Exhibition Coal Mine
Beckley, West Virginia
Coal is the lumpy, black foundation upon which West Virginia rests, both physically and economically. A recent flap of mine explosions and cave-ins reminded us that West Virginia is still chock full of deadly holes where men toil to heat our homes. There really is no attraction better suited to this statethan a coal mine.
Don't let the "Exhibition" in the name of this place fool you. Beckley's isn't a phony, like the fake factory at Hershey's Chocolate World in Pennsylvania. This once served as a working coal mine. It closed in 1910, the city grew up around its entrance, and the area surrounding it became a city park. In 1960 the mine was re-opened as a tourist attraction. We've been on plenty of underground tours, but never one where the main thrust is to tell you how toblast a bigger and deeper hole in the ground.
You're seated in mine cars and driven in what is essentially a big loop under a hillside, with plenty of stops so that your guide -- an ex-coal miner -- can point out displays in the murky darkness and fill your skull with mine arcana.
Beckley was a low seam coal mine. "Low seam" means a low ceiling -- a fact that you need to remember when you visit. The ceiling is only an inch or two above your head in your mine car. If you stand up while the train is in motion, you will die. This is a grungy tour -- full of arcane facts and with nothing really attractive to see. It's not really geared for kids or the ladies, though our tour includes a mix of family units. You never get out of your seat, and it's cold and damp in a coal mine, so bringa sweatshirt.
Our guide, Charles, peppers the tour with a well worn set of jokes that don't seem so bad when they're delivered by an authentic coal miner. For example, he tells us about "the fire boss" -- the guy whose job was to check for methane gas and then try to burn it offbefore it exploded and killed him. "We went through a lot of fire bosses," Charles says. "A pretty good job for a mother-in-law!"
"Or a brother-in-law," he adds, quickly realizing that our train probably includes several mothers-in-law.
The coal seam in Beckley is 180 feet underground and 40 inches high. There are plenty of places where it can still be seen, which makes one wonder whythe mine was closed -- except maybe because the place was so dangerous.
Charles shows us an example of a "widowmaker" -- a petrified tree stump uncovered in the ceiling, surrounded by a thin ring of coal where the bark was. Widowmakers had a habit of falling and crushing miners. "If this roof collapses," Charles adds in another well-rehearsed line, "we'll at least know there's nowhere around here we could be buried deeper orcheaper."
The mine has a weird smell -- like bad oil, we hope, not methane. Charles is oblivious to it as he does his best to entertain the group. He turns off the lights to give us the obligatory "moment of total darkness." He gets on the floor to demonstrate how miners would use "rail scooters" instead of crawling. He tells us that miners would discourage water theft by putting their false teeth in their water pails. He shows us the world's first mechanical coal scoop, invented in 1963 by a miner, and promptly stolen andpatented by somebody else. "Probably a Yankee," Charles cracks.
The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is a gritty change of pace from the typical sanitized commercial cave. It's occasionally used as a set for independent features and cable TV movies. Tour guides like Charles work as extras, eitheras miners or as corpses.