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“There Wasn’t a Mine Runnin’ a Lump O’ Coal”: A Kentucky Coal Miner Remembers the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919

In 1918 the Spanish influenza hit the United States and then the rest of the world with such swiftness that it sometimes went unnoticed until it had already passed. By mid-1919 it had killed more people than any other disease in a similar period in the history of the world. Kentucky coal miner Teamus Bartley was interviewed at ninety-five years of age and vividly recalled the impact of the flu pandemic on his community. With a dearth of healthy laborers, the mines shut down for six weeks in 1918 and miners went from digging coal to digging graves.

Listen to Audio:

Teamus Bartley: It was the saddest lookin‘ time then that ever you saw in your life. My brother lived over there in the camps then and I was working over there and I was dropping cars onto the team pole. And that, that epidemic broke out and people went to dyin’ and there just four and five dyin‘ every night dyin’ right there in the camps, every night. And I began goin‘ over there, my brother and all his family took down with it, what’d they call it, the flu? Yeah, 1918 flu. And, uh, when I’d get over there I’d ride my horse and, and go over there in the evening and I’d stay with my brother about three hours and do what I could to help ’em. And every one of them was in the bed and sometimes Doctor Preston would come while I was there, he was the doctor. And he said “I’m a tryin‘ to save their lives but I’m afraid I’m not going to.”And they were so bad off. And, and every, nearly every porch, every porch that I’d look at had—would have a casket box a sittin’ on it. And men a diggin‘ graves just as hard as they could and the mines had to shut down there wasn’t a nary a man, there wasn’t a, there wasn’t a mine arunnin’ a lump of coal or runnin' no work. Stayed that away for about six weeks.

Source: Oral history courtesy of University of Kentucky, Library Oral History Project.

See Also:"Please, Let Me Put Him in a Macaroni Box" The Spanish Influenza of 1918 in Philadelphia
"He'll Come Home in a Box": The Spanish Influenza of 1918 Comes to Montana