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

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.

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]

The Worst-Smelling Towns In America

Last week, I was in Eureka, California, for a couple of days with my parents and brother’s family. Despite the cute, historic downtown and an epic feast at the renown Samoa Cookhouse, our overwhelming impression of this coastal city is that it should be renamed “Eureeka,” because it stinks – literally.

The stench of … bait fish? Fish meal or perhaps cat food processing enveloped our hotel, and that’s just not an aroma that stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. It was like living in a bucket of chum.

My niece and nephew, 12 and 16, respectively, suggested I write a piece for Gadling on the stankiest places in America, and I’m more than happy to oblige. In addition to personal picks, my fellow Gadsters were only too happy to (cow) chip in.

Coalinga, California
Anyone who’s driven I-5 past the famous cattle stockyards knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Yellowstone National Park, and Thermopolis, Wyoming
These two famous attractions may stink of sulfur, but they’re worth putting up with the fumes.

Pago Pago, American Samoa
Think giant fish cannery.Chinatowns, everywhere
Special mention goes to NYC on a breezeless summer’s day.

Greeley, Colorado
Let’s just say that being the home of one of America’s largest beef abattoirs has far-reaching consequences if the wind is right, which it usually is.

Gilroy, California
Depending upon your feelings about garlic, the nation’s largest producer of the stuff is heaven or hell (personally, I choose the former).

Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Its unofficial nickname is “The City of Five Smells,” due to the grain processing plants located there. Like roasting coffee, not always an olfactory pleasure.

Gary, Indiana
According to one Gadling contributor, this city famously smells like, “coke (a coal by-product), steel, and sadness.” Apologies to residents of Gary but this one came up more than once.

Got any picks of your own? We’d love to hear your votes for America’s smelliest town!

[Photo credits: cattle, Flickr user St0rmz; fish, Flickr user amandamandy]

Photo of the Day (8.31.10)

I think that the best travel photography is the kind that captures a unique instance of the human experience and opens it up for further discussion. It intrigues the viewer to ask questions, to delve deeper and to examine the unfamiliar. It refuses to let you look away or ignore the subject. For me, this moment captured by e.r.g.o in Sri Lanka does exactly that.

The festival being photographed is called the Esala Perahera (festival of the tooth), which takes place in the city of Maha Nuvara (Kandy) in July or August. The man seen here is swallowing a burning coal as a display of relentless faith.

The image is part of a series from e.r.g.o during a three year stint in the South Asian island country. He notes “This project is my farewell to Sri Lanka. Of the six images, some are pretty and nice, while others are ugly and harsh. This has been my Sri Lanka experience.” The full series (with a couple extras from Melbourne) can be viewed here.

Do you have a story to tell with photos to prove it? Submit to our Gadling Flickr Pool & it could be tomorrow’s Photo of the Day!

A Canadian in Beijing: Digesting the Air in Beijing

Happy Earth Day!

It’s Sunday morning and I am already looking forward to going outside to take a deep breath. I love the weekends in Beijing, not only because I don’t have to go to school, but also because the air is cleaner. Factories are often closed at least one day every weekend and you can see more blue sky and feel a higher oxygen count in the air.

(The above photo was taken a few days ago. During the week, it’s much more grey outside.)

My fellow (Canadian) student and new friend here, David, said it perfectly: “You don’t just breathe the air in Beijing; you digest it.”

He’s so right.

The air quality in this city is atrocious. Internet reports tell me that the air quality in Beijing does more damage to one’s lungs than smoking two packs a day. Most large factories are still burning coal as their main energy source. You can smell and taste the coal dust in the air. That’s what I’m breathing here and there’s not much I can do about it.

Continuing my running effort in this city has been proof. After running, I usually have to cough for a while and I find that there is a greater collection of phlegm in my system than usual.

I’m thinking that this is perhaps why there is so much hacking and spitting in this city! People don’t just spit here; they make deep, guttural sounds to clear their esophagus and then fire huge piles of mucous and saliva onto the sidewalk (or platform or shopping mall floor or out the window of their car onto the street). I have developed an instinct to weave outwards and away from the source of that throat-clearing, body-emptying sound when I hear it. I want to veer from the path of the oncoming phlegm deposit. So far so good!

Many people wear masks when cycling and I believe this helps on the roadways, at least. I will be investing in one for myself this weekend so that I can enjoy cycling with cleaner lungs. At least, slightly. You can filter some air but you’re still ingesting the pollutants no matter what.

One of the English magazines here called Time Out came with an insert flyer for a product called IQAir. It’s a product for air purification designed to filter “99.97% of dust, pollen, pet allergens, smoke, chemicals, gases, odours, spores, bacteria and even viruses.” The pictures on the advertisement are of non-Chinese, Caucasian people and their pets and children. I imagine these kinds of products are very popular here, but I wonder if they’re popular in all communities.

You’d think in a city in which the air quality was the equivalent to smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes a day that people wouldn’t really have the need to smoke! That is, of course, not the case. Smoking is everywhere. The only two places that I have seen ‘No Smoking’ signs (in any language) have been in the subway cars and in the classrooms at the university. You can, however, smoke in the subway walkways and ticket purchase areas and you can also smoke in the hallways at the university. In fact, our dorm rooms simply request that we don’t set the bed on fire.

David told me he quit smoking since coming here and I wondered if he was just trying to neutralize or offset his toxic intake. Sort of like being carbon neutral, if you quit upon arrival to Beijing then your body would probably feel pretty much the same as it did while smoking in Canada and you could feel positive about not making this air quality worse! I’d say it’s pretty hard to quit, though, in a country that so heavily endorses the activity. Malls have full smoking counters (see picture above). Tobacco is available everywhere and it’s pennies a pack.


“Beijingers” are telling me that it’s improved dramatically over the past few years as a result of the Olympics. Pressure from the international community and a commitment to have a “green” Olympics has prompted some serious efforts by the city to plant trees in urban spaces and to convert many coal-powered energy lines to natural gas.

If not the sake of the living world and the survival of our Earth as impetus to clean up an urban environment, the Olympics will do. Good timing on my part.

When travelling out to see the Great Wall two weeks ago, I was amazed at the fields and fields of newly planted trees in the outlying parts of the city, not to mention the incredible use of space. Agricultural fields are now flanked by new trees. New trees line roadways, parking lots, creek beds and narrow strips of land between buildings and crops.

Here in the city, you can likewise see the attempt to plant trees in open spaces. Between the two tallest buildings in Wudaokou, Google and Microsoft, the new trees and tiered flowerbeds create what appears to be a geometric urban park — beautiful as well as functional.

I’ve also heard that factories will be forced to shut down two to three months prior to the Olympic games in 2008. Sounds to me like a last-ditch effort to boost the air quality and reduce the airborne pollutants before the athletes arrive. I’m wondering what these factories and workers will do without productivity and income for as much as three months. Someone suggested they thought that the government would probably compensate the businesses during this time. I wonder why the powers-that-be don’t just help businesses to convert to cleaner, greener practises in the first place. But, coal is a huge industry here, so that suggestion is a surface one in a much deeper and more layered problem that starts and ends with money. Don’t they all?

This Washington Post
article talks about the efforts made by the government to “green” this city before summer, 2008. (These days, the colour green has become a verb!) It says that “about 190 steel, cement, chemical, paper and other factories have been dismantled piece by piece and moved away from the city and surrounding areas. Nearly 680 mines in the vicinity have been shut down. Some 4,000 buses and 30,000 taxis with high emissions were retired, and the government is discouraging driving.” Well, I’m not sure about the latter point considering how many cars I see on the road, but it’s good to hear those stats nonetheless.

Will the city continue with this “green focus” after the international community has turned off the spotlight on Beijing?

One can only hope.