Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine
and the New River Park
Nearby Beckley, WV is a city that truly has a "mine of its own." The Exhibition Coal Mine is located in the New River Park near downtown Beckley, about 20 minutes from the AAA Adventure Outdoors. This entertaining and highly educational attraction takes visitors under ground for a guided tour of an actual coal mine. In addition to the mine tour, the park has several restored buildings from the mining era. There's also a Youth Museum and the Mountain Homestead in the park, making it one interesting and educational place to visit.
The centerpiece of the New River Park (not to be confused with the New River Gorge National River Park home of America's best whitewater) is the Exhibition Coal Mine.
Visitors board an actual mine train for an underground trip through some 1,500 feet of mine passages. Former miners serve as tour guides and spin entertaining yarns about life in the mines years ago. During the ride, which takes about 45 minutes, you'll see displays of vintage mining equipment and learn how coal was mined during the early "pick and shovel" days. You'll see how courageous miners battled dangerous gasses and the constant threat of explosion and cave-ins to blast coal out of the ground and bring it to the surface. Further along in the tour, you'll see how modern equipment such as roof bolting and continuous mining machines gradually made the mines safer as they became more mechanized. Be sure to dress warmly as the mine, like a cave, remains at a constant 53 to 55 degrees year-round. If you forget your jacket, the nice folks at the mine will loan you one. In recent years, the park has added several authentic buildings around the entrance to the mine to give visitors an idea of what life was like in the coal towns over a hundred years ago. When the mining era began, West Virginia was a wild wilderness area, with few settlements. The coal operators had to build an entire town from the ground up to provide for the needs of their workforce. Houses, stores, churches and, of course, saloons were all built up around each mine as it was opened. Examples of some of these structures have been moved from actual coal camps and rebuilt at the New River Park.
The miner's house is an example of the simple, no-frills construction seen throughout the New River Gorge towns. They were often 4-room structures known as "Jenny Linds." The miner would rent the house from the company and the rent would be deducted from his paycheck. Often, to make ends meet, the family would rent out beds in their home to single miners. Each house had its own outhouse in the back yard as there was no sewage facilities in the towns.
Not everyone in the coal fields lived in such humble surroundings, however. The mine superintendent, the company doctor, and other management types often lived in very nice homes. These were usually situated at a distance from the miners' homes, often on a hill a short distance from the mine. If the mine's owner happened to live in town (most didn't), his would most certainly be the biggest and fanciest house around. Samuel Dixon was such a man and he built his three-story mansion in the style of the country homes in his native England. Dixon built the town of Skelton, WV named after his English birthplace. The city of Beckley moved the old house to the park, completely restored it and filled it with authentic period furnishings. The ground floor is furnished much as Mr. Dixon would have had it. The second floor has been set up to represent other services that would have been available in the coal camps, such as the doctor's office, the post office and the barbershop. There's also an authentic church that was originally built in the town of Pemberton, WV in 1906.
The park complex also features a gift shop and museum. The latter has a large collection of photographs and tools from the mining era as well as many examples of the "script" that served as money in the camps. Contrary to popular opinion, all miners were paid in cash not script. But most miners found it difficult to make ends meet, especially during periods of slow work or if they happened to be sick or injured. Remember, in those days, there was no social safety net of benefits for workers. When unable to pay his bills, the miner was forced to borrow money from the company. It was these borrowed funds that were often given to the miner in the form of scrip, coins or paper coupons that were legal tender in the town's "company store." Unfortunately, many workers got so far behind that they couldn't catch up and, from that time on, relied totally on scrip and never saw another cash payday. This sad situation gave way to the phrase: "I owe my soul to the company store." Examples of both coin and paper scrip can be seen in the museum, and some can even be bought in the gift shop.
In 1977, the Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia was started as a modest project of the Beckley Women's Club. Through donations, especially railroad equipment from the CSX, formerly the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, it has grown into quite an exhibit. Adults, as well as children, will enjoy these examples of West Virginia arts, sciences and social and natural history. Especially intriguing is the Mountain Homestead. The park has rebuilt a 2-story, 4-room log house that dates back to 1844. Using this building, plus an original 1-room schoolhouse, the park has put together an exhibit that reflects life in West Virginia over a hundred years ago.