Picnic in a coal mine

Posted by | May 31, 2019

Sometimes the official stories that make it into museum collections just don’t shed enough light on the complete context of an event. Take this photo, titled “Picnic in a Coal Mine, Mount Savage, 1889, 
Photographed by Edgar S. Thompson.” The caption provided by the Maryland Historical Society gives scant background on this picture, and in fact may be misleading the viewer altogether.

It reads: “It must have been a very hot August afternoon when F.S. Deekins (under the table) and friends took refuge in a coal mine for a meal of peaches, plums, grapes and wine. The picture was taken by flash lighting. Several of the men are wearing caps with lamps. Are they miners, or cave explorers?”

How about “neither”? Why on earth would a miner, who’s already spent 6 days a week, 10-12 hours each day underground, take time on his one precious day off to spend yet MORE time in a coal mine? And take a look at these fresh scrubbed faces and clean pressed suits. They might be mine OWNERS, but they’re certainly not miners.

The Maryland Historical Society owns a collection of photographs known as the “Cover-Long-Deekens Collection,” donated by Margaret Lamar Deekens Cover and Loring Andrews Cover, Jr. Our “F.S. Deekins” appears once more in comments on the provenance of this collection: “Margaret’s father, Francis S. Deekens, was born in Australia, and came to the U.S. as a young man in 1881 via England, Canada, and France.

“A Cumberland business leader in real estate and insurance, he oversaw major real estate transactions and development in the region, and was a founder and president of the Real Estate and Securities Company (1903-ca. 1918). Earlier he worked in the mining industry, as chief clerk for the Consolidation Coal Co. at Frostburg (1885-1891), and as assistant vice president of the Union Mining Co. at Mount Savage (1891-1902).”

Picnic in a coal mine, Mt Savage, MDSo now we know that the coal mine in the photo’s caption is owned by Union Mining Co, and it makes sense that as an assistant vice president, Deekens/Deekins would have had access off-hours to throw a party for his buddies. The photo caption states this event occurred in 1889. The provenance blurb, though, tells us Deekens worked for Union Mining starting in 1891. So maybe one of the OTHER people in the photo actually granted access.

An F.S. Deakins turns up in two Cumberland Times news reports from 1888, and is most likely the same person (the Frostburg location helps cement it):

05 Jun 1888 A cavern was discovered on the Ridgeley farm and was explored by Walter Ridgeley and Mr Willard Everstine. The opening is at a place where a pond had disappeared and after a year became overgrown with brush. Two weeks ago when the brush was cleared, the entrance to the cave became apparent. The passageways are from 3 feet to 30 feet in height.

12 Jun 1888 Mr Ridgeley’s cave is dubbed “Potomac Caverns” is explored and named by a party of 6 men; PJ Smith; Dory Smith; WC Devecomon; JT Taylor; JW Avirett; and FS Deakins of Frostburg.

It’s a fair guess that at least some of those same 5 companions from the Potomac Caverns trek appear the following summer in our sample photo.

The Cumberland Times articles spell our main subject’s last name as ‘Deakins.’ Deakins is an old family name in western MD, dating from Colonial times.

In 1787 Colonel Francis Deakins was appointed to “lay out the manors, and such parts of the reserves and vacant lands belonging to this state, lying to the westward of Fort Cumberland, as he might think fit and capable of being settled and improved, in lots of fifty acres each” (Laws of Maryland 1785-1791, page 351).

Now it’s possible that in 1888 in the same Maryland county there were in fact an ‘F.S. Deakins’ and an “F.S. Deekens,” and both were interested in exploring caves. But it’s a stretch. So did the F.S. Deekens mentioned in the “Cover-Long-Deekens Collection” provenance really come from Australia?

Note two shared facts about both the Potomac Caverns ‘exploration’ and the Mt. Savage photo: there are large groups, and both took place in the summer. To say that these people are cave explorers in any but the most casual, weekend amateur fashion is specious. In the photo no one is dressed for strenuous crawling or outfitted with ropes and petons, the way a serious cave explorer would be. No, these were private parties thrown in an unusual location.

Oh, and a secretive location as well. Why are there only 3 women to the 11 men in the picnic (12 counting the photographer)? This after all was late Victorian era, a time when proper women could be expected to socialize in a ‘balanced’ 50/50 gender environment or be frowned upon. Clearly the women aren’t the least bit uncomfortable about this—are they prostitutes?

And finally, our photographer, Edgar S. Thompson, is most likely the owner of the Edgar S. Thompson Steel Mill in Braddock, PA, 86 miles away from the Mt. Savage coal mine, and nice day trip away for a picnic in a coal mine.


sources: Western Maryland Regional Library

Edgar+S.+Thompson F.S.+Deakins Mt+Savage+MD coal+mining appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

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