Spirit of Christmas on Byesville Scenic Railway
Spirit of Christmas seems to be a fitting name for a ride on the Byesville Scenic Railway, because after you hear the stories of the miners from long ago, you will definitely appreciate the Christmas of today.
Accompanied on this trip by Miner Dave and Miner Steve, the hour train ride passed by twelve abandoned mines where about five hundred men worked underground. However, in the area there were seventy seven deep coal mines with approximately five thousand men working.
The train track here was busy back in the early 1900’s with perhaps one hundred fifty trains going down the tracks on a busy day. Their regular routes went from Marietta to Cleveland, but they went North as far as Canada.
Since it was the Christmas season, Miner Dave asked if there were any teachers on board. Then he selected a lady to read “The Night Before Christmas” as the train went down the track. Miner Dave did appropriate sound effects as well as scene effects behind her back, which made for an amusing reading.
Young people are remembered in the mines as children often started working at the age of eight, with their parents’ consent, especially if the father had been injured. Someone had to work to pay their $12 a month rent as otherwise their family would have no place to live.
They did indeed, as Tennessee Ernie sang, “Owe my soul to the company’s store.” They were paid in tokens that could only be spent at the company store. So if the family needed an item, they would charge it there, then the man of the family would pay for it on payday.
Miner Dave explained that only men worked in the mines as it was thought that women would bring bad luck. They worked about 175 days out of the year. There was no welfare in those days, so they had to use credit…at the company store. For this most dangerous job in the world, there was no insurance and no vacation. There were definitely no atheists working in the mines. They all believed that someone was watching over them.
How did you know if you were to work each day? At 7:15 each evening, everyone would listen for the whistle at the mine. If it blew once, there would be work tomorrow; twice, maybe and listen again at 4:15 in the morning; three times, no work the next day.
All nationalities headed out to work swinging their dinner pail. The pails could not be set down on the mine floor or the rats would open them and eat their dinner. So miners always hung their dinner pails high on the mine wall. A sandwich made of West Virginia Ham was quite a treat – that ham, by the way, was bologna. They always left a little something in their pail, just in case there was a cave in and they might be below ground all night. If they made if safely through the day, the miners would let the children have their pails on the way home and enjoy a little snack.
On Christmas Eve a hundred years ago, the mines would close early for the day at 4:30. Since there was no money for gifts, a stop at the company store might allow them to get an orange or some walnuts for the children. Often they would break a limb off a tree and either stick it in a can or in holes in the handle of a broom. This they would decorate with rags, bittersweet, popcorn, ribbon or berries.
Everyone would go to sleep early that night and be up to go to church on Christmas Day in their cleanest bib overalls. When they arrived back home, there would be one or two gifts under the tree. Gifts were often wrapped in newspaper, and then tied with rags and decorated with sprigs of berries. Most were gifts made with love, and all Made in America.
Byesville is the coal mining capital of Ohio and their plans are to erect a monument to the coal miner at their station in downtown Byesville. When you give a donation, you are given a badge that explains the mining story.
The colors on the badge are symbolic of life down in the coal mines.
Yellow stands for a beam of sunshine that sheds light on the darkness of the dungeon of a dark and gray mine.
Gray is for the rock/slate layers that are found above and below the seams of coal.
Black needs little explanation as it is the color of coal, also know as black diamonds, buried sunshine, or rocks that burn.
Red is for the color of blood that was spilled onto the ground from those who either lost their lives or were injured while working about the mines.
Someday soon the Coal Miners’ Memorial Statue Fund will reach its goal and the efforts of all the workers and their families will be recognized. Coal miners helped make our country what it is today and will never be forgotten.
Now you better understand why the Spirit of Christmas should be alive in your heart today and all through the year. Charles Dickens expressed this in A Christmas Carol when Scrooge said:
I will honor Christmas in my heart
and try to keep it all the year
May the Spirit of Christmas roll on!
Byesville Scenic Railway is located in Byesville, Ohio just off I-77 (Exit 41) South of Cambridge. Turn toward Main Street of Byesville, then left at the traffic light. The train depot is one block on the right. Free parking is available along Second Street and Seneca Avenue. The train operates most weekends during the summer months as well as for special holidays throughout the year.