Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 6

For three days Hal toiled in the bowels of the mine, and ate and pursued vermin at Reminitsky's. Then came a blessed Sunday, and he had a couple of free hours to see the sunlight and to get a look at the North Valley camp. It was a village straggling along more than a mile of the mountain canyon. In the centre were the great breaker-buildings, the shaft-house, and the power-house with its tall chimneys; nearby were the company-store and a couple of saloons. There were several boarding-houses like Reminitsky's, and long rows of board cabins containing from two to four rooms each, some of them occupied by several families. A little way up a slope stood a school-house, and another small one-room building which served as a church; the clergyman belonging to the General Fuel Company denomination. He was given the use of the building, by way of start over the saloons, which had to pay a heavy rental to the company; it seemed a proof of the innate perversity of human nature that even in spite of this advantage, heaven was losing out in the struggle against hell in the coal-camp.

As one walked through this village, the first impression was of desolation. The mountains towered, barren and lonely, scarred with the wounds of geologic ages. In these canyons the sun set early in the afternoon, the snow came early in the fall; everywhere Nature's hand seemed against man, and man had succumbed to her power. Inside the camps one felt a still more cruel desolation--that of sordidness and animalism. There were a few pitiful attempts at vegetable-gardens, but the cinders and smoke killed everything, and the prevailing colour was of grime. The landscape was strewn with ash-heaps, old wire and tomato-cans, and smudged and smutty children playing.

There was a part of the camp called "shanty-town," where, amid miniature mountains of slag, some of the lowest of the newly-arrived foreigners had been permitted to build themselves shacks out of old boards, tin, and sheets of tar-paper. These homes were beneath the dignity of chicken-houses, yet in some of them a dozen people were crowded, men and women sleeping on old rags and blankets on a cinder floor. Here the babies swarmed like maggots. They wore for the most part a single ragged smock, and their bare buttocks were shamelessly upturned to the heavens. It was so the children of the cave-men must have played, thought Hal; and waves of repulsion swept over him. He had come with love and curiosity, but both motives failed here. How could a man of sensitive nerves, aware of the refinements and graces of life, learn to love these people, who were an affront to his every sense--a stench to his nostrils, a jabbering to his ear, a procession of deformities to his eye? What had civilisation done for them? What could it do? After all, what were they fit for, but the dirty work they were penned up to do? So spoke the haughty race-consciousness of the Anglo-Saxon, contemplating these Mediterranean hordes, the very shape of whose heads was objectionable.

But Hal stuck it out; and little by little new vision came to him. First of all, it was the fascination of the mines. They were old mines--veritable cities tunnelled out beneath the mountains, the main passages running for miles. One day Hal stole off from his job, and took a trip with a "rope-rider," and got through his physical senses a realisation of the vastness and strangeness and loneliness of this labyrinth of night. In Number Two mine the vein ran up at a slope of perhaps five degrees; in part of it the empty cars were hauled in long trains by an endless rope, but coming back loaded, they came of their own gravity. This involved much work for the "spraggers," or boys who did the braking; it sometimes meant run-away cars, and fresh perils added to the everyday perils of coal-mining.

The vein varied from four to five feet in thickness; a cruelty of nature which made it necessary that the men at the "working face"--the place where new coal was being cut--should learn to shorten their stature. After Hal had squatted for a while and watched them at their tasks, he understood why they walked with head and shoulders bent over and arms hanging down, so that, seeing them coming out of the shaft in the gloaming, one thought of a file of baboons. The method of getting out the coal was to "undercut" it with a pick, and then blow it loose with a charge of powder. This meant that the miner had to lie on his side while working, and accounted for other physical peculiarities.

Thus, as always, when one understood the lives of men, one came to pity instead of despising. Here was a separate race of creatures, subterranean, gnomes, pent up by society for purposes of its own. Outside in the sunshine-flooded canyon, long lines of cars rolled down with their freight of soft-coal; coal which would go to the ends of the earth, to places the miner never heard of, turning the wheels of industry whose products the miner would never see. It would make precious silks for fine ladies, it would cut precious jewels for their adornment; it would carry long trains of softly upholstered cars across deserts and over mountains; it would drive palatial steamships out of wintry tempests into gleaming tropic seas. And the fine ladies in their precious silks and jewels would eat and sleep and laugh and lie at ease--and would know no more of the stunted creatures of the dark than the stunted creatures knew of them. Hal reflected upon this, and subdued his Anglo-Saxon pride, finding forgiveness for what was repulsive in these people--their barbarous, jabbering speech, their vermin-ridden homes, their bare-bottomed babies.

Upton Sinclair