Tennessee Ernie Ford sang it in song. “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.” Beckley, West Virginia was a coal town, a company town, where miners worked to the bone for little money in conditions most of us wouldn’t set foot into willingly. Today, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine lets tourists like me see what life underground is like, and learn the story of coal in West Virginia.

Inside the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

This mine opened in 1890, during the beginning of the West Virginia coal rush. The mine extends through about seven miles of tunnels dug roughly 200 feet below ground. This is considered a very small and shallow mine, as many current mines go more than 2,000 feet (almost half a mile) below ground and have tunnels stretching well over 100 miles.

During its heyday, this mine employed hundreds of miners, who dug out coal by hand for the rate of $.20 per ton. Yes, twenty cents per ton. Most of this went straight back to the company for housing, food, and other essentials. Many miners even paid out more than they took home, leading to the debt line in the song holding a good amount of truth. Miners brought their families with them to these company towns, which were equipped with everything from post offices to schools, though after 8th grade, boys would join their fathers in the mines.

This car holds a ton of coal. The miner who produced this was paid $.20 in 1900, before deductions for rock mixed in.

The Beckley Coal Mine closed in 1910 amid fears that taking more coal out would destabilize the mountain above it. Today, it operates as a museum, with tours of the mine by train, led by experienced miners. Our guide, Leroy, retired from the mines in 1998 after 28 years. Each stop of the train holds another lesson given by Leroy. At one we learn about lanterns through the years; at another he demonstrates putting in the bolts that hold up the ceiling.

Here Leroy shows us the narrow confines miners were subjected to. The layer under the rock is the coal. Miners had to squat or kneel to get to it.

When the mine closed, West Virginia was at the peak of the coal industry. More than 90 million tons of coal were taken from the ground in 1917, employing more than 90,000 miners. (Production peaked at 173 million tons in 1947, but with fewer miners due to the technological advances made.) Unionization began in 1912, violently, in order to simply provide better working conditions, safety, and remotely living wages. However, until 1932, so-called “yellow dog” contracts were still given to miners, in which they promised not to unionize.

Coal is so important to the development of West Virginia that a statue to coal miners sits outside the state capital building in Charleston.

Today, fewer than 15,000 miners are employed in West Virginia, though these jobs have become some of the most desired, explaining why so many here want to see the industry revitalized. Leroy tells us that when he retired in 1998, an experienced miner made $38 per hour, far more than would be possible in other sectors, especially since many have only a high school education. Even re-education would lead to jobs that in all likelihood would require large pay cuts.

So what is the future of coal? While techniques have improved to have it burn cleaner, coal is still among the largest polluters in the world, with studies showing up to 650,000 annual deaths from coal-related lung disease in countries like China, and upwards of 10,000 here in the US. (To be fair, I am not sure that all of these can be definitively linked to coal, but it may be a significant factor.) Likewise, while mining is less intrusive than it once was, it still is not exactly environmentally friendly. Strip mining may not be as rampant, but toxic runoff still emanates from all coal mines. And again, while strides have been made to make coal mining safer, fifteen miners lost their lives in 2017, to say nothing of those who have contracted long-term conditions from being in the mines for years.

It is a hard thing to reconcile these downsides of coal with the economic benefits to both the miners and to the country as coal exports increase under the current administration. Where is the balance point? I certainly don’t claim to know.

What I do know through my visit to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, West Virginia is that those who have worked, and continue to work, in the coal industry have done so despite a history of conditions that are unthinkable to me. They have risked their lives daily, venturing underground to extract the coal that powered the industrial revolution, and continues to power much of the developing world. While I may not believe that their industry is currently a net positive to the planet, nobody can question their character, or their personal motivations to provide a higher quality of life for their families through their toils. A visit here is a small reminder that life, work, and values can exist outside of my own experience and bubble. At the end of the day, that is the greatest lesson of all.

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