Coal miners seldom get glory. Cowboys, astronauts and cops do, but how many boys strut around in coal miner helmets? In my imagination, miners are grim and unsmiling, with futures as bleak as the tunnels they descend into, who only make the news if they go on strike or when tunnels explode.
Well, LeRoy White is proud to have been a coal miner, thank you very much. He spent nearly 30 years in the mines, just like his father and his grandfather before him. Now he leads tours into Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, W.Va., coal country’s tribute to the men of down below.
On a recent Friday, I took a seat in a rail-riding “man car” with about 19 others as White snapped on his headlamp. The car clattered forward, and he took us 900 feet underground.
Though there were lamps in the tunnel roof, the ride was dark. The tunnel is six feet high, stately for a mine, where shafts can be as low as 42 inches.
White drove several dozen feet down the track before stopping. He stepped from his perch and stood in front of us.
“Do you want to know the best part of this job?” he asked. “The air conditioning.” True enough. Despite the 90-degree day, everyone was wearing jackets: The mine stays a constant 58 degrees year-round.
White proceeded to give us a tutorial on the miner’s grueling life.
This mine, he told us, was small by West Virginia standards and operated from 1890 to 1910, chiefly providing coal for the homes within the coal camp, whose laborers mostly worked in another mine nearby. The coal miners of a hundred years ago used picks, shovels and dynamite instead of great excavating machines. Each man was expected to remove six tons of coal per day. A top-notch miner could do 10.
Back then, mines didn’t have lighting, save for what the miner brought along. At first, miners brought in oil lamps that looked like teapots, but these lasted only an hour at best. Later, they used longer-lasting carbide lights. White showed us one, a gold-colored metal lantern with a plate mounted on its side, like a speaker on a stereo system. White added a few drops of water, and smoke writhed from the top of the lantern as chemical reactions inside created acetylene.
“We’ve got a striker like a cigarette lighter. But it don’t light good,” White said, snapping the striker. “But you put your hand over it,” he cupped his hand over the plate. “Shut the air off around it.” Poofttt! A bright flash startled everyone. White’s hand backed off, and the plate emitted bright light.
Methane gas, which is a byproduct of coal, can be deadly in a mine, White said. So a fireman would come through and burn out pockets of gas with his lamp.
“Do you know how you could tell a fireman in a mine?” White said. “All you do is look for the coal miner with the bad hairdo.”
He got back into the car, drove us a bit farther, stopped and then backed up down a junction. We stopped a few feet down the shaft and White explained more of the excavation technique. Most miners would drill narrow, four-foot holes into the coal with hand-held drills. After boring a few holes, they would stick in dynamite, blow the coal apart and load it into a cart.
A few people gasped at the idea of lying on a damp floor, putting your whole body into cranking a drill for hours. As a boy, I was an avid hole-digger, so I thought it sounded kind of fun.
After 45 minutes, we returned to daylight, and I toured the coal camp, which consisted of a 10-bedroom superintendent’s house, a church, a school, a miner family’s home and a postage-stamp-size bachelor’s cabin.
What I found most shocking was how awful the coal companies were to the miners. They often paid them in company scrip, redeemable only to the coal mine and worthless in the outside world, effectively creating indentured servitude.
In the miner’s home was a 1937 pay stub. The miner made $74.16 for two weeks of work. After returning a payday loan to the mine, paying for a doctor’s bill, burial insurance and for the company to haul his coal out of the mine, and then buying coal to heat his home, he had $1.68 in company scrip left. As a result, he’d take out another payday loan to get through the next two weeks. Each pay period increased his bondage to the company.
The coal miner had to provide all his own gear: pick, shovel, lamp and helmet.
“The company provided you a hole in the ground to work,” White said.
Of course the condition of the coal miner has much improved since those dark old days. His grandson now works in the mines, and “that’s all he ever talks about,” White said.
I was wrong. Some boys do dream of becoming miners.
125 River Ridge Dr. Pearisburg, Va.
A charming B&B with arresting views. About a 50-minute drive from Beckley. Rooms from $179.
104 Fourth St., Beckley
West Virginia’s response to the Waffle House. Entrees $4.99-$6.99.
101 N. Main St. Pearisburg
Locally grown produce prepared by an Italian chef. Entrees from $14.50.
513 Ewart Ave., Beckley
April 1-Nov. 1. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Last underground tour 5:30 p.m. Adults $20, children $12.