By Neil Sagebiel
Sagebiel is a writer and an author of two books published by St. Martin’s Press, “The Longest Shot” and “Draw in the Dunes.” He lives in Waynesboro.
I remember the day my family descended 1,500 feet into the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, West Virginia. The old miner gave one final instruction before our group rolled down the narrow track that dove underground. Or was it a warning?
“If any of you are uncomfortable with going down there, we can let you out,” said the miner and tour guide. “We’ve done it before,” he added, “mostly for men.”
A few chuckles came from the group. People exchanged glances. No one budged.
I wasn’t thrilled about this little expedition. Was I going to raise my hand and say, “Yes, please let me out”? No chance. I was going along with my wife and two daughters. We were doing this tour, together.
“OK,” the old miner said, “here we go.”
Called a “man trip,” the cars lurched forward and we plunged into the dark. Down, down, down we dropped into the narrow seam. It would be three-quarters of an hour before we resurfaced.
Let’s go to Beckley for the holiday weekend, my wife had said. There’s a historic coal camp, mine and museum. There’s Tamarack, that artisan center beside the freeway. It will be fun! So we hit the road for Beckley that long-ago weekend. It was a small family adventure to explore our region.
The first morning we set out for the Exhibition Coal Mine. We toured the coal camp, which included a miner’s shanty, school, church, store and the superintendent’s house, a three-story mansion from the early 20th century. The miners’ quarters were small and humble, occupied by the hardy souls who spent so many of their waking hours underground.
I’d heard stories about the coal fields of West Virginia, and how people’s daddies and granddaddies left the hollows for steady work in the nearby state, gone for days or weeks at a time. Life was a different kind of hard in those faraway coal fields. The mines were brutal and dangerous. The lives of men who labored for coal were ground to dust.
We visited the small museum beside the mine, peering at old tools and equipment and ancient photographs of miners and their family members. It was late morning. Our guided mine tour was about to begin.
We rolled down the tracks deep into the shaft. It was very dark, except for a few lights scattered along the way. What stands out in my memory is that we were down there for a long time.
I focused my attention on our guide. He was good, full of facts and anecdotes. In fact, he had worked in this mine and appeared in “Matewan,” the 1987 movie made in this mine. The old miner knew everything.
We rolled into different sections as he pointed out veins and the various techniques for extracting the coal. We saw a canary in a cage, the emergency system used to detect deadly gas in the mine.
There were moments when I felt like that canary — trapped in a cage. When I felt panicky, I tried not to look up, or to the sides, just straight ahead. Breathe. Focus on the old miner.
At one point he shut off all the lights. Now we knew the true meaning of pitch black.
My mind flip-flopped. This is fine. No problem. Then, I don’t like this. How much longer?
At last, we rolled up and out of the mine, back into an overcast day. The light on that gray afternoon seemed unusually bright. The air and openness soothed me.
Thousands of men had worked in this coal mine their entire lives — lives that were all too often cut short. I rolled through in less than an hour and couldn’t wait to get back above ground. I admire those unknown men who dug coal out of the earth to feed their families and serve their communities.
We stepped out of the cars. “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?”
Many years later the four of us were gathered around the dinner table. Beckley came up, including the coal mine.
“I didn’t like going into the mine,” said my oldest daughter.
“Me either,” said my other daughter.
My wife made it unanimous.
We all laughed.