Since I ran through a limestone mine this past winter, I figured I might not die of fear if our family toured a coal mine today in honor of Labor Day. The mine is about 20 minutes north of our house, and as it turns out, the entry way turns off the road where, when I completed the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, I’d asked Corey to meet me for morale boost. The mine tour turns off the part of the challenge I knew would be most difficult for me, 27 miles in with a huge, huge hill to mount after the check point.
I seemed destined to conquer my fear that the seam would give way and the thing would collapse upon my young family. Or else that creepy crawlies would emerge from the dark, like Gollum or worse. Then, when I saw the tour guide smoking heavily outside, I feared he would die of a heart attack down there and we’d have no way of knowing the proper way out. So many fears!
The name of the location itself is confusing to me. We are taking a tour of the mine, which is also called the Tour-Ed mine. I’m assuming these are the last names of the people who owned the rights to the coal.
We began our journey in a hangar filled with memorabilia from the company store and then made our way into an underground classroom for “Coal Class,” to learn mine safety rules and a conservative, republican discussion of alternative fuels was included free of charge!
(I mean, of course a retired coal miner would have this world view. Nothing surprised me about the insistence that we’d experience power shortages given the growth of wind energy!)
I was sort of hoping at this point that I’d be excused from the underground tour because there were no hard hats for Oren. No dice. They insisted it was probably fine, so Team Lev in its entirety crammed into the 4-foot-high little cart to begin our half-mile, pitch black journey into the earth.
I chuckled to see Corey crammed into the little cart, totally hunched, but then kept imaging what life would be like for tall men who worked down there 14 hours a day. Challenging!
John, our guide, told us he worked in the mine for decades and didn’t see daylight, except on Sundays, from November through March. 6am until 5pm, he worked down in the hole. 6 days a week.
The mine tour took visitors through the history of coal mining beginning in the 1800s and ending with present-day methods. I felt a bit sick to my stomach looking at the working conditions for the early coal miners. The “rooms” where they were assigned to work were barely 3 feet tall. The workers would first have to lie on their backs with a pick and dig out the lower coal.
Imagine swinging a pick from that position!
Then their job was to manually drill holes into the “roof” of the seam and insert explosives, back out a corner with the fuse, and yell “Fire in the hole!” After waiting a few hours for the dust to settle, they spent the next while hunched over, duck walking shovels filled with coal into labeled rail carts. They stayed down there until they hauled out 4 tons, for which they were paid in “scripts” to the company store.
We tried to explain to Miles that these families had no options. They weren’t being paid in real money, the bosses at the store could set whatever prices they wanted and there was nothing the families could do about it. They had to pay rent for their tiny cabins and buy everything they needed for life at this store! John told us these “scripts” were being used in some places in the US as recently as the 1970s.
As we moved through the mine, we saw how machinery helped to make the process both more efficient and less physical (slightly!) for the workers. We were all startled by how LOUD the machines were when John switched them on to show us how they work.
He described the “dance” the different machine operators had to perform throughout a shift, marching forward and backward through this impossibly dark, small, musky tunnel.
Other interesting things I learned: rats in the coal mine serve a similar purpose to canaries. While rats don’t enjoy being in the tunnels because there’s no food source, the miners like them there because their bare feet can sense the vibrations of impending collapse. John said miners often feed rats as a thank you for looking out for them.
All in all, it was a great activity for our family for Labor Day. A nice reminder of the important work unions have done for the working people in our country, a nice look at the way bituminous coal is extracted so our kids could get a better sense of what goes in to powering our home!