Abandoned Coal Mines Of West Virginia

West Virginia has been defined by the coal industry in many ways. While the industry still employs miners all over the state, abandoned coal mines are remnants throughout the area of a booming past. Exploring the abandoned coal mines is highly dangerous, but the hobby attracts the likes of spelunkers and urban explorers and it’s easy to understand why-the mines are mysterious places that provide a gateway to how life used to be in West Virginia.

According to the website for Coalwood, W.V., the number and location of the abandoned mines is largely unknown. Open shafts and horizontal openings to these abandoned coal mines are often difficult to spot amid the overgrowth. Once inside, abandoned coal mines pose the threat of rusted machinery, dangerous bodies of water and even explosives that are now defected.While the videos and photos available online of these abandoned coal mines are impressive, explorers put themselves at great risk to obtain this kind of footage. What do you think West Virginia officials should do with the abandoned coal mines?

West Virginia's Coal Mining Industry

Photo Of The Day: Rainbow Over West Virginia

Full disclosure: I was with photographer Ben Britz when we spotted this rainbow, dare I say wanna-be double rainbow, over the hills of my parents’ house in Morgantown, West Virginia. This rainbow was the third rainbow we’d seen that day and it was the best. For the first time in our lives, we could see the ends of the rainbow. I’ve always thought that the rolling Appalachian hills of West Virginia are beautiful, but it’s funny how well that beauty is accented by something so natural and yet always so special. Do you have any stunning rainbow photos to share with us? If so, just upload them to the Gadling Flickr Pool for review.

Missing West Virginia Cavers Found Alive and Well

Think Your Job Is Tough? Take A Tour Of The Beckley Coal Mine In West Virginia For A Reality Check

beckley wv coal mine tourIf 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.

Pay- $74.14
Store purchases- $15
Rent- $4
Coal- $2.50
Doctor- .75
Hospital- .75
Burial Fund- .30
Smithing- .37
Old Age Pension- .74
Hauling- $1.50

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]

A Journey To Sissonville, West Virginia, Home Of Shain Gandee And MTV’s ‘Buckwild’

sissonville west virginia buckwild Tourism officials are always looking for promotional hooks, and using connections to popular TV shows has long been a common way to market a destination. In the ’80s, television programs like “Miami Vice” and “Magnum P.I.” boosted tourism in South Florida and Hawaii, while “The Love Boat” was a boon for the cruise industry. More recently a well-known PR firm is pushing Connecticut’s “Mad Men” connection and the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau is promoting “Breaking Bad” tours, despite the fact that the show’s protagonists cook meth for a living. The MTV show “Jersey Shore” boosted tourism there but officials in the Garden State were reluctant to formally promote the show given its bawdy content.

Earlier this year, MTV replaced “Jersey Shore” with a new reality show called “Buckwild” that depicts the lifestyles of hard-partying country kids from West Virginia who spend their days and nights boozing, hooking up, brawling and going “mudding” in trucks and ATV’s. Even before the show aired, politicians like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin were calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that it played on the public’s “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.”

Calls to take the show off the air have intensified in recent weeks after one cast member, Salma Amin, was arrested on heroin possession charges and another, Michael Buford, was charged with DUI. And then last week, the breakaway star of the show, Shain Gandee, was found dead in a sport utility vehicle along with his uncle and a friend after they were last seen leaving a bar at 3 a.m. According to the AP, autopsies indicated that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly caused by their truck’s tailpipe being blocked with mud.I’m not proud to admit that I watched “Buckwild” a few times and was mildly intrigued, not so much with the clearly contrived story lines or staged antics but with the rural subculture depicted and the middle of nowhere appeal of Sissonville, West Virginia, where much of the show is shot. I live in a nice suburb of Chicago, where people ride their bikes to Whole Foods and an Arts Cinema that shows depressing foreign films, so I was curious to visit a place where everyone has peculiar accents and seems to spend their time mudding or hunting in the woods.

I was driving through West Virginia last Saturday, the day before Gandee’s funeral, but my wife, who has previously indulged me, albeit grudgingly, on lengthy detours for Amish donuts, nude beaches in Greece, and a tour of Justin Bieber’s haunts, among many other things, wasn’t stoked about spending a Saturday afternoon in Sissonville.

“Is it on the way?” she asked suspiciously.

“Sort of,” I claimed, despite the fact that Sissonville is on the way to nowhere.

sissonville MTV buckwildThe town is actually only about 15 miles north of Charleston, the state capital, but unlike other larger cities, Charleston doesn’t sprawl very far, so the place feels more like a quiet, country town than a suburb. It’s a humble little place with a mix of churches, businesses, modest new homes, decrepit old ones and trailers lining Sissonville Drive, the town’s main drag. We popped into a restaurant called Topspot Country Cooking and our waitress handed us menus that boasted that their food was “good enough for President George W. Bush to eat twice.”

“President Bush ate here twice?” I asked, looking around the dated little place, which was both relatively busy and silent at the same time.

“I’m not really sure about that,” said our waitress, who said her name was Stachia. “We have a catering company too and I think he ate some food from there.”

“What about other famous people?” I asked. “Do the kids from ‘Buckwild’ eat here?”

“Oh they do,” she said. “Shain was a friend of mine, and so are Joey and Ashley, the other two kids from the show who are from Sissonville.”

I ordered a meatloaf sandwich and a slice of peanut butter pie, which were both outstanding, and Stachia pointed out the window at a passing pickup truck.

“There goes Tyler,” she said. “He’s on the show too.”

She said she liked the show but admitted that some of the crew’s antics seemed a bit staged. I asked her about Shain and she said he was a sweetheart.

“Most of the people who have come through here because they’ve seen the show ask about Shain,” she said. “We had one guy who drove here all the way from Tennessee because he wanted to go mudding with Shain. He wasn’t here that weekend but if he was, I’m sure he would’ve gone with him.”

Stachia said that her brother used to date one of the female cast members and mentioned that Ashley, one of the cast members, moved to North Carolina because some people in town harassed her after the show came out. I asked her if the cast members’ heads had swelled after their newfound fame and she said she didn’t think any of them had changed for the worse.

“Of course they’re going to change a little bit,” she said. “I mean come on, people from little old Sissonville don’t usually get to be on TV.”

But an older couple sitting next to us wasn’t as keen on the show and the infamy it has brought the town.

“I watched an episode and a half but couldn’t stand to keep going with it,” said the man, who sat on the same side of the booth as his wife. “I don’t think the kids around here act that bad in real life.”

We drove down the street towards Shain’s home, referred to as the Wolf Pen holler on the show because it’s on Wolfpen Drive, and passed Larry’s Bar, the tavern where he and his cohorts were drinking on the night they died. It’s a nondescript building with tiny little windows – a great little hideout. There was a banner with the Miller Lite logo posted outside the building, which read, “We Will Miss You – Dave, Shain and Robert.”

I drove up Wolf Pen Drive, thinking I might talk to a few of Shain’s neighbors, but I soon thought better of it. They were still grieving and it felt wrong to swing through town with a notebook and a slew of questions. But visiting his neighborhood was an eye opener. Shain’s street is lined with ramshackle dwellings, some of which seemed ready to collapse, along with a host of trailers, and some tidy, modest homes.

I know that MTV and the cast members of this show have been lambasted for supposedly giving West Virginia a bad name but after seeing the Wolf Pen, I felt like I couldn’t blame Shain and the other kids from Sissonville for doing whatever it takes to make a living. Press reports indicate that they were set to make $4,000 per episode for the show’s second season, which is now in doubt as network executives decide if the show will go on without Shain. That is awfully good money in a place like Sissonville.

The show is undoubtedly a kind of cultural pollution. One does feel a bit dumber after watching it. People tune in to laugh at the country kids from West Virginia but after seeing Sissonville in person, I can’t help but conclude that the local kids who made it onto the show are smarter than they might appear.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, MTV]

Under These Circumstances: Traveling For A Funeral

The twisting highways that cut through West Virginia and lead to my hometown, which is on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, are terrifying at night. The last time I made the drive, the fog was thick and low – a meteorological manifestation of my cloudy, burdened mind. Because the hills are steep and street lights are rare, the dim headlights were the only aid my vision had. I couldn’t plug in and listen to my own music because I didn’t have an auxiliary cable and there was nothing on the radio. The hum of the highway was the only sound accompanying us for the ride. My childhood friend, Karin, was sitting at a spine-straight 90 degree angle in the passenger seat and scanning the blackness for shining pairs of deer eyes. My husband was doing his best to stretch across the tiny car’s back seat and rhapsodizing about beauty, undoubtedly in an effort to help unload some of the weight Karin and I were carrying. But we were on the way to the funeral of one of our close childhood friends and our availability for consolation was erratic.

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Just 48 hours earlier, my husband and I were departing DC and on our way up to New York for a five day vacation when I received the news that she had died. She died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 28. The misfortune of her passing was paired with the serendipitous fortune of having arranged to stay with Karin in New York. She was a good friend to both of us and as I slumped down on Karin’s futon in her dark Bushwick apartment, I was grateful that, if nothing else, we had each other. We spooned, ordered in food and reserved a rental car.

We had made plans to stay with our friend, Liz, at her parents’ house. Their house was our safe place growing up, a home with both a revolving front and refrigerator door. Her parents have known me since I was 6 years old, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade. Our little car slid quietly into a space in front of their house, which looked exactly as I’d remembered, around 1am. Liz and her boyfriend were waiting for us with Karin’s younger brother on the front porch, illuminated beneath the overhead light. Liz and her boyfriend had just arrived a few hours earlier themselves after a long drive from Milwaukee. We embraced and then discovered that we were gripped by manic exhaustion, the kind that makes your stomach turn while your brain still races. We tip-toed down into her basement, which was still littered with the toys from our childhood, and hung out on the worn-down couches we always hung out on, this time as adults. Contagious, unstoppable laughter erupted every ten minutes or so between the six of us as we recounted hilarious stories of the friend we’d lost. We were childishly frightened of waking Liz’s dad, which meant that our bursts of laughter were followed by a swarm of shushing, which triggered more laughter.

She would have wanted it that way, she was a funny girl, we said.

She was one of the only people I went out of my way to see during the handful of visits home I had made since high school graduation. I hated Marietta when I lived there and I couldn’t wait to move away. But during one of the last visits in Marietta I had with her, she showed me where to find love for the town. We sat side by side in Muskingum Park during the late afternoon, ripping up handfuls of grass as we talked. The meticulously green park hugs the Muskingum River and in the late afternoon, everything glows with the warmth of over-saturation and shimmers with the river’s reflections. A golden beam of light was cast over her face. She looked so unmistakably beautiful.

Her family had asked me to learn and sing a song that was special to her at the funeral. Without hesitation, I agreed. As I removed the tags from the new black clothes I’d purchased in New York with trembling hands, I choked. I didn’t know where or how to find the strength to use my vocal cords in front of a room filled with people I hadn’t seen since high school under such bewildering circumstances when I hadn’t even yet processed the news enough to cry. I bit my tongue and looked out the bedroom window and onto that flawlessly paved, wide street on which I’d learned to ride a bike, on which I’d regularly parked my first car. I went downstairs.

It was weird to see us all dressed up. I didn’t even wear heels at my wedding and yet, here we all were, balancing and clicking in unison. The three of us held hands and walked slowly into the funeral home. We’d given all the hugs and condolences we could give and we still had 45 minutes before the beginning of the ceremony. We walked like a pack of wolves who’d grown up in the wild together down the main street in town and into a bar, one of the few. With urgency, we ordered shots, ciders and beers. Tucked into the wooden booth only briefly, we left as quickly as we came. We walked back in the direction of the funeral home although we were unwilling to reenter a minute earlier than we needed to. Instead, we crossed the street and entered the park, the same park I’d sat in with her not that long ago. We walked down to the river and we sat on the stairs, chewing on our cheeks from the inside out, trying to calm our racing hearts. The sky glowed with that amber hue and I looked over at Liz and Karin, both of their faces washed over with a beauty I now know I’ll never forget.

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