The main goal for today was to go underground to experience a real coal mine. We have talked about going into a coal mine for years now, but we’ve never gone out of our way to make it happen. Today would be the day. The City of Beckley operates and exhibition coal mine and reconstructed coal company camp. The mine was actually in operation from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, so it’s been out of production for quite a while. Still, we were able to learn a lot about how coal was actually mined in those days, and we got to physically experience being underground in an actual, dark, damp coal mine. It helped me understand better where the lyrics of the song came from.
Our guide for the underground tour was a former coal miner named Marvin.
He says that he worked for 24 years in the mines. Obviously, things must have been a lot different for him than for the miners he was telling us about, because the mine we were in had been closed for some 50 years before he even began his work as a miner. The Exhibition Coal Mine employs only former miners as tour guides. As great as this is for tourists, it made me a little sad to see Marvin working as a tour guide, showing people a coal mine and telling them about it all day long. I suspect he would rather just enjoy a relaxing retirement. He probably needs to work. The coal companies today are going bankrupt at an alarming rate, due to increasingly demanding federal environmental regulations that are virtually designed to eliminate our use of coal as a fuel. Marvin was a great guide, however.
The reconstructed coal company camp was fascinating too. In the schoolhouse we learned about the Mark Twain High School, closed since 1965. The main claim to fame of this school is that it was the school that the famous West Virginia US Senator, Robert C. Byrd attended. He was the valedictorian in the class of ’34. The guide told us that this school was nearby, but she didn’t tell us exactly where. She told us that now the school was completely gone, but that there was a historical marker in the location.
After we left Beckley we were driving around the nearby towns and villages to get a feel for the area. Outside the town of Sophia we saw a sign indicating that this one particular street was a “Coal Heritage Site.” It didn’t specify what the site was, but we were curious, so we turned onto the street. The street left town and began to ascend a hill. The road became steeper and more crooked as we found ourselves getting further from town. Before long we were on a very narrow, very twisty, very steep road with no shoulders and no opportunity to turn around. It got narrower, more twisty, and more steep as we proceeded on mile after mile. I was very glad we were not towing our trailer at this particular part of our journey. My curiosity about the coal heritage site waned as I just started to want to turn around and return to town. But then, lo and behold, as we crested a hill, we came upon a historical marker and a small, old monument of some sort. We pulled over to take a closer look. Here is what we found:
Without even looking for it we had located the site of Senator Byrd’s high school. If the guide had not told us about it, we wouldn’t even know the significance of what we were looking at. It was really quite surprising and very cool. I could barely imagine what life must have been like for a young Senator Byrd. Getting to school every day by walking or riding a bus up those roads must have been really something.