Jul 5, 2009
|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.