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21.

 

    They could have waited, of course; they had already waited the better part of five years. Waiting another three weeks would not have appreciably altered the success or failure of their mining venture. But no, Frank was adamant; he had waited long enough.

    Hershel Wade had contacted the Railroad: a new piston would be delivered to their freight station in three weeks time, not sooner; the parts must be obtained from the manufacturer, Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. There was a waiting list, apparently, and jumping forward in line, even for valued customers like the Baltimore and Ohio, was simply out of the question.

    Naturally, the Railroad had an alternative for Frank to consider; they always had alternatives for everything. Another switcher would be provided while the first was being repaired. They could have it within a month. They were sorry about the delay, but another customer had leased the engine until then. And no, it was the only one available.

    Exasperated, Frank turned to Cameron. "Place an order with Baldwin. I don't care what a new industrial switcher will cost. We're going to buy our own equipment. We should have learned by now never to depend on the railroad for anything."

 

    At the bottom of the hill, ten rolls of steel cable, each five hundred feet in length, were standing along side the freight station, awaiting transport up to the headframe.

    "Five thousand feet of cable, Henry. Isn't that more than we need?" Frank had asked his Vice President, resident mining engineer, and creator of all things mechanical.

    "I'm hoping it's enough, Frank. We bought the last reel in their inventory. They don't expect to replenish the supply for another three months."

   

    How to bring those reels of cable a mile uphill to the summit was the question. The day before, the hoist engine, an enormous steam turbine, and the giant cable drum had been miraculously pushed up the long slope to the headframe and installed in place. It had taken the entire day; they finished by moonlight and torch But the effort cost them more then aching muscles, bleeding hands, and ugly purple bruises distributed over their bodies. The industrial switcher leased from the railroad had been thrown out of commission; its main piston, torn away from the driving rods, now lie useless, bent and jagged, next to the processing plant rail siding.

 

    Isador counseled that they should wait, but Frank wanted another opinion, preferably one that agreed with his own. He turned to Hershel Wade, his savor the previous day, "Any ideas, Hershel?"

    "Hell, let's bring those reels up the old fashioned way. Put them on wagons and drag them up. No need to wait for the railroad. They said three weeks, but they might just take a couple of months. Maybe longer."

    Wade was right, Frank decided. Only the loss of rental income for the switcher would compel the railroad to act in a timely manner; but to a corporation the size of the Baltimore and Ohio, that much income was little more than a few loose coins. They were at the mercy of the railroad to keep a promise they had minimal incentive to keep. And if there was one function at which the mine excelled, it was hauling heavy loads by horse drawn wagon for miles along rough trails. They had been transporting coal that way for five years, since the first load left the valley for a market in Morgantown. Now they even had good roads.

    Still, Frank hesitated. Wade sounded confident, but everyone was expressing frustration. Was he reverting to his old arrogance out of anger, or could he really accomplish the task? Frank needed a definite answer.

    "It's a good plan, Hershel, but can you actually bring those reels up that hill?"

    "Consider it done, Mr. Montague. Let me worry about the doing."

    Wade was foolhardy, but he was not a fool. No one agreed with him, of course. None of Frank's partners and none of his most trusted employees, including Wiggins, Reynolds, and both Cheek brothers. Not even Rebecca, who thought the attempt was too risky; someone could be seriously injured. But it was Frank's decision; he was the mine president and the majority share holder. He had the last say in everything. Frank looked out his office window at the lengthening shadows. It was too late now; most of the day was gone. He measured the hours spent contacting the railroad, considering the alternatives, arguing for one course against another. They would begin in the morning.

   

    Early the next day, Frank, Bevens, Isador, and Wiggins stood on the summit watching a crew of workers dismantling the crane, loading it on a wagon, and starting down toward the freight platform. 

    "What's the procedure?" Wiggins asked.

    "They'll reassemble the crane at the station, lift a reel onto a wagon, and start climbing the hill."

    "How many horses is Hershel using," Isador asked.

    "All twelve," Frank replied, "and another twenty men to help push the wagon and steady the load."

    Herbert Wiggins tired to visualize the next step, then asked, "How will they get the reel off?"

    "Well, the crane will have to be taken down after the last trip and brought up again by wagon. Then reassembled up here."

    Frank tried to explain the plan as clearly as possible, but his words were getting testy. He began to feel that these questions were designed less to elicit information than to dissuade him from proceeding with the attempt.

    "Yes, I know it seems like the same work will be repeated over and over," he added, "but under the circumstances that can't he helped. It's the only practical way to deliver that cable to the place it needs to be, and I intend to get it done." Then he turned and walked away from the group before he uttered an intemperate remark that he would later regret.

 

    Frank walked uphill and stood beside the summit spring, letting his temper uncoil and his mind wander. It was remarkable that the mine had remained comparatively dry, especially given the amount of water flowing to the surface at this height. What about gravity? water flows downhill, not in the reverse direction.  The underground pressure, he concluded, must be tremendous to push the water this high.

    He lighted a cigar and checked his watch. They were scheduled to begin in another three minutes. That was just enough time for a puff or two before he had to fire the signal. He waited out the allocated time, then turned back to the cliff, pumped his rifle, and fired the pattern of shots for Wade to begin the approach up the mountain.    His temper had subsided, but it was replaced with worry about the men. There was nothing more he could do except wait. He extinguished the cigar and started down to join the others.

 

    At the processing plant siding, time seemed to stand still as the men stood quietly, staring downhill at a flat horizon, an empty road. Nervously, Frank looked at his watch again, perhaps for the fifth time in as many minutes.

    "We should have seen them by now," he remarked, more to himself than to the others. 

    Isador motioned to Eugene Platt, one of the assistant foremen. "Gene, ride down to the railroad and see what's going on."

    Platt ran to his restless, shuffling horse, mounted, and sped away down the road. No sooner had his receding figure vanished beneath the slope than he reappeared, galloping back toward the summit, waving his cap at the men waiting on top.

    "They're coming," he cried.

    And so they were. They were barely visible, mere dots on the horizon, but those spots were growing larger with each passing second, and within a minute or two, their shapes became unmistakable.

    It was a fantastic display, an image more compatible with ancient Mesopotamia than northwestern Virginia. It reminded Frank of an illustration from his colorful childhood bible. Hershel Wade was coming up the mountainside, perched on top of a gigantic reel that was cabled to a wagon drawn by twelve straining horses, waving his arms, urging his men forward. He looked more like a medieval king leading an army into battle than a Virginian miner delivering a heavy load. Men were positioned at the back of the wagon and on either side, pushing while the draft horses pulled, moving the enormous weight ever higher up the slope. Long, tautly held ropes extended from the reel to columns of riders on either side to balance and steady the load as the procession continued slowly toward the top.

    "I told you we would get this son of a bitch up here," Wade shouted to the cheering group.    

    Well, he did, but he would have to repeat the process nine more times spread over five days; only two trips a day were possible.

   

    "I don't understand, Frank", Rebecca asked the evening of the fifth day, "why you weren't able to finish in less time."

    "Mostly because of the horses. They needed a long rest between each trip up to the headframe. We could have bought more heavy draft horses, I suppose, but not on such short notice. The men needed rest, too. All in all, my dear, things worked out much better than I thought they might. No one was hurt, not even any of the animals. And we didn't lose an inch of cable in the process."

    "What comes next?"

    "So far, we've unloaded five reels of cable. Henry's men have started winding them around the drum. We have five loaded wagons on top. We hope to finish unloading them tomorrow or the next day. At this point, it's all a matter of unwinding cable from the reels and rewinding it around the drum. Then the elevator itself can be assembled and installed within the shaft. I do hope you're looking forward to a little ride."

 

    Once the cable had been transferred from the reels to the drum, the hoist turbine was fired and the cable lowered down the shaft for final modifications and testing. Now it was time to assemble the skip hoist itself. That process required six weeks; it was demanding work; small tolerances had to be maintained amongst the moving parts. And because the two story elevator had been fabricated by different craftsmen in different locations, there was a fair amount of refitting and refinishing needed before final assembly.

    After years of excavation and the tragic loss of life, after more than a hundred thousand dollars had been invested, after the unconquerable Montague Mountain had been conquered by drill rig, draft horse, and steam locomotive, the assembly of the central shaft elevator itself had seemed, only a few weeks ago, to be the simplest and easiest phase of their long term undertaking to bring coal to the railroad.   

    Needless to say it was not. The double compartment elevator was too large to be assembled and installed directly over the shaft; the project would have to be completed in stages, by indirect means.

    The installation of the skip platform came first. During construction, it was necessary that all the wooden structural elements-the wood frame, the flooring, the beams and joists-be measured, cut, and screwed together to insure a proper fit. That was the virtue of on-site construction; but it was also a hindrance to  installation, for now the completed lower compartment standing within the tent storage area was too heavy to carry to the headframe building and too large to pass through its opening. It would have to be taken apart first.

    It was largely a matter of reversing the order of assembly, except that it was easier since everything fit together properly; but it was more difficult since additional care had to be exercised to avoid damaging any of the parts. With everything broken down into manageable components, the individual pieces were carried into the headframe building and screwed back together on top of the central shaft. Next, the moving parts, the lifting mechanism wheels and pulleys, were bolted into place and attached to lengths of steel cable wound about the hoist drum.

    Now the elevator was ready for its first test. Two volunteers stepped abroad, and the platform was lowered six hundred feet to the entryway floor. The work on the summit was done; the rest would have to be completed within the mine.    

    Early the following morning, a section crew on the first floor landing began laying rails across the diameter of the skip platform. Once the track was in place, the oval coal bins were brought down from the summit in wagons and pushed in ore cars along the entryway to the elevator shaft. They were bolted down securely on either side of the platform rails. The elevator, now half finished, was lowered until the top of the lower coal compartment was even with the surface of the entryway. The installation of the upper passenger section was next, but there would be another delay.

 

    Bevens called all the owners and supervisors to a meeting in the storage tent on the summit. An unforeseen problem had arisen. The passenger compartment platform was roughly the same size and weight as the lower skip platform, and for similar reasons, it would have to dismantled and carried piece by piece to the assembly site in the mine. That posed no problem; the same task had been accomplished once before. In fact, installing the second platform down in the mine would be easier; there was more clearance at the entryway landing than in the crowded headframe building. A team of workers had already started taking the platform apart before the meeting began.

    It was the circular cage, not the platform, that was the problem. It was too large in either dimension. The cage was too wide to fit through the headframe opening and too tall to be moved through the entryway. They could not install it on the summit or in the mine. Well, there was only one solution. Like the platforms, it would have to be broken down into smaller parts.

    "Mr. Bevens," Maurice asked, "how can we take apart a circular metal cage?"

    "We'll have to cut it into manageable pieces and then weld everything back together."

    "Henry, can the blacksmiths in Morgantown handle this work," Cameron inquired.

    "Perhaps, but we'd be better off using welders with structural experience."

    "I doubt if the railroad will lend us any assistance, Henry. What else did you have in mind," Frank wanted to know.

    "I'm afraid that we'll just have to ask Republic Steel in Pittsburgh to send us a crew. They manufactured the cage and would be the best people to use."

    "How much longer will that take," Frank asked.

    "I'm sorry, Frank, I just don't know."

    Frank frowned and turned to Isador. "Hire a welding crew the first chance you get. When they're not welding, we'll find something else for them to do."

    "Oh, no problem there. I have a long list of things that need fixing," Isador replied.

 

    Three weeks later, the Republic welders arrived at the mine and began cutting apart the cage: sides, roof, and door. In the meantime, a team of carpenters on the  summit finished dismantling the wooden platform, both floor and supports. With a pile of platform lumber and a growing mound of metal components, Wade assembled a crew on the summit and began hauling everything down to the valley and into the mine. As soon as the loads began to arrive at the elevator landing, Wiggins and Reynolds put the men to work immediately, screwing and bolting the passenger platform back together.

    By the time the welders finished slicing up the cage on the summit, the wooden platform for the passenger compartment had been reassembled and securely fastened to the top of the skip compartment  The upper platform was now either roof or floor depending on an observer's perspective.   

     Happily, the circular cage was reassembled by the welders in less time than it required to cut it apart. Once the sides and roof were welded back together, the sliding door was installed, and the welders were on their way back to Pittsburgh. Isador completed the final step of assembly himself, bolting the operator controls to the floor of the passenger compartment. And now they were done.

    An amazing episode in Virginia coal mining history was over.  After all the dreaming and planning, they were done.

 

    Frank was sitting in his office, gazing out the window, apparently day dreaming, when Henry Bevens appeared in the doorway.

    "Good afternoon, Frank. I brought a bottle of champagne. I wonder if you'd like to take a ride. The others are waiting for us at the elevator."

    Frank grinned and rose, reaching for his hat and coat from the rack by the doorway. He had been expecting this invitation for the past several days. Bevens and Wade had gone missing for most of the week, but Frank knew that they were busy in the shaft, testing the elevator and making the final adjustments.

 

    The two partners walked along the road from the mine office building to the entrance, Montague Stream tumbling toward the Monongahela on their left, columns of miners on both sides of the road clapping and cheering, congratulating them on their great achievement. It was a half mile walk from portal to the elevator landing, a distance they covered in ten leisurely minutes, each savoring the moment, recording it in memory for years to come.

    As they approached the landing, the two men were greeted by a group of guests, especially selected for the inaugural round trip, who were milling about in front of the open elevator. Frank almost halted in his stride, startled. Rebecca, resplendent as ever in a fashionable dress and lavender bonnet crowned with feathers, stood among them laughing and talking animatedly with neighbors he recognized from Morgantown.

    "Becky..where's Nathaniel," Frank began.

    "Hello, Dear," she replied, kissing his cheek, "I left him with Debbie Sue at her place. He'll be fine." Then she leaned over and whispered, "I fed him just before I left. It's all right, Frank, don't worry."

    Out of the corner of his eye, Frank noticed that Bevens turned away and grew a little red during Rebecca's small gesture of affection. Was Henry that easily embarrassed, he wondered, puzzled at his friend's reaction. He might have asked Bevens about it, but it could have been an awkward exchange. There were too many distractions for Frank to hold the thought longer. He shrugged and turned his attention back to Rebecca.

    "How in the world did you get down here?"

    "Henry stopped by, and Kitlins drove both of us over here. He's on the summit waiting with the carriage."
    Bevens opened the champagne; a case containing several additional bottles stood at his feet near the open gate. The popping of the cork, as if a prearranged signal, brought Quo Chung and his kitchen assistants striding briskly along the entryway carrying glasses and platters of tiny sandwiches and pastries. Once everyone had been served, food and glasses distributed, champagne poured, the conversation, punctuated with laughter, grew progressively louder.

    Frank politely disengaged himself from the stranger who, unbidden, had approached him and was presently delivering a monologue about the coming presidential election. He had never been entirely comfortable at social events, especially so when he was  unacquainted with most of the guests. Meeting new people and chatting about commonplace matters had always been difficult. He knew what people said about him behind his back: he was rude and abrupt with everyone. To the accusation of brevity, he would plead guilty as charged, but he had always resented rudeness in people, most of all in himself. There was nothing for it, though, and Frank had long since tired of explaining himself to people, in particular, to those with little import on his life.

    He stepped back from the milling guests and took a brief inventory of the

attendees. Not surprisingly, except for mine officials, he was unfamiliar with nearly all of them. People from town, from Montague and Morgantown, were either neighbors or Rebecca's friends. He recognized one or two of them, but they were causal acquaintances at most.

    Bevens walked over and introduced Frank to a few of his neighbors from Montague; he had recently purchased a comfortable home there, apparently a small mansion, and had begun entertaining frequently, undoubtedly to strengthen his political standing. Frank himself rarely spent time in the community even if it had been named in his honor; in fact, Frank rarely spent time anywhere away from home if it were not directly related to his work.

    It was curious, Frank thought, that outside of his family, how much of his life was centered on the mine. Other people, Cameron, Bevens, his own wife, led active social lives; even the Cheeks, Wiggins, Wade, Stevens, and Gene Platt looked forward to the end of a working day. They had other friends, lovers, activities they pursued.

Frank's life was more constricted. There were days when he needed reminding to leave for home. A few critics described him as a man obsessed with his coal mine; others, more sympathetic, said he was absorbed in his work. There were different palettes of colors, evidently, and different choices on how they should be applied. One thing was certain, though, Frank led a life that had little in common with his fellows.

   

    Frank looked up, puzzled. He had been lost in this thoughts and Bevens was asking  him a question: Would he like to say a few words before the inaugural ride. No, Frank replied, it was Henry's place; the central shaft and its skip hoist were his accomplishments, and he should deliver the dedication.

    While the group held glasses aloft, Bevens made a short speech, praising the contributions of everyone, understating his own role. Wade stood by his side, beaming at his mentor with a mixture of admiration and gratitude; or so Frank thought. But, no, he quickly corrected himself, it was more akin to worship than admiration. The two of them enjoyed a singular relationship, almost like parent and son, though there was less than ten years difference in their ages.

    Frank tried to follow his friend's remarks carefully, but his concentration kept wandering elsewhere. As much as he wanted to ignore the earlier prattle about Lincoln's candidacy and its attendant crisis, those words kept intruding into his consciousness, welcome or not; he was worried about the political consequences of events taking shape the coming month in Chicago; and about what the future held in store for his family, his friends, his mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

January 2012

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