Several years ago I did an ASP (Appalachian Service Project) trip to West Virginia. Where we were was coal mine country. Every where I looked there were people who were suffering from Black Lung, broken bodies, loss of spouses...it was heartbreaking. One of the men we worked for told me this horrific story about working in the coal mines....and as he told it I cried. The funny thing is...I don't remember his name....but the story I will never forget. "It seems that back in the 1700's, certain gases or the lack of oxygen were detected with various hit and miss types of detection. The candles on miners caps, or if carried by the miner, would either go out from the lack of oxygen or the flame would get larger with a different coloring of the flame if certain gases were in the area. Of course, in some instances these open flames caused fires or explosions. By 1815, the Davey's Safety Lamp came into use in the mines. This certainly changed the way for miners to check for certain gases. One of the earliest ways of detecting certain gases such as Methane, Carbon Monoxide or the lack of oxygen was the use of the Canary." Every miner or family of a miner that I spoke with all had stories of the use of canaries in the mines that had been passed down from one generation to the next. I have to admit that even as a small child I can remember my own father mentioning the use of canaries in the mines....and he never spent a day in one. Even on a trip to Dollywood one year....on one of the rides....there were canaries all throughout the mine....and at the last cage...the canary was dead...and that is when the explosion happened. My mining historian told me that the big companies did not use this method so it was safe to assume that only small independent mines in those early years, you know the ones that contracted for the mining of coal on their property, might have used canaries for their mine work. The bigger companies all had Davey's Safety Lamps and any other technical means for checking oxygen or certain gases at the earliest of times. After hearing his story and upon returning home I began to research the use of canaries in the mines, and I was surprised to hear that some countries, like the United Kingdom and Australia used them right up to more modern times. The last documentation was actually in the 1970's when they passed laws against the use of birds in the mines. In later years, canaries were certainly used in collieries in the United Kingdom, but not on a daily basis. They were used following the "William Pit Explosion," in 1947, but to detect foul air for the rescue party. The lead man had a cage fastened to the top of his breathing apparatus, so that the man behind him could see when they had entered the "styth" or after-damp area. They then knew where they needed to start trying to restore the "coursing" of the air-flow, to direct fresh air into that area. Rescue teams kept a number of canaries on hand, but, it wasn't as cruel as you might think because once removed back to fresh air, most canaries recovered to be used again! Many mines used canaries to detect Carbon Monoxide and not Methane because their heart rate is so high they die or pass-out very quickly before a man could accumulate the gas in his blood stream to any harmful degree. Because of the high heart rate of the canary, it was convenient for the job, but notnecessarily too great for the poor canary! In more modern times they had special birdcages made of Perspex, which had holes drilled into it for ventilation on the forth side. When the bird fell off of the perch they closed an airtight door over the side with the ventilation holes and would revive the bird with oxygen so it could be used again. I also read where some miners actually carried small vials of oxygen and they let the bird breathe this to save the bird's life. Some of what I discovered was that "many of the mining companies in the United Kingdom, would buy their birds from private breeders, pet shops or have an aviary built right in a part of the mine offices where they would breed the birds for use in the mines. Most of the canaries used were of bad coloring, or some type of imperfection, which weren't good for public sale. Also, the female canaries weren't too good for singing so they would be sold cheaper for mine use. Mine canaries were also used in the Southern Bituminous Coal Fields of the United States up to the late 1890's. I would also have to assume that some of the smaller independent or "boot-leg" mines used the canaries in the early years because of the expense of a "Davey's Safety Lamp." Taking air samples in the early days was time consuming and had to be handled in special labs. In later years, a Methanometer was used in the mines which detected methane gases and oxygen levels. The safest mines have good ventilation systems with huge fans, airways and proper doors and brattice's to control the airflow. Many modern mines have electrical sensors built right in the mines. So, the "Mine Canary," is now history." I was really glad to hear that. Poor little song birds.
I am a woman who wears many hats and loves them all. I am a singer - I sing with the group Still Magnolias. I was part of the original First United Methodist Church Arbor Praise Team until we moved. After 24+ years of teaching English 11 and Spanish I - II at Benjamin Russell High School I decided to take a job closer to home. I now teach Spanish I & 2 at Randolph Co. High School and Wadley. I thought I was getting close to retirement and looking forward to it, but decided to move my cheese and try something different. I am a preacher's wife and a preacher myself. My husband Frank is the pastor at Rock Mills United Methodist Church and I am the pastor at Midway (Wedowee). It has made our conversations interesting, to say the least.