Fun On The Black Star Sludge Ponds
Jerry L. Lane
Wilmington, OH 45177
I grew up in a coal mining camp called Black Star at Alva, Harlan County, Kentucky. One of the many fun things we kids did was play on the sludge ponds. Black Star Coal Corporation had a coal washer, which washed the coal to get all the slate and dirt out of it before loading it into the coal cars for shipment. In the mid-1950s, they changed the location of the sludge ponds to above the company store and below the coal washer, just across the railroad tracks right in front of my house.
The water from the coal washer was full of coal dust, and it was completely black. It was pumped into the sludge ponds, and the coal dust would settle to the bottom, then the water would drain off into Puckett Creek. Puckett Creek was known as The Black Creek, and it was really black. It ran from Black Star (Alva) to the Cumberland River, and then mixed with the river water and became clear again. Believe it or not fish and minnows could live in it.
As the water settled in the sludge ponds, the edges would get very hard and you could easily walk and ride a bicycle on it. In the middle, or which ever way the water ran, was very soft, and you would sink in very fast. The part of the sludge between the hard, dry, coal dust and the water was the fun part. This part had ten to 12 inches of hard, coal dust, but under it was water and sludge slurry.
Several kids, usually the Pfaff brothers, Leon and Tony, Conley and Ronnie Brown, my brother Jim, anyone else who came along, and I, would start running and jumping on the middle area of the sludge. At first it would move a little, then it would shake a little more, and pretty soon it would start to shake like Jell-O. As we walked across it, the wave would run down it with a magnitude of five to ten inches or more. The longer and farther we ran the looser and longer it would get. After a few hours, we would have what appeared to be a bowl of black Jell-O three or four feet wide and maybe 20 feet long. As we ran on it and someone ran in front or behind us, our feet would drop out from under us. It was like two people walking on a trampoline. Someone would always try to ride a bicycle over it, but always sank in up to his fork. The problem was that the more it was run over the softer it got, and the more it bounced. The hard coal dust on top would start breaking up, and the water would ooze up. Sooner or later, someone was going to sink in. If I were really lucky, it was someone else. If I were less lucky, only one foot would go through up to my ankle, and I could still get out by myself. As our luck ran out, we would go in up to our knee or both knees. It was very hard to get out by myself with one knee in and impossible with two knees in. It was just like quicksand, only black.
After I got my leg pulled out with help, then I had to put my arm down in that black sticky hole to retrieve my shoes and socks. They would always come off no matter if they were sneakers or brogans. At this point, it wasn’t much fun anymore. That black, coal slurry was as thick as chocolate syrup and sticky as honey. We had to scrape it for 20 to 30 minutes, and it would still be in the shoelace holes and stuck to our pant legs and socks. After scraping we would go over to Puckett Creek, above where the coal dust from the sludge pond came in, and wash our shoes, socks, pant legs, and sometimes even our feet. This wasn’t too bad in the summer, but in the winter it was rough. We couldn’t go home to clean up, because we had been told a hundred times “Don’t play on those sludge ponds; they are too dangerous.” Yes, sometimes parents are right, and this was one of those times. Sometimes kids can just have a lot of fun on a pile of black, slimy, coal sludge.