Thursday, September 20, 2012

Down in the Coal Mine

Despite the fact my husband hails from coal country and had plenty of relatives who worked in the mines, I had never been in one myself until two days ago. The entire experience was an act of serendipity. We decided not to go to the New River Gorge because of the bad weather and headed to Huntington for indoor activities. But after a delay for a burning truck and then a huge backup on I 64 due to a tractor trailer jackknifing, we decided to get off the highway and look for a campground.

The lady at the gas station recommended the Exhibition Coal Mine Campground a few miles away which is attached to a wonderful little exhibition coal mining town. It had a train ride into the mine (which was an actual working mine back in the 20s and had several buildings typical of coal towns which were built by the owners because the mines were usually in remote areas. There was a three-room miner's cottage, a one-room bachelor's unit, a church, a school, and the superintendent's house which was a mansion compared to the miners' places. Inside the superintendent's house was a doctor's office, barber shop, and post office which would have been separate in the real town.

So that's how we spent several rainy hours on Tuesday. The mine was active before modern equipment and the workers would have used picks and shovels. They hand-drilled holes to put in the explosives and would shout out, "Fire in the hole!" three times before they lit the fuse. Those men certainly earned their pay.

In the little museum, one display showed coins from different mining companies that were used to buy items from the "company store." It's easy to see how the miner's came to "owe their souls to company store." They had to buy their own equipment, paid rent for their houses and purchased what they needed by way of groceries and other commodities at the store. Often their expenses were subtracted from their pay. One ledger showed all the expenses owed to the mine and at the end of two weeks, the miner received about $1.68 in pay.

The gentleman who gave our tour worked in the mines for 28 years and his dad before him when the electronic machines first came in. They kicked up so much coal dust that's why so many miners got black lung. Once they introduced machines that wet down the dust, the incidence went down, but our tour guide's dad died of black lung disease. All the docents we talked to were from the area and had a connection to the mining industry. Once friendly woman was raised in a coal mining town. What a fascinating stop. Even in the rain it was a delightful visit.

The experience made Tennessee Ernie Ford's song a lot more meaningful. They really did load several tons of coal a day. And if there was too much slag rock mixed in, money was deducted. So if the base for a ton was 20 cents, they might end up with 18 or even 15 per tone. Young miners learned pretty quick to distinguish between coal and rock. How do you think you would like being a miner?

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