"Good Morning Earlington:
No. 9 and the Coke Ovens"
One day Dennis Carnal came by with a large, original late ‘20’s map of Earlington and a question. "What year did the old coke plant by #9 mines close?" It wasn’t on his map so he assumed that it must be prior to the ‘20s. He had already checked the two Earlington histories and found no answer. Hmm! Never thought about it. So I decided to go out Heckla Rd on a little field trip. I asked J.B. Thomason to show me about where he thought old #9 and #11 would be. We parked by the old sewer plant and walked across the railroad tracks and jumped across a stream to begin our search. Sure enough there are plenty of remnants of broken bricks from the coke ovens, bits of slate, and small pieces of coke and coal. We map-spotted the approximate area of the ovens and hiked up the hill to where he judged the opening of #9 to be. There we saw the watering trough for the mine’s mules. It is a huge concrete "pool" about 30’ in length, about 18"high, and about 3’ across. With a little imagination I could see the mules swishing their tails warding off flies and gnats while lowering their heads on a hot day for a cool drink of water. A little behind the trough partially buried in the hillside are a number of huge hollowed out logs with metal spikes. There were three deep depressions where separate entries might have led into the mines—for supplies, air, men, and coal. Of course, we might not have found the exact spots, but I had a marvelous time imagining it all. It was real to me!
However, this only gave me more questions. I pondered for a while and visited my Uncle Paul (Cothran), retired engineer for the L&N, to jog his memory of the tracks and the ovens. He described the ovens as appearing like large igloos the size of his living room with pipes at the top from which black smoke constantly emerged. I had pictured a few ovens, but he drew me pictures of what he called a "string" of large brick igloos lining a track adjacent to the current railroad track from #9 possibly as far as #11. I remembered a small ridge above the current track and that was where the tributary track ran back to the mines to carry the coal to the tipple then to the trains. On the other side of the ridge in a small valley stood a long line of ovens with an even smaller track where little "dinky" cars took coal from the mines to the ovens to burn off the gas to make coke.
In the late 1880s and early l900s miners loaded the coal by shovel into the cars so they did not need the number of cars that mines use today. I must assume that they produced a large quantity of coke which was shipped mainly to Nashville and then distributed to various areas where steel was made. I have found no written information on when these ovens stopped producing coke. The ovens were simply abandoned. Then over the years people took a brick here and a brick there until they have disappeared except for hundreds of thousands of small shards left in the dirt there to remind us of "what was" along with a ridge and valley. Questioning a few more people, I learned that many of the firebricks have been incorporated into beautiful walls, floors beneath woodburners, porches, and walks. I was even given one of these which says "LACLADE, St. Louis." Others say LOUISVILLE and many have coke imbedded into the rough edges of the brick from the baking process.
I returned to the area just to imagine how it all must have appeared with those extra tracks in front of the brick ovens, George Sadler’s wood shop where he produced items for use in the mines, and next St. Bernard’s old supply house. Several feet behind the supply house must have been the huge concrete watering trough. Braying of mules, metal against metal from cars on the tracks, a fog of black dust, men with heavy Irish and English brogues, thick black smoke from burning coke and huge steam engines chugging up the hill along Flemming’s Curve—what a picture it all makes! Holes up and down the area for air vents gave many miners a short cut into the mines without having to travel over the ground to get into the mines. Here was a place where men from other countries came for a new life with their families. This is our heritage! It was beautiful on that hill that day. How sad that some of this could not have been saved for the great-grandchildren of these men so that each could appreciate what they had done. If only there were more physical reminders standing. But there is still such a great deal of history there. What a shame it has never been used as a living reminder of what once was. It is our loss!
Ann Gipson 12-13-2001