Not many miners can say talk at a beauty shop launched their career.
James Elkins, 71, of Mullens can. It started a 32-year run as a miner, mostly in Wyoming County.
“I had jobs where I was excited to go to work and I had jobs where I didn’t want to go to work,” recalled Elkins, known to friends as “Ham” or “Hamfat.”
“All in all, it was a pretty good run for me,” he commented.
It was a tip from a beauty shop that led Elkins to his first mining job.
“My sister-in-law ran a beauty shop,” he said. “And some ladies from Otsego said they needed people for the night shift. My brother-in-law, Don Neely, knew some people up there and took me there.”
He was hired, and his first mining job involved loading supplies in cars and belt work.
“It took me a while to learn how to do anything,” he stated.
Elkins worked the midnight shift and lost 35 pounds in his first month on the job.
“You just don’t know when to eat,” he remembered. “I was pretty fit there for a while.”
“I worked there two and a half years, and then I knew that’s what I was going to be doing,” Elkins said.
His next job was at Tralee, where he timbered and became a roof bolter.
“I worked the evening shift through the late 60s,” he stated.
“I missed the sex and drugs revolution,” he quipped.
Elkins joined the mine rescue team at Tralee in 1968.
As time went on he, he obtained a fireman’s certificate and a mine foreman’s certificate.
In 1973 or ‘74 they asked me to fill in for a section foreman who was off sick,” said Elkins. “He never came back to work.”
Just prior to that, Elkins was part of the rescue team which went into Itmann No. 3 after an explosion in late 1972. Five men lost their lives in the explosion.
“It was a week or so before Christmas,” he recalled. “It was the hardest work I ever did in my life.
“We worked about 12 hours underground,” Elkins noted. “There were five us on the team, and we were just doing what we were trained to do. We just had to keep going until we got done.”
Eventually, in 1979, Elkins was part of a national champion mine rescue team while working for the Shannon Pocahontas Mining Company.
Mining, he says, “is not as complicated as people think it is. A coal mine is laid out like the streets of a large city. When I worked at Capels, we had 18 miles of usable track.
“You ride to your section, work 7 or 8 hours, operate your equipment and go home,” he added.
He worked for 20 years at Tralee, most of under Allied Chemical Corporation. The mine closed in the mid-80s, and he was employed at several mines over the next 10 years, including Marianna, Maben Energy at Wyco and others.
He was working at the Skeens Bottom mine at Herndon when he was injured in 1995.
“When I got hurt, that was my last day of work,” Elkins said. “I never went back.”
None of the mines where Elkins worked are in operation today.
“I had a wonderful time,” he stated. “I met a lot of good people and made friends.”
Elkins and his wife, Trish, have been married 53 years.
They have two children and five grandchildren and are members of the Mullens United Methodist Church.
John Conley can be reached at or on Twitter @PIHnews.