Coal mining runs in Larry Williams’ family. In fact, he was born in the Miner’s Hospital in Christopher. Combining this with an interest in photography, Williams has created a stark reminder of the slow decline of the coal mining industry in Southern Illinois.
"Monuments and Memories: The Legacy of the Coal Industry in Southern Illinois," is a photographic exhibit assembled by Williams and will remain on display in the Learning Resource Center at Rend Lake College through Tuesday, May 11. Williams, a professor of Anatomy and Physiology as well as Microbiology at RLC, became interested in photography after taking a night course at RLC.
There are 18 pictures in Williams’ exhibit, and they depict the remains of what was once a powerful force in this region. Enormous slag piles, dilapidated processing stations and a boarded-up union hall are recorded in sepia-toned photographs. Also depicted are a miner’s cemetery, a monument in Zeigler consisting of a miner wielding a pickax and a grid of stone mine pilings bearing an eerie resemblance to tombstones in a cemetery.
Williams said the entire project took about 18 months to complete. He said he was unable to count the number of miles he drove and the rolls of film he used. Williams said he had the negatives processed locally, then used the Rend Lake College darkroom to develop the photographs himself.
"I’m really happy with the way it turned out," Williams said of the exhibit. Both of Williams’ grandfathers worked as coal miners. His father, Joe Williams, worked as a miner, mine manager and state mine inspector, and his brother Jon Williams was a miner and a face boss. Larry Williams helped pay his way through college by working summers at Consolidation Coal Burning Star No. 2 Mine.
Coal mining has been an industry in Southern Illinois for about 100 years, according to Williams, but the number of working mines and coal miners has declined dramatically in the past few decades. Throughout Southern Illinois are monuments to this vanishing trade, such as abandoned coal tipples and mine buildings, deserted United Mine Workers of America halls and slag piles.
"All of these are stark monuments to the memory of an age that is rapidly vanishing," Williams said. "They evoke memories of the men and women who worked in the mines ... memories of the social and cultural clubs and organizations and of the good and hard times in the mines."
Part of Williams’ exhibit deals with the remnants of what was once one of the biggest mines in the world. In 1904, the digging of the first mine shaft in Franklin County was begun. Joseph Leiter, a wealthy Chicago industrialist, began building the Zeigler No. 1 Mine and also began construction of the present city of Zeigler (which was Leiter’s father’s middle name), according to Williams’ research.
The center of town resembled a circle, with streets running from it like the spokes of a wheel. The company’s office building sat in the center of the circle. Leiter also built a school, a small hospital and company homes for the miners and their families. Once the mines were worked out and abandoned, the city erected a monument in memory of the miners where the company office building once stood, according to Williams.
Another photograph in Williams’ display involves John L. Lewis, who was UMWA President from 1920 to 1960. A giant among American leaders in the first half of the 20th century, Lewis regularly advised presidents and challenged the country’s corporate leaders. Lewis’ greatest legacy may have been the creation of the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund in a contract with the federal government, according to Williams. This fund provided miners and their families with medical care such as hospitalization, death benefits and treatment options for the disabled.
Lewis also led the campaign for the first Federal Mine Safety Act in 1952. He sent hundreds of UMWA organizers to help establish some of the nation’s leading labor unions, including the United Steel Workers of America, the United Auto Workers and the Communications Workers of America.
In the 1940s, the UMWA had about 500,000 members. By the 1990s, membership had declined to 200,000, Williams said.
The public is invited to see the display. Hours at the Learning Resource Center are 7:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays.