The Canary in a Coal Mines

Photo: George McCaa, U.S. Bureau of Mines; Miner holding a small canary in a cage used for testing carbon monoxide gas.
Photo: George McCaa, U.S. Bureau of Mines; Miner holding a small canary in a cage used for testing carbon monoxide gas.

I never saw my dad’s father take a single step — even though he lived until I was nearly 30 years old.  In fact, my dad only had one memory of his father walking which dated back to a time when he was only four or so.

The final forty years of my grandfather’s life were bound to the hells of a wheelchair and the unimaginable feeling of not being able to feel or move his own legs.

Long before I was ever born, when my father was just a small child, my grandfather walked out of the front door of his simple West Virginia home in Mingo County, never to walk back through it again.  He was an American coal miner — strong, proud and fueled by an insatiable desire to provide an honest living for his family.

But to hear him tell it, he was lucky.

“There were four of us down there when the whole d****ed mountain come crashing down and I was the only one who came out alive.  I broke my spinal cord but all my buddies died in the explosion,” he told me once, when I was about thirteen and curiously enquired as to why he was in a wheelchair (up to that point in my life, I merely accepted the fact that Papaw rolled every where he went).  This was the only time I ever recall him talking to me about his mining accident — an obligatory event he always simply referred to as “back when I got hurt.”

Throughout its history coal mining has always been a dangerous profession; so much so that according to the UK’s Daily Express, during World War I, “for men used to mining — fighting in the trenches was seen as an escape from hell.”

Though my grandfather’s experiences in coal mining came to a crashing end with the noisy thunder of a violent explosion, a countless number of other Appalachian miners met their demise not with a bang and a blast, but instead silently, thanks to a mysterious and untraceable odorless gas which seemed to plague the coal mines of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The gas, which was simply known as “miner gas” was a colorless, odorless and tasteless, being produced by much of the activity taking place deep within the mountain’s mines. Improperly ventilated mine shafts exasperated these problems leading miner’s gas to buildup and reach dangerous levels.

It would be impossible to accurately determine how many miners died as a result of breathing “mine gas” but what is known is that when too much “mine gas” was in the air, the miners’ bodies replaced the oxygen in their red blood cells with poison. When these levels became excessive, miners would suffer from headaches, weakness, dizziness, confusion, blurred vision and ultimately loss of consciousness which would lead to death if left untreated.

Because of its odorless and tasteless nature, detecting or identifying mine was largely seen as a near impossibility by mine owners and safety officials — that was until 1911 when a Scottish scientist named John Scott Haldane concluded his studies in asphyxia in coal miners.

After breathing several toxic gases in dangerous self-experimentation, Haldane identified “mine gas” as being carbon monoxide and concluded miners around the world were dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. The Scottish scientist’s solution for detecting the presence of the odorless and tasteless gas was every bit as ingenious as it was simple: He suggested that miners carry small animals like mice or small birds down into the mines to detect dangerous levels of the gas in their working environment. Besides being portable, these animals had a high basal metabolic rate, making them exhibit symptoms of poisoning long before gas levels became critical among the workers.

Though mice were far easier to obtain, it didn’t take long for miners around the world to prefer the company of a canary.  Canaries are very sensitive to the deadly gas of carbon monoxide found in mines and the exhausted miners often found the company of a singing canary deep within the mines to be an unexpected morale boost during the long shiftwork to which miners were subjected.

Photo: January 1911, Pennsylvania; Mine rescuer wearing an early oxygen mask known as the Draeger Oxygen Helmet.
Photo: January 1911, Pennsylvania; Mine rescuer wearing an early oxygen mask known as the Draeger Oxygen Helmet.

When the bird began to show signs of distress, the men knew that it was time to put on their rescue apparatus — an early form of an oxygen mask supply.  In many cases, miners would carry with them a small enclosed cage with a supply of oxygen for the distressed canary.  The asphyxiated bird would be placed in this cage and the oxygen turned on with the result being that the bird usually recovered.

As telephones became more common and safety telephone lines were run into the deep mines, the oxygen masks worn by the miners often made it nearly impossible for the miners to talk distinctly.  To overcome this, portable safety telephones were created with a transmitter that was strapped over the vocal cords, enabling a rescuer wearing the breathing apparatus to maintain communication with the fresh air base for a distance of about a quarter-mile.

The practice of using canaries in coal mines continued well into the 1980s in many mines, with the small bird serving as a staple to the miner’s work — miners would often whistle with the bird while they worked.

Eventually, one by one, canaries were replaced by electronic gas detectors; however, many miners were reluctant to embrace this change in technology, not wishing to chance the surety of comfort a living bird provided for the untried machines of man’s inventions.

These days, “canary in the coal mine” is a seldom used figure of speech that is used to identify an early indicator of impending danger; however, not too long ago canaries in coal mines were a real and literal warning system — a system that was trusted by miners and their families.  It would be impossible to determine how many thousands of miners from all around the globe were able to hug their children and kiss their wives thanks to the service of a simple and unassuming small bird.

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