Entering Beckley, West Virginia via a scenic back road, we drove through the main part of this small town looking for a motel, so we saw the more personal side of life -- the usual combination of just-making-it stores, homes decorated for Halloween -- most of them rather modest wooden houses Tamarack art center with the more substantial homes up on the hill. The road wound and twisted through town until we wondered whether any motels, in fact, existed; this is a quite reasonable question in much of the state.
Then we reached the side of town where the West Virginia Turnpike touches down and everything changed. There were motels and chain restaurants galore, and endless strings of pickups and sedans and RVs pulling SUVs and motorcycles. West Virginia has discovered Beckley and Beckley has discovered tourism.
At the tourist information center we learned we had missed Bridge Day, an annual celebration of the completion of what is now the second-longest single span metal arch bridge (Shanghai has recently claimed the title). On Bridge Day the major attraction seems to be watching people jump or parasail or balloon from the span over New River Gorge.
We had not, however, missed two more sedate attractions. Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia is a gallery of some of the best West Virginia Exquisitely crafted desk arts and crafts, designed for shoppers and collectors and a delight for all visitors. Housed in a flamboyant circular building near the Freeway, Tamarack features juried galleries and a cafeteria catered by the Greenbrier Hotel kitchen staff. The arts and crafts come from all over the state, and include paintings, sculpture, ceramics, woodwork, furniture, crystal, clothing, local jams and pickles and sauces, toys, dolls, quilts, dulcimers, baskets and an excellent West Virginia bookstore. Each day a number of artisans are featured in their studios which adjoin the shops.
On our second day in Beckley we visited the Exhibition Coal Mine. We were curious to see whether it would be different from our tour last Spring when we visited an English coal mine. Here in Beckley a set of buildings, restored from former mines have been placed on the hillside: a church, schoolhouse, the home of the mine superintendent and a mine-worker's one room cabin. After exploring the buildings, enjoying the crisp Restored miner's cabin autumn air and brightly colored trees on the hillside, we climbed aboard the little train for our journey into the former coal mine.
Our guide, Sonny, who was that day's Fire Boss (meaning he had checked the mine for safety before the first tour went in), is a retired coal miner who says he has been lucky. He was never involved in a big mine cave-in, he has avoided black lung disease, and hasn't broken any bones. Now he works as a guide about seven days a month and clearly loves it. This mine was closed about sixty years ago and opened as a tourist attraction in the 1980s. The coal from the mine could have heated houses or factories. It was a higher grade of coal than much other, but the coal seam was only 30 inches high. Therefore the miners "undercutting" or chipping the coal from the rock wall, had to crawl and stoop to work. Then they could drill and plant just the right amount of dynamite and blast enough coal free to load two to six tons for a day's work, which paid $1.00 a ton to the miner in 1900. Today, says Sonny, they're advertising for miners, and the shortage will get worse, because the average age of a miner is 50. Today, says Sonny at the controls Sonny, a top paid miner can pull down about $150 a day. He believes that in the future coal miners will be drawn from the ranks of Mexicans.
In the beginning animals hauled the coal wagons out of the mines. Which animals depended on how high the mine was -- which in turn depended on how thick the seam of coal was. For a thick seam (they might run as thick as 12 feet, said Sonny) horses would be used, for others mules, ponies, or even goats or dogs. Of course all that changed when railroad tracks were laid into the mine and small engines hauled the coal cars, like the one Sonny drove hauling two wagon loads of tourists through the mine.
Sonny illustrated the development of mining technology and safety measures from the early dangerous days of canaries (who would die from lack of oxygen before people) and candles or carbide lamps which might trigger a methane explosion, to modern methane detectors and battery-powered $1 to fill it up lighting. He also turned off the lights to show us how dark a mine is.
Sonny says, Coal mining is Coal mining, wherever it's done. He has worked in West Virginia and, for a while, in Colorado and the circumstances don't change much, although with the development of the unions, the company store system has been closed down and pay has changed from piece work to salary.
Leaving Beckley, we took a long slow drive on Highway 16, called the West Virginia Coal Heritage trail. This road -- like all West Virginia roads -- winds up and down stream beds, with here and there a switchback to get over a hilltop. Every mile or so one encounters a tiny mining town -- almost all of them started out as company towns, with all the houses built by the company and rented to the miners. As Sonny had promised us, some of the miners houses were solid-looking brick buildings, and some were older frame structures. Often we saw the mine works near the town. An abandoned coal mine Mining is Monday to Friday work, and the miners may leave these towns for weekend visits to nearby Beckley or Bluefield, Virginia.
Applachia has always been known as an economically depressed region of the country, and in some places the houses are surrounded by yards full of junk. But it is our impression that West Virginians in particular have a strong affinity for their mountain homeland, and take pretty good care of it. One guest in the motel was looking for a place to live; he had grown up in West Virginia, later moved to Lake Worth, Florida for 18 years, but was happily returning to his home state. The maids and waittresses and hotel clerks all speak about the country with a great deal of affection -- even when the weather is damp and foggy.
We're glad, too, that our genealogical research will continue leading us back to this state -- Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.