Herds of ponies once roamed Maryland, though they were rarely seen my most people. They were mining ponies whose job it was to haul the coal from Maryland’s coal mines.
In one instance, Ray O’Rourke wrote for the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine, “Twenty-odd ponies that haul coal from under some 2,000 acres of Maryland territory are never seen in this State, and never breathe the air over it.”
These ponies hauled coal for the Stanley Coal Company in Crellin, Maryland. Though the mine was under Maryland, the entrance was in nearby West Virginia. Miners had to walk from Crellin across the state line and then backtrack once they were in the mine.
The mine’s location also created some political headaches with Maryland and West Virginia governments fighting for the tax revenue from the mine. Eventually a compromise was reached where West Virginia inspected the mine while the miners paid Maryland income taxes and the Stanley Coal Company paid unemployment taxes to Maryland.
The ponies were stabled near the mine entrance in West Virginia so that is where Okey Jenkins, the stable boss, lived. At any given time, he had about 20 ponies that he cared for. Jenkins was a large man weighing in at 305 pounds at age 63. Besides stable boss, he also functioned as the harness maker, veterinarian, pony trader and pony trainer for the mining company.
He worked out of a small 2-foot by 4-foot office with a sturdy swivel chair as its only furnishing. Harnesses, tools and surgical instruments hung from hooks on the wall.
Jenkins lived close by in a small house that showed his affection for horses. A merry-go-round pony was mounted on its pole in his front yard and pony bells served as his doorbell.
He left for work each morning at 4 a.m., walking down the hill to his small office. By 5 a.m., he was at work feeding all of the ponies and by 6:40 a.m., he would be harnessing the ponies and leading them to the mine where they would haul coal cars from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
“Unlike ponies that are kept underground all their lives in deep-pit mines, the Crellin ponies never contract the blindness that constant darkness brings,” O’Rourke wrote.
Despite keeping their sight, the ponies still worked more than 400 feet underground. Ponies were used because they could work in low, narrow spaces. This meant that the mine shafts didn’t need to be as wide as they have needed to be if small engines had been used to move the coal out of the mine.
The ponies worked hard in the mines. A 550-pound pony could pull a 2200-pound coal car loaded with two tones of coal. Jenkins preferred ponies for this work because they didn’t have to duck in the low-ceiling shafts as horses would have to do and their shorter height gave them a better angle to lean forward and pull the load. He was also partial to Welsh ponies for the work because he said they had greater stamina.
The ponies needed stamina, too. Besides having to pull such heavy loads, they might pull up to 50 such loads a day, though most days it less.
“They’re like high-strung men. They feel their responsibility, and they show it,” Jenkins said.
The ponies and Jenkins worked six days a week. When he was off on a buying trip for more ponies, an assistant would work his shift. However, Jenkins always made sure to check on the ponies when he returned.
“Should any of them ever show welts or whip mark, he says: ‘Better watch-there’s gonna be a fit throwed around here. We don’t want these little fellas all boogered up,’” O’Rourke wrote.
Part of this care came because Jenkins truly loved his ponies, but he was also protecting the mine’s investment. Jenkins could buy an untrained pony for $250, but once it was trained, it was worth $1000. Keeping the ponies healthy also ensured many productive work years. A pony could start hauling coal at age three and continue until it was 25.
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