Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Coal Country

This is Sonny. He's one cool guy. I'll tell you more about him later on in this post.

Monday Larry and I decided to take off to Beckley to visit the exhibition coal mine. I've always wanted to go but we never seemed to have the time. This time we made the time.All the visitors had left or were leaving that morning so we headed out in the pouring rain for a road trip. Instead of taking the usual route down the West Virginia turnpike, we opted for the back way. It took a lot longer but it was a lot more interesting.

We went through the small coal town of Whitesville in Boone county, where it seems the recent coal boom has not yet impacted the dying local economy. While other places seem to be making progress, Whitesville appeared to still be struggling. Maybe it was the rain that made it look so deserted.

Further along the road we passed this tribute to the miners lost in the Upper Big Branch explosion, and we realized we would be passing right by that mine. It was a sober thought, and yet it felt right to be thinking about them and offering a prayer on their behalf on Labor Day. The mine is still shut down but a man at a convenience store told us that mining was doing better than ever in the area and some mines could not find enough miners to fill the open jobs. Further on we passed the entrance to the UBB mine.

A row of coal company houses reminded us of the past of this region, when most miners did not own their own homes but lived in company provided housing on company land, and shopped at the company store. Times have changed a great deal since those days, but many coal camp houses remain. This photo is terrible--the rain was intense as we drove along this portion of the route. Similar houses lined the road on either side. Larry remembered growing up in a house that was not quite as nice as these--their house was one board thick (Jenny Linn style) and a mighty cold place in the winter. These houses seemed to have had some improvements over the years.

An abandoned church made me think again of the UBB miners. Surely for that community it was their faith that helped them through those dark days. I would not be surprised if this church's congregation had simply built a new church elsewhere. I don't know about you, but I find the sight of an abandoned church oddly disturbing.

The exhibition mine was worth the trip. Visitors are taken right into an old mine that ceased operation in 1910. The City of Beckley worked to make the mine safe, making the ceilings higher, putting in lights and digging the tunnels wide enough to run the tours. Our tour guide was Sonny, an 80-year-old retired miner who moved like a young man and had a depth of knowledge that came from years and years in the mines. He patiently answered all of our questions, even showing us how to light a carbide lamp and explaining the old-time equipment we were seeing along the way. He turned the lights off once to show us how dark it typically is in a mine. Let me tell you, it's dark! The miner usually has only his own headlamp to show him the way.

We saw old coal mining tools similar to those in our collection being shown on the tour. The breast auger, carbide lamp, safety lamp, pick, shovel, lunch bucket and other items are all things we've collected over the years and I take many of them with me when I'm telling stories. I learned some new things that will be added into my storytelling.

After the tour we talked with Sonny for a little while. He showed us how to find the value of the scrip we have and talked about the coal miners' baseball teams, the interactions between black and white miners and life in the coal camps in general. I felt privileged to sit there and listen to his stories. He and Larry had some things in common there, as well as both being former Marines.

Many buildings from a typical coal camp have been moved into the park and restored for tours. We slogged through the continuing rain to tour the Superintendent's house, the miner's house, a bachelor's shanty, the schoolhouse that had been the school for the colored children, and the church. Of course, all the buildings looked much better than the way they might have looked in a camp with daily use and the coal trains and trucks coming and going and leaving behind the gray coal dust! That's true of any historic restoration project though. The guides were friendly and helpful and full of information. It was an advantage to be there on such a nasty day because we got some one-on-one time with the guides that would not have happened on a normal holiday weekend.

There was much to think about on the trip home. The rain continued to come down in torrents, but we weren't in the mood for fast travel anyway. Our minds were still back in the mine.

I will post photos from inside the mine tomorrow.


John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Hi, Sue,
I don't know whether to cheer or cry when I hear that mines are re-opening. My experience on visiting South Wales, where the deep mining has more or less ended, is that the economy would have to be desperate indeed to tempt men back to the pit if the mines were to start production once more. There must be better ways of getting power, and jobs.
Looking forward to your photos - hope they're not completely black!

warren said...

So glad you toured the mine. I would love to take a trip through to see the conditions albeit improved. Can't wait for pics

annie said...

Good post! Old churches break my heart! The saga of the mining camps never really dies, it lives on in the lifeblood of the families who worked the mines. Hope to see your other pictures.

Farmchick said...

Sonny sounds like such an interesting person. I would like for my kids to see this camp and take a tour. Nice post.

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