West Virginia and coal mines are one of those peanut butter and jelly combinations of travel experiences. Sure there are beautiful mountains, fishing streams and rafting rivers and fabulous outdoor experiences in West Virginia, but to truly understand the culture and history of The Mountain State, you gotta go underground.
That’s a tough thing for me to tell you to do, because, I admit, I’m a bit claustrophobic and deep dark places a couple of miles underground freak me out. Still, I can highly recommend a visit to the Beckley Coal Museum in Beckley, WV for its above and below ground educational value.
Going Underground in West Virginia
Fortunately, claustrophobia is not a problem for Roger Jarrell, a chatty guide at the museum who worked 28 years about seven miles underground. And fortunately for the rest of us, there were plenty of people who were willing to do the dirty work of coal mining, because, according to Jarrell, the coal mine and miners were the first step in creating the industrial revolution and building the industrial might of the United States in the early 20th century.
That’s the time period the Beckley Coal Museum helps interpret through original homes, churches, schools and the company store. Sure, the company pretty much owned your soul, but there was a great sense of community that included baseball teams, concerts and other opportunities to appreciate life above ground.
Soft burning bituminous coal is what came from this West Virginia coal mine. Miners worked a 12 hour day to fill a 20-ton wagon of coal and for their efforts they were paid $2. That’s not a typo. I haven’t forgotten to add anything. A 12 hour day underground on your hands and knees, breathing in black dust, risking ceiling collapses and build up of deadly methane gas, for $2.
Today’s coal miners fare quite a bit better, averaging between $65,000 – $100,000 a year for their efforts. And for anyone who opposes government regulations, OSHA is one reason these folks live a lot longer.
The mine train with Roger Jarrell at the helm goes about 120 feet underground and stays there about 45 minutes. The temperature is about 55° and at one point Roger feels the need to turn the lights about for a few seconds to show you how truly dark it can be. That’s the part I hate.
But, when it was all over, I felt like I learned something. And that’s what travel can do for you, as well as let you unwind, relax and enjoy nature’s beauty. There’s plenty of both in West Virginia.