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From Issue #50 August 28, 2014

Accompanied Miner

An exhibit in a coal mine dives deep into the history of working conditions.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

Larry Allen takes visitors down into the mine.

At the southwestern edge of the New River Coalfield in Beckley, West Virginia, a tourist attraction beckons: Exhibition Coal Mine. It is one of the few places in the world where non-miners can enter a real (albeit defunct) coal mine, spending a half hour below ground on a guided tour. It is cold. It is wet. And it is fun.

“I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so I know everything,” jokes Larry Allen as he ushers my tour group into a mantrip, a minimalist open-air locomotive, behind the gift shop. Allen, 72, is a former coal miner turned tour guide. Despite this being just his second week in his new job, he has mastered the patter. “Whatever you do, do not stand up. All your nice hairdos and physical features will be changed if you stand up when we’re moving.”

Thirty of us are seated in two cars on the mantrip that carries us from an overcast summer day into the perpetually 58°F mine. Allen stops a hundred yards inside the shaft, while the exit is still visible. “Does anyone have a fear of anything?” No one objects, though a few visitors snap pictures and murmur in Portuguese. “All right, we’ll go on,” and the mantrip lurches forward, carrying us deeper into the mine.

20 cents a ton

Allen steps out at a museum-style exhibit located a few hundred yards into the mine and holds up mining implements as he explains what the early days of coal mining were like. The first revelation is that the cramped tunnel we’re in has been enlarged in order to make it tolerable for visitors, and to allow the mantrip in at all. Allen points a flashlight at the ground and takes us back to 1890, when the mine opened.

“You can see where my light is at the bottom of the ground right there, up to where the rock starts. That’s how high this original mine was: 28 to 32 or 34 inches. The miners couldn’t even work on their knees. They had to work primarily lying on their side.” Allen’s hardhatted head hits the six-foot ceiling. “If I’ve bumped my head once since I’ve been here, I’ve done it a hundred times.”

Allen shows us a one-ton coal car, an open bin about a foot high, three or four feet wide, and 10 feet long. “They were expected to load 10 of these in 12 hours. They got 20 cents a ton, made about two dollars a day.” He explains that ponies, donkeys, goats, and large dogs were harnessed to the car to haul it out. A miner’s children could be brought in to help, though they wouldn’t be paid until age 16. As I wonder how large a dog must be to pull a one-ton load uphill, Allen fires up the mantrip and we proceed.

Larry Allen kneels on what he calls “the prototype of the very first skateboard,” used by a mine foreman to travel the rails underground. That would not have been possible in this particular mine, because the ceiling was too low.

Drops of water fall on my head at times, and a tiny stream is visible beside the tracks. The mine is preternaturally quiet, devoid of the sounds of birds, traffic, and wind that go unnoticed in daily life. The only sound is the gentle trickle of water at my feet and condensation dripping from above. Seated on a cushioned bench on the mantrip, I’m fine. But as Allen continues speaking, it becomes increasingly possible — and frightening — to imagine crawling into this hole and hacking at the coal seam.

Allen’s tour drives home the grim reality of the early coal miners’ lives in the era when this hole (then known as the Phillips-Sprague mine) opened in Beckley. “The coal miner lived a life of poverty. He got paid so much money in cash and so much money in scrip. The only place that scrip could be used was at the company store.” Allen bonks his head on the ceiling again while explaining how scrip worked, and how coal companies used it to keep miners in a cycle of debt. “Remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song ‘Sixteen Tons?’ He ‘owes his soul to the company store.’ Literally, that’s what the early miner had.”

The only good news is that things have changed. “Today’s coal miner is well-trained, educated,” Allen says. He should know. “I spent 26 and a half years working for a coal company. I was blessed by the good Lord. The only injuries I ever had was a stove-up shoulder and a sprained ankle and my lungs today are still good.”

Allen tells plenty of jokes to soften the pathos. Explaining the importance of water to a coal miner, Allen says, “Water to a coal miner was more important than food because of the dust that he had been inhaling.” Then he shows how a set of dentures stored in a miner’s water bucket could deter unscrupulous miners looking to steal a drink. “Poor old grandma has done gone over to the other side, and the only thing in this world she’s left behind was her dentures.” He grins as he plops the dentures into the bucket. The crowd laughs and snaps pictures.

Larry Allen shows off the dentures used in a miner’s water bucket. The bucket holds about half a gallon.

Light in the dark

The underground tour is just part of the Beckley Exhibition experience. Aboveground, a coal village has been reconstructed using period coal houses, a school, and a church trucked in from elsewhere. Guides stand throughout the village, explaining what life was like in, for instance, a one-room miner’s shanty that’s reminiscent of a storage shed. A children’s museum occupies a corner of the grounds, and there’s also a water park, a museum filled with antique mining gear, and a gift shop in a building designed to look like a coal company store. There’s even a kiosk where visitors can play an Xbox game simulating the use of a modern continuous mining machine.

The mine went dormant in 1910, outcompeted by larger operations in the area. The city purchased the land, and opened the exhibition in 1962. The coal village and various museums were put up decades later, and I remember a few of the village houses from my visits to the site in the 1990s. My grandmother lived nearby, and on summer trips I would get to go down in the mine on hot summer days as a treat. (I also remember the gift shop. It had a beautiful “depression flower” crystal garden with a “Do Not Eat” sign on top.)1

Leslie Gray Baker, director of operations at the exhibition, explains that 50,000 people visit the complex each year. The city sits at the intersection of Interstate Highways 64 and 77, offering easy access for travelers.2 “We’re within 500 miles of 90 percent of the population in the eastern United States,” Baker says.

Since it opened, the exhibition has become much more than a trip through a wet tunnel; it’s an exploration of the economic and social history of a region that is still dependent on coal. And people from outside the region turn up to explore. Checking the guestbook, I see visitors in the past month from Brazil, Taiwan, Florida, California — you name it.

Baker takes the museum part of her job seriously. The Youth Museum, which sits to the right of the gift shop, won a National Museum Service Award in 2000, and the Clintons came to visit. When a group from the Smithsonian came through, Baker says they told her, “You can come here and you can leave knowing what it was like to live in Raleigh County during that period of time, and you’ve really done a good job.”

The Super’s House

The highlight of the coal village is the Super’s House, a splendidly creaky three-story, four-bedroom home for a coal mine superintendent that was moved from nearby Skelton in 1995. It’s a mansion by comparison to the coal houses. Three of the bedrooms have been converted into exhibits depicting a doctor’s office, a company store post office (complete with creepy mannequin postman), and a barbershop. The barbershop is particularly arresting, as it contains a machine for curling hair that looks like it could easily electrocute its user. Metal curlers dangle Medusa-like above a wooden stool.

Everybody I speak to at the Beckley Exhibition either worked in a coal mine at one point or has family who did.3 Baker’s husband is finishing his fourth decade as a coal miner, and her father and grandfather also spent time in mines. (She says her grandfather worked in “at least 27 mines” and was also a moonshiner.) But the message of the exhibition is nuanced.

Barbershop replica in the Super’s House. The device on the left is an early perm machine.

Allen ends his tour by encouraging boys not to take up mining, despite the good pay these days. Baker says she and her husband feel the same way: “We worked hard for our children so they wouldn’t have to go [into a mine].” The message is not that coal mining is a bad job per se — it’s more accurate to say that it is a job of last resort. It’s also clear that a modern mine is a vastly better working environment than a 19th-century one, but that’s not much of an endorsement.

Allen worked a quarter-century in a coal mine, and he reflects on his early days. “When my wife and I first got married, there was no work here. We took Hillbilly Highway north and went to Chicago. Between the two of us, everything that we owned was in the back end of a 1955 Chevrolet. So, things have progressed a lot since. She passed away two years ago, so the good Lord has blessed us and watched over us all these years.”

When I ask how he started at Exhibition, Allen simply says, “I got tired of sitting around the house.” He encapsulates the feel of the mine and its people, who understand the value of hard work and spend their days showing visitors just how much harder it once was.

Photos by the author.

  1. A depression flower is a crystal garden sprouted from lumps of coal, traditionally grown by coal miners’ wives. This recipe explains how to make one. 

  2. Beckley, West Virginia, is named after John James Beckley, the first Librarian of Congress. It is the county seat of Raleigh County. 

  3. This is generally true of West Virginians. My uncle worked briefly as a coal miner before becoming a lawyer. My grandmother was born at Sun Mine, just up the highway from Beckley. (All that remains of Sun is a single-lane road and a few houses.) This kind of family history recitation is familiar to anyone with roots in the state. 

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