Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine
513 Ewart Ave

Beckley, WV 25802

May 10th, 2008

Have you ever been down in a coal mine?  A real coal mine.  Well I had not, so when a opportunity arrived to visit such a dark and damp place I jumped at the chance.  We had been traveling from Virginia to a summer haunt in Ohio and had stopped in Beckley for a night which became a week.  The Beckley Exhibition campground is just a small part of the conglomerate made up of the mine, the Mountain Homestead Museum, and the Youth Education center.  Having made our introductions at the office, we acquired our tickets to ride and headed down to the old electric car barn where we Cliff Chandler and Bob Maidgan at the enterance to the minewould start our tour.  Here we met Cliff Chandler, a 70 something year old miner who had spent some 40 years in the mines and would be our tour guide and train operator.  Cliff explained that most of the things he was going to talk about were down in the mine so we talked about general items.  I learned that the mine once produced a good grade of coal but the vein finally became too small to be worthwhile and in 1910 it closed.  It lay dormant until 1962 when it opened up as a museum.  The little train cars we would be riding in would be pulled by an electric engine he called a coal puller, or gathering motor built sometime around 1930.  It was slow but very powerful.  He estimated that the tracks we would be using today were laid out in about a 200 foot long circle Cliff driving the gathering motor into the minewhich looped back into itself near the entrances.  After a short wait for the other passengers, we boarded the cars and were soon creeping down the mine.  We had not left the light of the entrance when the temperature dropped and the humidity jumped up.  Cold and damp is a reality of the mine.  Water dripped from the ceiling in most places.   On we crept into the darkness until the only light was from a single small light bulb suspended from a lone power line strung across the ceiling near the walls.  The passage was short and narrow, narrow to the point of almost hitting the walls with the carts.  When we did stop and were allowed to get out and look about, there usually was not enough headroom to stand up.  Our first stop was at a widened part of the mine where there were several items that Cliff talked about.  In his soft West Virginia accent, he explained that the end of the 1800s was not a good time to A hand loaded one ton coal car work in a mine.  Because the only tools used were picks, shovels and dynamite, mines were never expanded beyond the coal vein.  The vein in this mine was only about 3 feet high which meant that the miners spent their entire workday on their knees.  The dynamite would break up the vein, then the miners would pick it free and shovel it into either one or two ton coal cars.  Working steadily with only a few breaks, a miner could fill as many as 10 one ton cars.  For this he would be paid about 20 cents per car. Giving him, hopefully, $2.00 a day for his effort.  But there were expenses to this job.  The miner had to pay for rent of the company owned cottage that he lived in.  The coal he used in his small heating stove was not free, nor was his food.  In the mine, he was responsible for most of the expense of getting the coal out, including the dynamite, as well as the timbers he used to shore up the ceiling around him.  At the end of the day, there just wasn't that much left, but of course the mine owners had the answer for that.  Highly elevated priced goods at the company store.  A miner could borrow mine scrip, often in coin form which could be spent at the company operatedcompany store script store only and then would be taken out of his pay at the end of the two week pay period.  Some miners with families often spent more in script then they made in the mines, giving rise to the words of a famous Tennessee Ernie Ford song "I owe my soul to the company store".  The single weak light bulb which created great shadows with its soft glow, as we listen, didn't exist when this mine was in its heyday.  Instead, miners used an even weaker light made by a single candle-like flame from a carbide lantern on his canary in a cage helmet.  Water was added to a carbide block which created the gas needed for the flame.  A small striker wheel just like an old cigarette lighter mounted below the flame nozzle was used to ignite the flame. One of the major problems with this was that coal mines are notorious for creating methane gas pockets. Explosions were a far greater danger back then, then they are today. To remedy this, the mines created one of the most unpopular jobs there was.  Some poor miner got to take his carbide lantern and climb up in each crack and crevice to burn off the pockets of gas before they got so big they would explode, he hoped.  Many a miner's last day on the job was finding a pocket that had grown larger then the small bright flashover he had hoped to cause.  Still, pockets of the deadly gas could slip by undetected. For those who could afford it, a miner might have a small cage containing a canary.  As long as the bird sang, the miner would work.  When the bird quit chirping, it was time to leave, and most likely buy another bird.  
On down we traveled in our slow moving train which shook and wobbled at every turn, until we arrived at other destinations with other stories.  At one particular
stop we learned about the lunch bucket.  In the days of this mine there was no cafeteria topside that the miners could go to during their hour lunch break. There were no lunch breaks.  Miners ate whatever they brought with them on the job, on their own time, and time was money.  The lunch pail was pretty universal, aluminum, round and with a second bucket taking up half of the inside. The pail was filled half full of water and then the top pail was placed over the water. The second pail contained the food.  With any luck the miner would find a "widow maker" nearby to sit on while he ate, like the one the pail is sitting on in the picture.  A widow maker was created eons ago when trees stumps protruding down to where the mine would be, were petrified, then millions of years later, cut off when the mine was dug, leaving the stump's upper portion embedded in the ceiling. Although the stump itself was now a hard stone often weighing hundreds of pounds, the barkCliff Chandler with false teeth which had been around it,  had turned to coal rather then stone.  As work continued in the mine, the coal around the stump would loosen and the stone stump would come crashing down to the mine floor, with often fatal results if a miner was walking by at that precise moment.  In any case, another miner's dining seat was created.  The miners had only the water they brought, so if a miner ran out, well, all miner's pails looked alike.  To prevent water loss from such "mistakes", miners would often leave a set of false teeth in the water to prevent others from taking more than they had brought for themselves.  Cliff was a treasure trove of trivia-like facts about the life in the mines.  One of the more common creatures to be found deep in a mine were rats.  I would have thought that with such a sparse environment that such animals could not have survived long.  They owed their survival to the miners.  No meal was complete until a little food had been left for the rats.  What might sound like a far-fetched tale or at best some superstition, was actually rooted in decades of experience and observation.  As Cliff explained, years of mining had taught the miners that rats have a sixth sense about survival.  The lesson taught by these small creatures was that "If you see the rats running by you in number, run the same way!  You are probably minutes if not seconds from disaster."  Many an early century miner owed his life to this knowledge.
Although the props are pretty much the same on every trip to the mine,  each miner guide has his own unique set of stories, trivia, and jokes.  This would make the trip worthwhile even if you have read this article. 

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