WEST FRANKFORT — Jack McReynolds will always be a coal miner. The 81-year-old of West Frankfort dedicated 40 years of his working life to the industry and said coal has been a part of his life since he was born.
“I remember laying in bed when I was a very small child. At night you could hear them shooting underground under our house. Back then they shot with black powder. You could hear it, ‘boom, boom,’” McReynolds said of the mine work 800 feet below his house. He said there were times when he knew his father was down there with those blasts, risking his neck to put food on the table.
Several years later, he would be doing the same thing.
His story is not entirely unique. It is no secret that coal was a driving force in the economy of Southern Illinois, particularly in the early and middle parts of the last century. McReynolds said money was a big part of why he and so many others took the job underground.
“It paid better than anything around here,” he said. “The fact is we had school teachers leaving their job and coming to work underground.”
Pride was part of it, too. McReynolds said working in the mine was essentially part of the war effort during World War II.
“We’re the ones that kept the steel mills running. The fact is, we helped win the war,” he said, adding that many miners were also veterans. In fact, McReynolds noted that several of the men who died in 1951 during the Orient 2 mine explosion were World War II veterans.
“Some of them went through the Normandy invasion, some of them made the landings on them islands in the Pacific and then come back and get killed by an explosion,” he said.
While he was inspecting mines during his career, the anniversary of the Orient disaster was always a sobering day for him, he said.
“…Every year I would say to the guys, ‘Boys, this is the day Orient 2 blew up. Let’s be really careful with what you’re doing,’” he said.
Things are not always safe in the mine. McReynolds said he has dodged being covered by rock three or four times in his life.
Once, the rock covered the cutting machine he was using. McReynolds said once coal had been cut out of the mine shaft, there is a time when there was no roof built to help keep it from caving in. Of his machine that night, he said there was “probably 100 tons of rock on it” after the roof fell. McReynolds admitted that he and his friends would often head to the bar for a quick beer after work most nights — that night he may have had a bit more.
“I think I had a six pack, that one, and maybe a shot of whiskey,” McReynolds said with a laugh.
Coal was such a driving force in Franklin County — McReynolds said it is the bedrock of the county — that it sparked a semi-annual festival in West Frankfort, Old King Coal, which has been underway this week. The tradition of a parade, carnival and crowning of Old King Coal began in 1941, and McReynolds remembers the scene.
“They held it right on Main Street, right in the middle of the street for about a two-block area,” McReynolds remembered, adding that he recalled the fun of seeing the parade and riding the rides, though he was just 6 and had no idea who the man crowned that year really was.
It would be almost 70 years before he would be the man with the crown and sash. In 2005, he was named Old King Coal and is currently the oldest living person who has held the title.
“It was really an honor to do that,” he said.
McReynolds said mining is how he identifies himself and sometimes misses the work, especially the friendship. However, as president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 2420, he still gets to see some of his friends, old and new. He said he helps guide retired miners with health insurance and pension questions.
This camaraderie is part of what he loves about mining and is something will always hold dear, he said.
“Being underground is like a band of brothers. It’s like being in the army,” he said, adding that everyone watches out for everyone else.