Shattering coal�s glass ceiling

NANCY Dorset began her mining career in 1978 as one of the few women working in US underground coal mines. She counts her heroes as the 78 miners who lost their lives at the Farmington No. 9 explosion.
Shattering coal’s glass ceiling Shattering coal’s glass ceiling Shattering coal’s glass ceiling Shattering coal’s glass ceiling Shattering coal’s glass ceiling

Nancy Dorset stands by a print by Robert Merrill of the second batch of miners to be lifted from the Farmington No.9 fire on Nov. 20, 1968.

Angie Tomlinson

Published in the August 2006 American Longwall Magazine

Dorset began her mining career as a general inside laborer at Consolidation Coal’s Arkwright No. 1 Mine just west of Morgantown. During the next 17 years, she worked every job on the face (shuttle car operator, roof bolter, continuous miner operator) on both retreat and developing sections and started working on the longwall in 1990 as a shield operator and then as headgate operator. She became a certified West Virginia assistant mine foreman/fireboss in 1982. In 1983, she earned her Pennsylvania Mine Examiner certification.

While a miner, Dorset was active with the local United Mine Workers of America safety committee and served as miners’ representative for 15 years. In addition, she served in several capacities as a special field representative for the International UMWA.

In October 1995, Consolidation Coal permanently closed the Arkwright No. 1 Mine. Since the panel included over a thousand names, Dorset decided to attend college at West Virginia University in the Mining Engineering Department. She found that her first semester to be very difficult and would have dropped out if it was not for the support she received from her mentor, Dr. Larry Grayson. She graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Mining Engineering in August 2000 and went on to gain a Masters of Science in Mining Engineering in 2002.

Today she remains a graduate student in the PhD program at WVU. Since she has completed all her class work, she must only complete her research and write her dissertation to receive her PhD in Mining Engineering.

Q: What is you earliest mining memory?

A: I didn’t grow up in a mining area, but I clearly remember watching the Farmington No. 9 explosion on TV on Thanksgiving Day in 1968. I was 15 years old. Either before 1968 or after, I’m not sure which, I remember being spellbound by the search for two Kentucky miners trapped by a roof fall. Unfortunately, both perished. But I cut every article about the rescue and recovery out of the newspaper and put them in a scrapbook. So my introduction to mining was one of death and grieving.

Q: What made you choose mining as a career?

A: I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit it was a well-paying job with good benefits. However, there was a more immediate reason. One of my hobbies is exploring caves. I caved almost every weekend, getting downright filthy in the process. I figured if I could crawl around in a hole on weekends and not get paid, I sure could crawl around in a hole during the week and get paid. I fell in love with mining my first day in the mine. I knew I would retire from it. However, the mine closed before I was old enough to retire.

Q: When was your first underground visit?

A: I don’t know if this counts, but I toured the “coal mine” that was in the bowels of the Chicago Museum of Natural History when I was still in elementary school. But my first time in a real mine was in August 1978 during my mine apprentice training.

There were about eight of us on the tour. We walked the intake escapeway from the portal bottom to the closest section, about a mile walk. It was only about five feet high, so we were all bent over. I remember watching the superintendent resting his hands on his back instead of letting them hang down his sides like I was. So I tried to emulate the super and it sure made a difference. It literally took the wait off my shoulders. Arkwright was a room-and-pillar mine with retreat mining. As we watch the mining process, I decided right then, I wanted to be a roof bolter. When I expressed my goal to the others, I was told women only shoveled belt and never ran equipment. Although I didn’t say it out loud, I knew they had a surprise coming.

Q: What was your favorite job in the coal mine?

A: Oh boy, that’s a toss up. I loved retreat mining. I ran a buggy and roof bolted on the miner while retreat mining. The roof bolters were installed on the continuous miner. There was never a dull moment and the crew and boss was great. But retreat mining was abandoned once the longwall was installed. I stayed on the development sections for the first six panels of the longwall. Eventually I trained and bid on the headgate operator. That was my favorite job of the non-retreat world. I spent most of my mining career at the face. Seeing that coal come off the face gave me some sort of rush, I guess. I also enjoyed walking the airways once I received my fireboss papers. I think it reminded me of my cave exploration days.

Q: What was your least favorite job?

A: Anything outby. Actually, it’s a toss up between either building stoppings out of solid concrete blocks or shoveling belt. Shoveling belt was so depressing because you were never done. It always seemed my luck that I would get an area cleaned up and along would come a bad splice and the coal would spill all over again. I was sure the boss thought I had goofed off all shift.

Q: Who, or what, most influence your mining career?

A: I had been a miner for about nine months, when one day I filled in as a continuous miner helper and there was an ignition on the face. The operator pushed me into the coal pile behind the miner, but I still saw the blue flame travel down the ventilation tubes, making them glow. Fortunately, the gas dissipated and the return was well rock dusted. Of course, there was an immediate investigation and those that had been at the face didn’t get to go home for hours.

At some point, a federal inspector told me about...click here to read on.

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