Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Lumps of Coal Aren't Just for Christmas

Coal has been experiencing something of a comeback in recent history thanks to its improved image as a clean fuel. However, the use of coal as a fuel goes back centuries, as does the mining of this fossil fuel.

In fact, mining in Scotland began as early as 1210 A.D. The industry was controlled initially by monasteries, and remained so until 1560 A.D. That means that when Scots-Irish settlers arrived in the United States, many of them came with the type of knowledge and experience that would make them ideal employees in America's new coal mines.

Now when most of us think of coal mining in the United States, places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia probably immediately come to mind. However, according to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy Division of Geology and Mineral Resources, for the "past twenty years, Virginia has consistently ranked among the top ten coal-producing states in the United States."

Their report goes on to state that within the Commonwealth, Southwest Virginia is "currently the source of all the State’s coal production. Virginia’s coal is produced from seven counties: Wise, Dickenson, Lee, Buchanan, Russell, Scott, and Tazewell."

This includes the town of Big Stone Gap which is a part of Wise County. Here are some views of this coal mining town -

Downtown, where these pictures were taken, I found Miner's Park, with its statue honoring the many men and women who have worked the coal mines in this area for over one hundred years.

After checking out the park, I headed to the Harry W. Meador, Jr. Coal Museum

Coal was first discovered in Wise County in 1751 by Christopher Gist, however, mining did not begin until the 1870s. Even then, very little coal was produced until the railroad system finally reached Wise County in 1892. Coal mining methods have changed drastically in the years since the first mining operations began in the late 19th century - something I was about to see for myself thanks to Mr. Freddy Elkins, our host at the museum, and a 31-year veteran of the mines.

This is the outside of the museum - I just really loved the mammoth stone chimney. The tree next to it was pretty impressive as well. :o)

This is the view when you first step into the museum. It's a beautiful old building - the wood and stone give it a warm and homey feel, and even though it was quite hot outside, and the museum had no air conditioning, it was surprisingly cool inside.

Though it's not large, the museum houses a LOT of mine memorabilia and equipment. You could easily spend a couple of hours looking through it all. 

I don't know about anyone else, but I never knew that coal was used in making aspirin or mint flavoring - especially mint flavoring! The above picture also shows the four different categories of coal - anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous and lignite. The next picture actually shows a nice size piece of unpolished bituminous coal - the type mined in Southwest Virginia. 

This display housed old bank drafts and pay checks from the early days of the mine operations. They were so ornate - not at all like the ones you see today!

This is an old brass water pump that was used to bring water down into the mines. You can see a picture of it in operation below. On a completely unrelated note, check out the mustache on the guy standing in the background - it seems to me that the brass water pump was not the only thing that needed to be retired from the mines. Ha ha!

This next picture shows a piece of wood piping used in the mines. The tag is hard to read, but it explains that wood piping was used in "extremely acid water applications."


This is an explosion-proof phone formerly used in the mines. I don't know how old it is - I couldn't locate a date, but it is in fairly pristine condition. I did wonder if such a phone is still used today - I mean, assuming that explosives are more powerful than they were in the early days of mining, it seems like it would be harder to make a phone that would survive the blasts.

The area mines used to have a dentist's office and medical clinic available to their employees. This equipment may be old, but unfortunately, it is still very recognizable - it makes you wonder at the apparent lack of progress made in the delivery of dental care in the last hundred or so years! Ouch!

Medical care has, fortunately, improved a great deal since the time this poster was first put to use. I got a little scared just reading it!

And speaking of scary things - these two signs really serve to emphasize the uncertainty and risk that is an ever-present part of work in the mines. Especially in the early days when mortality rates were quite staggering. In 1907, over 3,000 men were killed in mine accidents; in recent years, the numbers rarely approach fifty a year.

On a lighter note,  The mining company also used to have a band ...

 ... and a "company store." As I typed that last phrase, I had Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" playing in my head. I hope you know that song. If not, here it is. It's worth a listen, I promise. 

The museum also had the switchboard from the Stonega Mine. It reminded me of Little House on the Prairie and Mrs. Oleson eavesdropping on everyone's conversations as she manned the board. 

Here was an impressive array of the various models of carbide lamps employed in the coal mines over the years. These proved to be necessary evils because of their extreme flammability when brought in contact with the methane gas that was a constant presence in the mines.

These two pictures are scale models of the modern underground mining operations in the region. Strip mining is another method common in the area, but it doesn't exactly require a model to explain. Modern underground mining is much more stable as ideas about structural reinforcement have evolved over time. You can see the "gray blocks" interspersed throughout the mine in the picture below. These are actually places where the mountain has not been mined out, but has been left in place to provide stability to the expanding mine shaft.

Here are some additional pictures of modern equipment and mine operations. 

The helmet, lunch buckets, and other equipment pictured below were all Mr. Elkins personal items from his days in the mine. His helmet was the same helmet he used for the entire duration of his 31-year career.

Finally, this quilt was made by a local ladies' group and not only is it beautiful, but it also features all of the names of all of the Big Stone Gap miners that worked up until the date that this particular mine was closed. 

The museum not only gave a good picture of the plethora of ways in which coal mining has changed since its inception, but it also powerfully illustrated for me, just how much safety and conditions have improved over the last one hundred years. It was an afternoon well spent, and again, I would recommend a trip to the Harry W. Meador, Jr. Coal Museum should you ever find yourself in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

Happy exploring!

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