In the early 1960s, Lee Dorsey had a hit in which he sang about “working in a coal mine, going down, down, down.” The Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, W.Va., lets you travel into an actual mine under considerably more pleasant circumstances than did the men who used to work it. The mine tour presents a first-hand look into the dark, dank and dangerous world of coal miners, circa 1900.
From Charlotte, Beckley is about 210 miles, about a 3 1/2-hour drive, one way.
Take Interstate 77 North to at Beckley, W.Va., and follow the Harper Road exit. Drive east on W.Va. 3 (Harper Road) 1.5 miles and turn left on Ewart Avenue (immediately past the Eagle convenience store). The entrance is a half-mile ahead, on your right.
To see and do
There is more than enough to see at the Exhibition Coal Mine to fill several hours. Start at the site's museum, on the second floor of the visitor center. On display are all the tools of the coal mining trade: miners' necessities such as lamps, caps, ID tags, picks, shovels, axes, and drills; walking sticks and sounding boards; and a collection of tokens good for trade at the various “company stores.”
Numerous buildings have been relocated to the site from surrounding areas to give the sense of a typical company town. There's a representative miner's house (circa 1925), a simple single-story, three-room structure with kitchen, parlor and bedroom. The wooden privy is out back. Next door is the Pemberton Church (circa 1921), the quintessential coal camp house of worship. There's also a miner's shanty, moved from nearby Helen, W.Va. Intended for a bachelor or a married man away from his family, this tiny building has the bare-bones basics – stove, table, two chairs, wash stand and bed – and not much else. A two-room schoolhouse has been moved to the site and restocked with all the appropriate tools for teaching the three R's.
Standing out among all the other buildings is the superintendent's house, a grand, three-story affair with comforts the average miner could only dream about. Many rooms within the house reflect the comparatively comfortable living conditions of the super and his family, but several second-floor rooms are used to suggest how other company-town requirements – a doctor's office, post office and barber shop – would have looked.
There is a separate mountain homestead, with another set of buildings collected from the area (early to mid 19th century). Included is a two-story log house, barn, weaver's shop, blacksmith's shed, moonshine still and another school.
The highlight to your visit is a trip into an actual coal mine, one that operated from 1890 to 1910.
Tour groups take their journey on board a vehicle called a “man trip.” The underground tour goes through 1,500 feet of mine passages and takes about 45 minutes. At the start, you might feel like you're taking a ride through an amusement park's “tunnel of love.” Once the guide begins sharing his stories, however, the romance ends and the serious aspects of coal mining rapidly becomes apparent.
Conditions for coal miners around 1900 are difficult to comprehend today. Safety precautions were almost nonexistent. Canaries were brought into the mines to help miners detect lethal methane gas. Fire bosses risked life and limb to detect if conditions were ripe for deadly explosions. Quite literally, miners worked from sunrise to sundown, 12 hours a day, six days a week, crawling through the dark and the dust to pick and load coal. The average worker was expected to load 10 1-ton cars – 20,000 pounds of anthracite – every day. His earnings? 20 cents a ton, or $2 for the day. With miners by necessity having to purchase their daily needs at the only place available to them – the company store – it is little wonder they “owed their souls,” to it, as Tennessee Ernie Ford bemoaned in his song “16 Tons.”
Tours benefit greatly from having veteran coal miners serve as guides. Temperature in the mine ranges from 56 to 58 year-round, so a sweater or jacket might be advisable. The Exhibition Coal Mine is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and is one of the sites along the Coal Heritage Trail. Gary McCullough