Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Travel Tuesday: Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, WV

After lunch at Wolf Creek Indian Village, we again pointed north, and our next big stop was the town of Beckley in West Virginia. Beckley was and still is a coal mining town, and this particular mine is no longer worth the effort, especially considering the richer veins in the region, so it's been turned into a tourist attraction known on most maps as the Exhibition Coal Mine.

Not only is there this nice museum packed with history, there's a miniature town behind it which you can visit within the price of admission and the coal mine tour. Admission was one of the pricier things we did this summer at $20 for me and $12 for kids under 12, but I got a military discount, so that helped. The kids weren't very interested in the town part and breezed through faster than I could get my camera out. They were mostly excited about going on the mine tour, where they got to ride on modified rail cars.

Like most subterranean caves, the temperature is 58 degrees, and there's not much moving around by the tourists to create one's own heat, so dress warmly.

Our guide was a former miner and overflowed with fascinating stories from his own experience. Despite having diminished lung capacity and bad knees, he felt he'd had a good life and was quite upbeat. One lady in our group kept badgering him that he should sue the big coal company for his "disabilities," but he seemed mostly bewildered because he felt everyone at his age (68) was falling apart, it was just how that varied.

Pictures are kind of sparse because it's hard to take photos in a mostly pitch-black cave. Some of the interesting facts we learned were that the mining companies tried to introduce new and helpful equipment all through the early part of the century, but most of it broke down quickly and ended up becoming landmarks in the twisting tunnels. After trying the new machines, miners often returned to the old faithful method of extraction- crawling in a 24" high tunnel with a candle and a small pick-axe and dragging a sled on their leg. The vein in this mine was only about 18" thick, so anything much higher was a big waste of time and energy.

Also, coal mining was seasonal. They could only go in when the air was good, and on moist spring days, ventilation was sluggish. And at any time of year if the air got bad, it usually took at least 2 days to air out enough to go back in. Canaries were not for gas detection as most people think these days. All birds are sensitive to oxygen levels and they will be affected before people, and canaries were used because their near-constant singing was easier to notice if it suddenly stopped. If the canary went silent, the miners had about 20 minutes to evacuate before the low oxygen would start claiming human casualties.

Above is an example of what is known as a "kettle bottom," which claimed the majority of lives lost in coal mines, and still do today. These widow-makers are petrified tree stumps that would slip without warning from the ceiling. They were nearly impossible to detect until they slammed down on an unsuspecting miner's head or legs.

Among the attractions nearby, there is also a tiny children's museum. Admission is included with the coal mine, or you can go in separately. As children's museums go, it's pretty sad, but we occupied 30 minutes or so waiting for our turn to go in the mine.

At the gift shop we got some yummy fudge (because when I think of a coal mine, I instantly think of fudge as well), and something I found intriguing merely by it's title: Pepper Jelly. And yes, it is yummy, especially mixed with cream cheese and put on crackers. For a buck we also got a tiny glass bottle of coal.

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