If you want to feel better about your job, take a tour of the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, West Virginia. On a recent tour of the vintage mine we learned about the extreme dangers and hardships miners faced a century ago when hundreds of thousands of people in Appalachia eked out a living mining coal underground.
On a brilliant Saturday morning in March, I took a seat next to my wife and two small boys, ages 3 and 5, in an open-air tram referred to as a “man car” for our tour and our guide, Marvin Turner, a retired coal miner, noticed that my sons had scowls on their faces.
“They’re mad that we didn’t buy them replica coal miners helmets in the gift shop,” I explained.
“Uh-oh,” he said. “There’s nothin’ worse than dealin’ with angry coal miners.”
Marvin asked our group of about 30 people if there were any coal miners on board and when no hands went up, he said, “Good, then if I don’t know the answer to your question, I’ll just make somethin’ up.”
As we descended down into the dark, wet cave-like tunnel on rail tracks Marvin told us a little about the mine, speaking deliberately in his endearing, twangy Appalachian accent. The mine was a small, family run operation that opened in the 1890s and provided coal to heat homes and schools in the area until it was closed in 1910. The city of Beckley had the bright idea to buy it in 1960 and two years later they opened it for public tours. Since then, the city has opened a reconstructed coal camp with a school, church and superintendent and miner’s residences to give visitors an idea of what it was like to live and work at a turn of the century mine.
Marvin explained that the city expanded the size of the mineshaft in order to make it suitable for tours, so when the mine was still functioning it was far more claustrophobic than what we were experiencing.
“Miners spent their whole day in here on their hands and knees,” Marvin said.
He explained that the mine was infested with hundreds of rats, so miners used secure metal lunch pails with sturdy lids to protect their food.
“Here’s the pie pan,” he said, taking the lid off of a pail for our inspection. “Now a miner would know, if he opened the dessert tray and there was nothing there, his wife was mad at him. But they’d be sure to get a nice piece of freshly baked cake or pie on Thursdays, because that was payday.”
Miners would light fuses, shout, “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE IN THE HOLE!” and then run for their lives as up to four tons of coal would come crashing down, coating everyone in a thick dust that would stick in a miner’s mouth and eyes and make his hair itch like crazy. Around the turn of the 20th Century, miners were paid about 20 cents per ton of coal produced, which worked out to about a dollar per day.
But as we learned when we toured the coal camp above ground, their take home pay after expenses often came to practically nothing because they had to buy or rent their own tools, pay rent and buy everything they needed from the company store. Miners were actually paid with a sort of coal currency called scrip, which one could only use within the coal camp. Those who insisted on being paid in hard currency were often expendable.
In the coal camp, we saw a 1937 paystub from a mine in the area that detailed all of the following deductions for one miner.
Store purchases- $15
Burial Fund- .30
Old Age Pension- .74
And there were a host of other expenses that were illegible but at the bottom there was the grim reality of the actual take home pay of this particular miner: “Due Employee: $1.68.”
Marvin told us that boys as young as 16 were employed at the mine but fathers often brought boys as young as 8 or 9 in as unpaid apprentices and no one seemed to mind. There was no real safety monitoring in the mine, so miners bought their own canaries and carried them around in little cages.
“If their canary died, they knew they needed to go above ground to get some fresh air,” Marvin said, as droplets of water intermittently plopped down on my notebook in the mine, where it is always 58 degrees.
The fact that mining is still a dangerous occupation was driven home for us after our mine tour by a guide at the coal camp’s schoolhouse who said that local authorities in nearby Whitesville had just erected a memorial to mark the 3 year anniversary of a mine disaster there that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine. According to press reports, there were several safety violations at the mine and two former mine officials are behind bars in connection to the explosion with a criminal investigation still unfolding.
A man in the group asked Marvin about how much coal miners earn these days and he said that in Boone County, West Virginia, a miner could make about $400 per day.
“But they’ve laid off so many people that it’s hard to find work,” said Marvin, who was a coal miner at Mt. Coal #7 just west of Beckley for 24 years before becoming a tour guide in 2008.
West Virginia is the second biggest coal producing state in the country behind Wyoming, but with over 13,000 coal miners working below ground in the state (compared to just 128 in Wyoming) there are more underground miners in West Virginia than any other state. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there were more than 700,000 coal miners in the U.S. in 1923 but just 88,000 by 2011.
As our man car emerged above ground, the brilliant afternoon sunlight felt like an unexpected gift. We were only below ground for 45 minutes but it was long enough to make the warmth of the sun feel glorious. Since our angry little coal miners behaved reasonably well on the tour, we bought them their replica miner’s helmets and before leaving my wife asked Marvin if he would recommend the coal mining profession for our kids.
“Not at all,” he said. “Go to college and become President or somethin’, but don’t do this.”
IF YOU GO: Tickets for the coal mine tour are $20 for adults and $12 for children ages 4-17. (Free for kids under 4) There are a variety of national chain hotels within a few miles of the mine, including a newish Courtyard Marriott, where we stayed, a Holiday Inn, a Hampton Inn, and several others. Less than a mile away from the mine, there’s a Tudor’s Biscuit World location that offers all you can eat biscuits and gravy for $3.19. That alone is a good reason to make the trip to Beckley, which is an hour south of the state capital, Charleston and about a four and a half hour drive from Washington, D.C.
[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]