Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine Tour
Coal may be the lumpy, unloved stepchild of America's energy family, but a visit to a coal mine is far more fun -- at least to us -- than a trek to an eco-friendly solar array or wind farm. Eastern Pennsylvania has thousands of deadly old coal-holes, but it wasn't until 1962 that the town of Ashland decided to shore up the timbers, sweep out the dead rats, and open this one as an attraction.
The Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine has one considerable tourist advantage: it's flat, drilled straight into the side of Mahanoy Mountain. Visitors sit in mine cars and are hauled a third of a mile into the mountain, an experience that is both satisfyingly claustrophobic and reassuringly similar to a creaking, jolting ride through a carnival Spook House.
Our guide, Keith, was an inexhaustible vein of coal mining facts and well-worn jokes that didn't sound so bad coming from a real coal miner. "Make sure you stay where I can see you," he said as we exited the mine cars. "If any more folks disappear this week, I might get fired!" Our tour group loved that one, as they did when Keith asked a boy to thrust down a dynamite plunger, triggering a rumbling explosion deep in the mine. "Now," said Keith, "you gotta go back there and shovel out about 20 tons of coal!"
It's a mine, so it's dark, damp, and chilly (wear a sweatshirt). The walking part of the tour provided plenty of stops for Keith to point out glistening coal seams and explain mining techniques. Showroom dummies caked with grime gave a good sense of the toll exacted on flesh-and-blood miners, whose collective quota was 400 tons of coal a day with no power tools or electricity. The mine is a gritty change of pace from the typical sanitized commercial cave. There is no mention of ecosystems on this tour, just the different ways to blast a bigger hole.
A fake canary, suspended in a cage, illustrated how the little birds were carried around by miners in the hope they would detect gasses before the gasses exploded. "I had a guy here a few years ago who raised canaries," said Keith. "He said they're so sensitive that if you passed wind next to one you could kill it." Keith added that the mine is inspected every day by a foreman, and periodically by state mine inspectors, so it doesn't collapse or catch fire like the one just up the road.
Keith stopped at the mule display, and told us that mine mules -- who pulled the coal-loaded cars -- were treated far more humanely than the humans, whose lives were frequently unpleasant and short. Boys as young as seven labored in the mines. "I can't even get my two boys to clean off the dog," said Keith. When a little girl on the tour girl asked why so many people got hurt in the mines, Keith held up a small lump of coal. "A little piece of coal like this," he said, "falling 300-400 feet down a chute, would crush your finger."
At the deepest point in the mine, 400 feet beneath the surface, Keith pointed to a ladder running up into a small hole in the ceiling. This, he said, was the only other way out of the mine in case of emergency, and the light bulbs only went up the first 100 feet.
And then Keith turned off all the lights. "Folks," he announced, "it doesn't get any darker than this!"
With a renewed love of our eyeballs, we boarded the train back to the surface. Our camera lenses became hopelessly fogged once we reached the outdoors, but we didn't complain because we didn't have to shovel out 20 tons of coal.