On Tuesday morning, we were getting dressed and ready to go have breakfast when Papa got a call from the front desk saying that there was an issue with his credit card. Confused, he headed downstairs while the rest of us scrambled to finish getting put together. Well, there was no problem with the card, it was a diversion to get him downstairs so that his niece Candy could surprise him! We had breakfast together before she went to work and we left to find our next adventure.
We had very much enjoyed our trip to the New River Gorge and the scenic drive we took on Monday, but after the long drive up on Sunday and the time spent in the van during the scenic drive, the kids (big and little) were itching to do some exploring on our own feet.
The solution? Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine!
It was another hefty drive to get there, about an hour and a half, but once we were there, we had a blast! You start by purchasing your tickets in the small museum and then boarding the mine train to travel into the mountain. Beckley Mine is the only one open to visitors and offers a fantastic tour. Our guide was a retired coal miner of 40 years, like his father before him. Having experienced life as a coal miner himself, he had a captivating way of telling the history of the mining industry. Dorsal was his name and he only had our little crew and one other couple on his train that day so we had lots of opportunities to ask questions.
We were all struck with the cruel conditions that the early miners were forced to endure. The state of West Virginia literally exists because of the coal mining industry and was built on the backs of these brave men who worked at the risk of their very lives to provide for their families. The minor would literally crawl on their bellies into veins of coal no higher than 26 inches and swing picks with all their might to retrieve their loads of coal. They worked in shifts that were 12 hours long and were paid in company money, not cash, which was only accepted at the company’s store. Breathing in the dust caused a condition called “Black Lung” that continues to kill miners even today. Do you have a son? Great, he can start working along side of you at 8 years old and is allowed to swing a pick when he turns 12. The little ones had the job of guiding the ponies that pulled the carts of coal out of the mine and it was chillingly common for a boy to trip and fall in the dark and be run over and killed by the cart which would weigh over a ton.
Even today, the coal industry is corrupt at best and has cost many men their lives. I think the part that was the most jarring for me was when Dorsal allowed Jonah to sit in the driver’s seat of the engine that pushes the carts into the mine but then looked at me with steel blue eyes and said “if he ever looks at mining, you grab him and push him away from it.”
Many men in my family have been West Virginia coal miners and knew of people who had lost their lives to the industry. It gives you a whole new appreciation for the ease of comfort of your own life to hear stories like this.
After the tour, we were able to walk through some historic homes and buildings from local coal mining camps. The difference in lifestyle and homes between the superintendent’s and the workers was incredible. The kids loved how interactive everything was and were full of questions and curiosity.
The Bachelors Shanty
The Miner’s house
The Superintendent’s house
Two Room Schoolhouse
Coal Camp Church
There was also a small village set up of old log houses from the 1800s where the kids enjoyed running around. They had a small log playhouse set up so that was a huge hit with my minions. Papa enjoyed checking out the old farming equipment and pointed out a lot of it that he remembered using on his farm growing up.
Right next to the historic log houses was the Youth Museum. It was a small place but the adults enjoyed taking a break while watching the kids play.
Back at the gift shop, we found a shirt for Papa that said “Almost heaven, West Virginia” and a Christmas ornament for our tree to remind us of all the fun we had. Our Christmas tree is sort of a patch work quilt of our family’s memories and this is definitely one we wanted to remember forever.
We met Uncle Marvin and Aunt Shirley for dinner and then were joined by Ruth Marie and her husband Tom. The food was good but the conversations were even better <3
Another awesome day in the books!