Poems by James Sweeney Boyle (1868-1925) of Tresckow, Pennsylvania

Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Over the Coals

Over the ice they pull the coals,
Their fingers rent by a hundred holes;
You may trace the path tom digits tread
By the crimson stream on the iced chutes shed.
Their heads are bowed and their bodies cramped,
A painful look on their features stamped;
Their knees are pressed against aching breasts
Till bones are bent in the tender chests;
And lungs are crushed in their chambers tight;
And shoulders stripped of their graceful form:.
Maturer years will bewail the blight,
When the hollow trunk is rocked in storm.
With harrowing nerves and stifled sigh,
In the iron chutes their craft they ply;
From morn till night with a groaning sound,
The merciless coals destroy their bloom;
From mom till night in the breaker’s gloom,
The massive screen whirls ’round and ’round
And still they list to its doleful grind;
And still they toil till their eyes grow blind,
And the frowning phantoms that haunt the walls
Look down with hideous, leering eyes,
While deeper and deeper the dark gloom falls
And the picker’s soul for respite cries.
Yet over the coals, ay, over the coals,
They are dwarfing their bodies and blighting their souls;
In sorrow they slave where the massive screen rolls,
So wearily, drearily over the coals.

Over the coals the rollers roar;
Into the screen their treasures pour
Till the struggling screen, o’erburdened, groans
And throbs and sobs in the saddest tones.
And while it circles its journey ’round
With its rumbling, grumbling, groaning sound,
The weary pickers at work below
In the dusty gloom sway to and fro.
Their marvelous fingers quickly fly;
Their legs move rapidly in and out;
The pitiless coals dash madly by
With doleful chatter and mocking shout;
And they seem to say to those breaker slaves:
“We drink your blood, and we blight your souls;
We shadowed your cribs, and we’ll cloud your graves;
We11 choke your hearts with the smut of coals.”
But still they bend in the dreary gloom,
The floating dust, and the sable pall,
And hear the knell of their bitter doom,
And watch the coals from the segments fall.
For over the coals, ay, over the coals,
They are dwarfing their bodies and blighting their souls;
In sorrow they slave where the massive screen rolls,
So fearfully, tearfully over the coals.


Piece-Time on the Breaker

(In Stanzas I and III, Boyle gives us the boys’ words during break, while Stanza II is the boss’s response.)

Segment broken! Now for piece-time.
What! A belt off! That’s the stuff!
Gosh! My back is nearly broken!
Bottom seat in egg-coal’s tough.
Rushing hard since ten to seven;
Now it’s twenty after ten.
Jingo! Crabbed Mickey’s crazy!
Teased, I’ll bet, by Little Ben.

Here you imp! What’s all the racket?
Don’t play possum. Tell the truth.
You’ve done nothing! Honest Injun?
Shades of mischief! Hear the youth!
Grinning bunch of rags and tatters!
There! You’ve smashed two window-panes!
You’ll be hanged before you’re twenty,
Heaven loses; this world gains.

See! There’s Brady punching Snyder
Come, no kicking! That’s not fair!
Stand-up fight! No rough and tumble!
Hands off, Johnson! Don’t you dare!
One to one. Old Skinflint’s coming!
Quit, lads, quit! No need to run.
Nothing wrong, sir. Just two fellows
Boxing for a little fun.