A Glimpse Into the Life of a Modern Day Coal Miner

Feb 26, 2016

In this week's episode of Inside Appalachia, we hear about what it’s like to actually work in a coal mine. So often we hear about miners from environmentalists or people who proudly declare they are Friends of Coal. But so much about what we hear about coal mining these days is full of political agendas.

We hear a lot from folks outside of this area who want to tell us who we are. But nobody seems to want to listen when we actually start talking and try to get real about what it’s like here.

On this episode, we’re talking with someone about their personal journey. We’ll be talking with a former underground coal miner who’s writing an online memoir about his time in the mines.  Thirty-two year-old Gary Bentley spent 12 years working in the mines.

“So I ended up going into the mines to pay for my college education, and then over time just kind of stuck it out and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Gary now works and lives in Lexington, but he grew up in Letcher County, Kentucky. He started working in coal mines when he was 18-years-old because he couldn’t find any other well paying work.  

“There’s not a lot of options for employment, especially to earn a good living and support a family.”

He was laid off in 2013 and left Appalachia. Three years later, he sees many laid-off miners trying to decide what they’re going to do.

Photo of Gary Bentley and his former co-workers at a mine in eastern Kentucky
Credit Lance Booth

“They don’t want to move. And I don’t blame them. At the time I was kind of skeptical of moving but I didn’t have a choice.”

Gary recently began writing about his former life as a coal miner in a series of online essays called 'In the Black.'

In his first blog entry for the online publication, The Daily Yonder, Bentley talks about what he saw during his first days on the job. He reflects upon witnessing coal miners abusing prescription drugs while on the job. Here’s some of that essay that Gary also shares on this week’s show:

“I watched the men use their mining certification cards to cut lines of a multi-colored rainbow assortment of powders. It disappeared as quick as we did when we entered the drift mouth, and so did the romanticism behind coal mining.”

This week’s show features a conversation between former coal miner Gary Bentley and WMMT’s Kelli Haywood. The interview first aired on WMMT’s weekly radio show called, Mountain Talk Radio.

You can find Gary Bentley's series, "In the Black", on The Daily Yonder, an online publication that’s part of the Center for Rural Strategies. Gary wrote us in an email to say, “Their goal is to work with the people of rural America. They work to provide a platform and a voice for the people living in these rural communities and that is exactly what they have done for me.”

The Center’s president, Dee Davis, says they were interested in publishing Gary’s column because it gives a representation of Appalachian Life and work.”  

Gary Bentley
Credit Lance Booth

Gary is a coal miner who had to move away to find employment or make it work. He’s not alone. This is a question that a lot of folks are asking right now.  Well that’s the million dollar or maybe 50,000 dollar question. What did you decide to do? Did you stay? How are you making it work here?  If you left, why did you decide to go? We’d love to hear your stories of survival. Tell us your story and whether you want to stay or leave Appalachia or whether  you've already moved.

You can send us a tweet @InAppalachia by using #MyAppalachia.

Music in today’s show was provided by Ben Townsend, Jake Schepps, Rich and the Po Boys with “When the Whistle Blew," written by Nate Polly of Letcher County. Music was also provided by Brett Ratliff with “High Up on a Mountaintop” and “Last Payday on Coal Creek” from the June Appal album Cold Icy Mountain.