2009 Spring 2 Fall travel blog

our campsite at The Breaks

things sometimes get chaotic in a small space

updating this journal

typical of the roads here

a geologist's dream

that road below is where we're headed

road crews here have to move a lot of rock!

there are a lot of rusty old structures like this

'Light flashes when steam covers the road'

this is a rock crushing plant

a heavy blanket of vines covers everything in sight

there are a few good highways

but we try and avoid them if possible

because sooner or later they take you through a town

this is more like the roads we favor

they lead to places like this

Whoa! the West Virginia line - now do we go to War...

we chose Anawalt

which led to this

and finally to this - the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine

the museum is in this building - the old powerhouse that supplied...

we hurried through the rain to get inside

not much going on here on a Sunday afternoon

lighting in the old powerhouse is not too good

and the roof leaks

displays are kind of sloppy and disorganized

like who cares about a UMW Convention in 1964? this was just...

but there are heavy bars on the windows to protect this stuff

not enough photos like this one of the mine when it was...

there are a few models in various states of disrepair

the models were mostly school projects that were donated to the museum

there are chunks of coal on display

and mining equipment like this emergency breathing apparatus

there are displays of various artifacts

dating back to the years of operation

there's a display of miner's helmets under the counter of the 'office...

a poorly done painting and a wonderful old sign

a photo of all the 1960 officials of the corrupt United Mine...

there is even a movie set from George C. Scott's last movie...

saddest were the reminders of what a dangerous place this was

some of the miners got lucky this time

outside on 'something' Hollow Rd. it was still raining

across the road is the remains of the 'bone pile' a depository...

the hill has been restored and replanted

nature is reclaiming the place with lush vegetation and wildflowers

a bluebird looks down from a wire

the old mining equipment stands silent in the parking lot

and beside it under the protection of a chain link fence ....

a vein of coal stands right at the surface!

an old 'continuous miner'

have no idea what this thing did

this building housed the 16 foot fan that blew air into the...

in the museum our guide was starting the tour

he spent quite a bit of time talking about the dangers and...

some of the safety equipmment he discussed

he had a great way of holding the kid's attention

and he had a great sense of humor

our first look down the tunnel from the fan site

probably the date the building was built in 1917

the kids are cold but interested - shivering but asking good questions

the girl in the pink hard hat became a favorite to kid...

both sides of the tunnel are solid coal

the ceiling is 'false rock' formed by the flood that covered the...

prehistoric tree stumps like this are tapered and can fall out of...

there are many of these throughout the tunnel

this coal seam is an incredible 10 to 12 feet tall

cribbing used to shore up the ceiling

remains of a side drift

hydraulic steel jacks are used as shoring now

this machine sawed into the coal

a giant chain saw

by the end of the tour is was obvious everyone loved this...

here he's answering one of 'Ms Know It All's' questions

fish fossel in the ceiling - a relic of that prehistoric flood

this is where the 1884 explosion occured

walled shut now but still a grim and scary place

corner in downtown Pocahontas

the streets are deserted on a rainy Sunday afternoon

then it's back into West Virginia for an hour's drive to the...

Our last stop in Virginia takes us 260 feet underground - Sunday, July 5

Today we checked out of the Breaks and headed for West Virginia. Our destination is a campground at Pipestem State Park, but first we want to make one last stop in Virginia at the town of Pocahontas. Pocahontas is the site of an exhibition coal mine, meaning a mine that has a museum and offers tours. We want to continue the education we began last year in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, to learn more about Appalachian coal mining.

The drive to Pocahontas took us through 90 miles of Virginia and West Virginia back country, on an overcast and often rainy day. Gray was the predominant color - gray sky, gray-green forests, even the tiger lilies along the road were a gray-orange today. Roads here are challenging for a motorhome, even a small one like ours. The pavement is often so narrow that two cars meeting have to almost stop to pass each other safely, and the road curves and dips like a theme park roller coaster.

The mine is open on Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00 and our 90 mile trip got us there shortly after 3:00. Pocahontas is a tiny town and the mine is at the edge of town a block off Highway 644. The museum is in the old powerhouse, and we went in and asked about a tour. The man at the counter told us a tour was coming in at 3:30, and we could join it if we liked. He said the advantage of that was getting the group rate, even though we weren’t in the group who had scheduled the tour. We agreed to wait and we looked around the museum while we waited.

The museum is a collection of old photos, models and artifacts loosely arranged and randomly displayed. The roof was leaking from the rain and yellow buckets were scattered around the floor to catch the water. Lighting is poor, and there was no organization to the arrangement. Material seemed to have been gathered from hundreds of sources, and it had the feel of stuff donated that no one else wanted. A faded picture of the town in the ‘30’s would be next to a photo of the elementary school class of 1948, and next to that would be a rolled up old blueprint of something irrelevant that you couldn’t open to read anyway.

The state of the museum did not bode well for the tour, and to add to our reservations three vans pulled up about that time and unloaded thirty or more teenagers from some church in North Carolina. They were the ones who had booked the tour, and it would be with them that we toured too. We debated on whether or not to skip the tour and leave, but our curiosity got the better of us and we were ultimately very glad it did.

The tour was conducted by the man we’d spoken to earlier, and true to his word he charged us the group rate of $3.00 instead of the individual rate of $7.00. He began by showing us some lamps and equipment in the museum, and explaining about the danger of methane gas and how canaries were used to detect it. Pocahontas had a ‘canary factory’ turning out birds for the miners who had to furnish their own because the company did not. Our guide was a man who had worked his whole life in the mines, and he had a very soft spoken manner, but he was so interesting that he captured the attention of all those kids and kept it throughout the hour of the tour. No small feat given the size and diversity of the group.

On the way to the mine shaft he showed us an outcropping of coal that came right to the surface beside the parking lot. Then he took us into the mine for a tour that was exceptional by any standard. As the Appalachian mountain chain stretches from the southern United States to the islands of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, so do the underlying coal fields stretch from Newfoundland to Alabama. Size of the veins varies from ‘30 inch coal’ in Nova Scotia to a staggering 20 feet tall in Alabama. Pocahontas straddles a vein that is ten to twelve feet tall, and is said to contain the richest coal in the world.

While working mines still exist in this area, Pocahontas Mine is closed. But it operated for 73 years and the 40,000,000 tons of coal it produced would fill a coal train 6,000 miles long. Throughout it’s history the mine was the scene of several explosions, the worst occurring in 1884 when more than 110 miners were killed. They don’t know the number for sure because they didn’t count blacks, and there was no record of how many friends, relatives and children of miners may have been in the mine helping them at the time. The blast was so huge it killed a woman and her children in town, and it blew a man, two donkeys and a cart out of the tunnel like a shotgun and flattened them against the mountain across the road. The sixteen foot steel fan located at the entrance to the tunnel was blown out of it’s bearings and landed over 100 yards away.

Our guide told us this history while we stood at the exact place in the mine where it happened. While you enter the tunnel from the parking lot and it’s floor is quite level, by the time you are 800 feet into the tunnel you are 260 feet underground. Another explosion in 1932 killed 36 miners. Our guide was a wealth of information, and he told the story with such warmth and humor that the young people were fascinated and they asked a lot of good questions. In the end we were very glad we’d taken the tour, and glad too that we’d taken it with the group of such nice and bright young teens.

After the tour he came up to us and held out his hand, and it was an honor to shake it. I mentioned that we’d been to the mines in Nova Scotia last year, and that the miners there have great contempt for former United Mine Workers President, John L. Lewis. He said that in his experience the unions did some initial good, but they became so corrupt that he had taken a job in management and had spent most of his career as a company man. He held no illusions that the company was good, and he was quick to point out the terrible way they treated the miners and their families, but he said in latter years the union was just as bad and it sounded as though he had little use for it.

Like our guide in Nova Scotia he seemed to have no bitterness, and he was just as quick to remember the good things a working mine economy brought to the community. In gratitude we made a donation to their ‘company store’ for kids who visit the museum and get to visit the store and pick out a free gift. Then we got on the road and crossed the border into West Virginia. Roads got even more challenging for a while, but we finally emerged onto a highway that took us to Pipestem State Park, with a slight detour to visit the West Virginia Welcome Center on the way. We scored a nice campsite for the night and settled in to plan the rest of our visit.

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