By: Dawn DeBraal
Mine 18 was no longer, ending in 1962 with less than thirty years of digging coal. We carved out the side of a mountain near the Cumberland River. I was always torn between the need to eat and watching the machinery destroy a beautiful place, but my family came first. I sold my soul for a paycheck.
Blue Heron, KY, was our home for twelve years, until I packed my family up after seeing the vision. I never went back there, believing we uncovered something in the mountain that would pursue us to the end of our days.
It seemed as if overnight, the mining town dried up. It's hard to envision three hundred mine workers and their families living here. We had a school, church, and a bathhouse where the men could shower before going home. With the train depot and a company store, everything needed to survive was provided by the mining company.
In December 1962, the mine was shut down under the guise that it was no longer profitable. But those of us who used to work there know better why mine 18 no longer functioned. It started with the death of Hank Cawdry.
Hank was a large man, respected by his co-workers. They saw fit to make him foreman of the night shift. It was tough, dirty work—every man left the elevator black-faced and walked out into the fresh air. God knows what our lungs looked like. But the old saying, "Seeing is believing." If you can't see it, it doesn't exist, but when we tried to breathe, we knew it existed.
Hank wanted protection for his workers. Something to go in the mines or on the men's faces to breathe fresh air and not cough up their lungs after each shift. When the company discovered he was spreading his ideas, Hank disappeared and was never seen alive again.
I heard tell that he was beaten and thrown into the coal train where his body was crushed by tons of coal and suffocated. They say when they found his body, it was barely thicker than a piece of paper. After that, we stopped talking about improving work conditions. The company made itself heard, loud and clear. No one had the guts to stand up to Earl Lamprey, the onsite manager. Whispers through the valley about Hank's death brought inspectors to Mine 18. We were forbidden to talk. To cooperate with the law meant we were no longer employees. So, we zipped our lips and kept working. We returned to how things had always been when the heat cooled down—doing the bidding of our employers. We were coming off the shift when we heard a noise.
"What's that?" Doug Seply said as we came out of the coal mine.
"It's a steam engine."
"There ain't no steam engines like that here in Blue Heron, Carl." As we watched the train race by the mine, our mouths dropped. It appeared to be on fire, and you could feel the heat radiating from it like the train had just exited Hell.
"There is now," I said. Sparks flew behind her. She looked like a runaway train. But it was the engineer who caught my eye. It was none other than Hank Cawdry. He was black as coal, hanging out the side window shouting,
"Howdy, boys! Get on board. This train will take you to Hell and back." His eyes were red flames of fire, and his hair looked like it was ablaze.
"That can't be!" Doug Seply scratched his head. "Hank is dead."
"He looked like the devil," I replied, knowing that we had indeed tapped into something that came straight from Hell digging out that mountain. When Bert Parkin collapsed last week after the ground gave way in a small earthquake, he fell through a fault crack. I was reaching for the man who clung to a shelf of rock. Laying next to the crack, I tried to help pull him out, but he was taking me down with him. God help me, I let go. I got a wife and a youngin' to support. I couldn't leave them, where Bert was a single man.
I had nightmares for days, and they stopped when the train from Hell raced through. I knew that Hank was trying to tell us something. I just had to find out what that was. The last out of the mine didn't see what the first saw. Everyone was talking gibberish, and those who came up last thought we'd already been nipping on the jug.
I didn't tell my wife, Lila. She would have stopped me from working right then. After seeing that train, it made me put my foot down. I was going to find a way out of this town as soon as possible. I wrote to my brother-in-law, who worked at the Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, after the rumor that Mine 18 was shutting down. It took a couple of weeks, but he reassured me that I would find a job waiting at the furnace, melting down coal and ore into steel. He encouraged me to go elsewhere if I could.
"Working here is like working in Hell. Temperatures reach one hundred and twenty degrees. The housing offered is cramped and on the site of this ugly belching furnace. We are forced to work all hours. I would welcome my family, but this is torture. Think twice before committing."
I didn't have much of a choice. I would not watch Hank Cawdry's ghost on that Midnight Train every night. His call to us tugged at me even though I knew it was suicide to get on that train. Lila is a "seer," she sees things that no one else does, and in all our years of marriage, I should have learned to trust her instincts.
"If you stay here, you will die," she said after I finally admitted to her what I saw nightly coming out of the mine. I quit my job and drove my wife and daughter to Birmingham. The house provided, barely fit for one person, let alone three, but Lila clung to her brother like he was a life jacket.
God, the furnace was hot. You couldn't drink enough water. I thought being below ground was Hell, but this job was not fit for man nor beast. I asked Lem how he had done it all these years? He told me you get used to it. I didn't think I would ever get there and thought about returning to Kentucky, but Mine 18 had already been closed. As bad as it was working in the furnaces, I was still above ground. There was no turning back.
During the night shifts, I swear I saw things. It might have been the heat mirages of the blast furnaces. But then I heard the story about James "Slag" Wormwood, who burned to death in the molten metal. Forty-seven men died under his watch, and they never were certain if he was thrown in by his crew or if he tripped and fell. The men were suspect because James was an evil taskmaster.
After finding out how many men died in these furnaces, I knew I wouldn't last there long, but I made it through eight years working there, every night thinking about who I might contact to get a better job, a cousin or something.
Lila begged me not to go to work that night, but I foolishly didn't listen to her. She said she had a bad feeling that something was going to happen to me, but it was payday, and I wanted my check. I assured her I'd be fine.
Walking along the catwalk something pushed me from behind telling me to "Get back to work." I fell to my knees, scalding my hands on the decking, pulling them away to see angry red welts where the metal grates burned me. And then I saw it, an orange glow was coming toward me.
"What the hell!" I screamed, and then heard Lem shouting at me,
"Carl, run!" The apparition had burned several other men over the years. I did get up and start running but couldn't grasp the handrails going down the stairs with my burned hands. Stumbling, I landed on my neck at the bottom of the steps.
They tell me several men grabbed me before the burning vision got to me. I don't remember much because I was in a coma for several days. I was barely out of the hospital when Sloss told me to leave for being a risk hazard, which meant we lost the tiny house that went with the job. I have to admit I was grateful to be leaving there with my life.
My cousin Sam got me a job at the Thikol-Woodbine Chemical plant in Woodbine, GA. We loaded what little we had and drove nearly five hundred miles where Sam let us live in his garage with little more than a camp stove and small refrigerator for a kitchen. Poor Raylin and Lila. I felt terrible that I couldn't provide better for my family, but we had a roof over our heads. Lila told me she didn't care as long as we were together.
Three weeks into the job, the alarms started in building M132. There was a fire. We walked out of the windowless building, watching flames come out on the conveyor belt. Eighty of us got out. Like fools looking at a car wreck, we watched the fire when the explosion happened. It killed a bunch of us. I was under some refuse that fell on me and couldn't move my leg, realizing there was a steel beam across it. I helplessly tried to pull my foot out from under it, but I was trapped.
"Help!" I looked around me, and everyone was dead. Whoever survived the blast had taken off for safer parts, leaving me trapped. What the Hell had I done to deserve this?
I sensed it before I saw it. A rumble and a fiery blaze came across the rail yard. The old train from Mine 18, Hank Cawdry, had come back for me.
"Get on board, Carl. I'll take you to Hell." His eyes glowed orange and his hair burned bright.
"You can't take me to Hell, Hank, I've already been there," I told him. The steel beam moved off my leg. I didn't feel anything, no pain, and even though my leg was grossly bent, I walked on it to the train whose smokestack puffed thick black smoke. I grabbed the burning handrail on the steps to get aboard, realizing that I was dead.
Dead tired I climbed aboard no longer fighting my fate knowing that since working Mine 18, that train was trying to catch up with me, and today it did. I didn't care about anything anymore; I was a beaten man and came running when Hank called me. Picking a seat facing the others, I looked at the passengers when a man stood up.
"How do?" the man stood and extended his hand, I shook it. "My name is James "Slag" Wormwood. His face ran down him like melted candle wax. Sitting directly behind him was Bert Parkins, his eyes met mine, and he drew his finger across his throat like he was going to kill me for letting go. Then I recognized the others, all of us doomed men who'd been worked to death. Each one of us carried the look of defeat. We resisted the call until we were worn down to the point that we no longer cared.
Hank Cawdry shouted, "All aboard," the whistle blew, resounding in my chest. The great train chugged from its place moving forward on the track picking up speed with each blast of steam. We raced along the track at breakneck speed, very much aware that we were riding the Midnight train to Hell. Funny thing, we didn't give a damn.