Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Coal Mine Tour

The New River Park in Beckley, West Virginia is home to the Exhibition Coal Mine and coal camp buildings. On a rainy, soggy day visitors were scarce but that was a plus for us since we could look at everything with few interruptions and talk as long as we liked with the park staff and guides.

The park houses a coal mining museum on the second floor of the Rahall "Company Store"--this is not a real company store in that it does not stock the kinds of things that might be found in a typical coal company owned store in a coal camp (housewares, tires, groceries, clothing--a real general store) but rather contains souvenirs, books, food and travel information, and the museum. We toured the museum first as we waited for our tour to begin.

I was interested in the mining paraphernalia on display, and in particular in the "teapot" lantern used by miners before the carbide lantern became the standard (later battery powered lights came along and are still in use today). This is one I do not yet have in my collection.

Can you imagine--a miner would fuel these lamps with kerosene, lard or cooking oil. The open flame was a constant danger as methane gas was not detectable and could cause an explosion at any time.

Kettle bottoms were another danger.

The kettle bottoms, also called widowmakers, are petrified tree trunks that can break loose from a mine ceiling. Many miners lost their lives to the kettle bottoms. After touring the museum, we gathered at the tour site to meet our guide, Sonny.

He explained much of what we would see and do during the tour and then we were off.

We loaded onto cars similar to the mantrip used in the mines to take miners to the mine's face. There are different kinds of these shuttles--some have the miners in an almost horizontal position because the seam of coal they are mining is very low. In this old mine (last mined in 1910) the seam was only 16 inches so you can imagine how difficult movement was!

According to our guide Sonny, this coal was metallurgical coal, used for making steel and so forth and is in high demand so it brings a good price and such a low seam would be worth mining. The miners crawled to their workplaces. Some coal seams, like that at the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine, is over 12 feet high and must be glorious to work! Sonny told us that he would rather work 30-inch coal than 40-inch coal because the 40-inch coal required a constantly bent back; with the shorter coal a miner could crawl, duckwalk or use a "miner's scooter" (a long narrow board with wheels, similar to a skateboard but the wheels are shaped to fit a rail track). A retired miner on our tour agreed with Sonny on this. I tried to imagine being all day on my stomach, back or knees. It's not something I'd want to do.

As we entered the mine we saw the timbers that supported the rock roof and the roof bolts overhead that helped secure the rock in place. Rockfalls are commonplace in mines and one of the chief dangers. The timbers and stacks of wood blocks called cribbing help keep the roof in place.

Sonny told us the history of the various forms of lights used by miners, demonstrating the carbide lamp and the safety lamp used to test for carbide. He also gave us an idea of how dark it would be for the miner working with just a carbide lamp when he shut off the electric lights.

 Dark indeed! And if a miner ran out of fuel for his light (the carbide lamps held about 2 hours worth of fuel) he had to refill and relight his lamp in pitch dark. As for carbide: what is it? Its calcium carbide which is in the form of small chunks. A miner would put it into the bottom portion of the lamp, add water (or spit), cap the fuel container,  and cover the aperture with his hand for a couple seconds, then strike the flint and pull his hand away. That allowed the acetylene gas (formed when the water hit the carbide) to build up so that the lamp would light with a loud POP!. It startled most of the people on our tour, and several tried lighting the lamp themselves with great success.

More photos tomorrow! Tonight it's time for bed before tomorrow catches me. See you then.


A Vintage Green said...

I know I could not go underground. I panic when the door out of the bathroom is blocked by another person for more than a few minutes. You must have been totally thrilled with the tour and I am looking forward to more on this topic.

Mama-Bug said...

Granny Sue this is an awesome post. A lot of us know nothing about coal mining and it's perils.
thanks for sharing! Can't wait for the rest!

warren said...

16 inches?! No thank you for any amount of money!

Country Whispers said...

What a neat tour to take. We live in coal country yet I've never set foot in a mine. Not sure that I want to!
Many friends of ours are from coal mining families and they always share their stories of being underground. Huge difference in the mining of today compared to 50 years ago.

JJM said...

Fascinating post, Sue, thank you! Looking forward to your follow-up.

annie said...

Enjoying the ride through! Great job!

Granny Sue said...

I'm glad this topic is interesting to all of you--it fascinates me. To think of men working so far underground in such boggles my mind. And yet there are hundreds in this state alone who do just that.

Nance said...

oh boy, Sue, I couldn't do it. Couldn't go down in the dark six days a week to work . . . this subject fasinates me too. Those coal mining men were Men. With a capitol "M" . . . taking care of their families and there are still those guys mining today . . .

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