word had reached her husband, also a coal miner.
“He was so angry, he grabbed me like this,” she said, standing up and walking over to the bartender, Gary Hogenbirk, to demonstrate. She pretended to spank him. “I said, ‘I’m a grown woman and I shoot straight and you do that again and I’ll shoot you.’”
“I couldn’t do it," the barkeep said. "I couldn’t be a coal miner. They live like moles.”
“They’re brave people,” Billie said.
It was clear Michael and I had arrived in coal country, an area of Colorado where the miner sits high on the financial totem pole. If he falls, everyone beneath him feels it. The coal industry keeps towns like Somerset (where we met Billie) running and we wondered how the industry was faring, now that plants are shutting down across the nation, contributing to the dip in electricity consumption.
What we found was that the tension among the workforce existed mostly beneath the surface, just like the stuff the miners make their living on. The coal miners still come into the Loose Moose Saloon, Hogenbirk said, but they don’t buy as many rounds of drinks for their friends. “And their conversations are different,” he added. “They aren’t talking about work. They’re talking about how they’re going to pay their bills.”
More people are quicker to fight, said sheriff's deputy Mike Smith. He sat at the bar eating a hamburger. “You see the stress and tension at home more,” he added.
Before stopping in at the Loose Moose for lunch, Michael and I had spent the morning at a coal mine outside Paonia, talking to men with blackened faces. When we arrived just before 9 a.m., a crew was wrapping up the midnight shift. With tired eyes, they shuffled toward the showers, where they would use dishwashing soap to get clean.
“You never get used to this shift,” said Jeremy Lopez, 32, a father of two.
As he headed toward the showers, other members of his crew remained in a nearby room filling out paperwork, a task they say has grown more tedious over the years because of increased government oversight. Coal-covered fingers left black smudges on white sheets.
“They all think we’re some kind of hick coal miners,” said Ken Smith, 49. “But this is one of the most highly skilled industrial workforces in the nation.”
He said he has already seen the economy devastate a saw mill he runs – he once had a crew of seven and now works alone – and expects the coal mine will also lose workers. “It’s just around the corner,” he said. “We’re already seeing it in the other mines.”
He had worked at a mine nearby that recently laid off more than 100 people, including men he knew. That’s the thing about this area, we realized: many of the coal miners don’t just work there, they grew up there.
“That guy and I went to high school together,” Smith said, motioning to a man in dusty overalls and worn steel-toed boots.
Bill Bear’s grandfather founded the mine in 1935 and his father and uncles worked there before him and his brothers. Layoffs here would be personal, Bear said, and he is hopeful it won’t come to that. Already, he said, hours have been cut and vacant positions are not being filled. He has also noticed the simmering stress among the miners.
“When you come to work and don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow, what do you do?” he said. “Everybody here worries. You look at your bottom line all the time.”
Coal from the mine is shipped as far as New Jersey, so what happens elsewhere in the country is felt here in Paonia. A plant that the mine supplies with 3 million tons of coal a year recently informed mine management that demand was down and so they were cutting back on their order.
“When things start to slow down, it just all falls back in the middle,” Bear said. “The whole economic engine is pretty fragile. You pull one lever without thinking of the consequences and it ripples.”
His has seven children, including four sons, three of whom work in mining.
As Michael and I left Bear’s office, we walked down a hallway of white linoleum covered in black dust and down the stairs to a room where the schedule stretched across a wall. Among the crew of mostly men were the names of two women. We made a note and later told this to Billie.
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