Exhibition coal mine offers view into bygone way of life

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 27, 2011

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post
Just two miles off I-77 in West Virginia is the Exhibition Coal Mine owned by the City of Beckley.
The mine itself opened in 1889 as the Phillips-Sprague Mine, but it did not ship coal commercially until 1906. The mine closed in 1953 and was purchased by the city and reopened as a historic attraction in 1962. This was the only national location solely intended to educate the public about coal mining.
The mine and the surrounding buildings were renovated in 2007 and reopened in 2008, with 3,000 feet of mining track open. The Exhibition Coal Mine is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors have the opportunity to travel 1,500 feet below the ground in authentic “man cars,” once used to carry the miners to their daily work.
The underground temperature is a constant 58 degrees. The cars follow the tracks underground and stop at several points of interest. The tour guide is always a veteran miner, and he provides a commentary of life in the 40-inch-high mine. Each trip takes about 45 minutes and is full of fascinating facts.
Rumors are that the mine closed due to high concentrations of methane gas, so demonstrations of air quality safety techniques get a lot of attention. Most interesting was the canary in the cage that went with early miners daily to their work areas. Methane gas and low oxygen pockets moved around in mines, especially before ventilation techniques became common.
Mining was dangerous work, and demanded long hours of back-breaking toil. Early miners exploded pockets of coal with black powder, then shoveled the coal into cars at a maximum rate of a ton per hour. This work was done without standing up. Machinery innovations later allowed the same miner to produce 5-7 tons per hour, while present day workers can produce 5-7 tons per minute.
The tour guide mentioned that mine owners didn’t provide drinking water, even though the work was extremely dusty. A sure sign of an impending disaster was the exodus of the rats from the mine as they headed back toward the entrance.
Mining villages were similar to textile villages in that the mine owners also owned the town. Miners and their families bought their supplies, went to school and the doctor, and worshipped in churches provided by the mine.
Baseball was extremely popular, with teams from neighboring mines competing with each other.
Families could rent a house, and single miners could rent a small shanty, both charged back to the miner’s account. Often families took in single miners to help make ends meet. There is a furnished family home and single miner shanty on site, both filled with period antiques. It was common for miners to actually owe more back to the mine owners at the end of the month than they had earned.
Also on site at the Exhibition Coal Mine is a renovated superintendent’s house. This house is lavishly built and furnished, in sharp contrast to the stark and basic furniture in the family and single miner homes.
The ‘super’s home’ was originally built in Skelton, W. Va., and later moved to Beckley.
The two-room schoolhouse on site was dismantled and moved from Helen, W. Va. It was originally used for the children of coal miners. Schools were owned by the coal company and supervised by the board of education. Only children of mining families could attend. Common at the time was to see the first grade on the first row reading, the second grade doing arithmetic problems in front of the class, while the third grade might be practicing writing. Children of miners thought schooling was a privilege and gladly attended. Common in this era of education was an exceptional graduate returning to the school as the teacher the next year.
The central building in the coal camp community was always the church. The church on site was moved here from Pemberton, W. Va., where it was built by the mining company owner and given to the community. All public meetings were held at the church, which was always kept in immaculate condition.
The Exhibition Coal Mine surrounds the Rahal Company Store, which houses the visitor center, museum and gift shop. All the buildings and the mine tour are included in one price. All the tour guides were either former miners or their descendants.
This informative and historic location is a popular tourist attraction, specially designed to allow a rare look into the hard life of a coal mining camp.