We’re beaming because our mine car had just returned from the dark and damp 300 feet below ground at the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in McDade Park in Scranton. If you’re in the area, it’s a place not to be missed. The tour is second only to the food and the hospitality the vultures experienced in Northeast Pennsylvania last week with our host Wendy (in green). It was the first leg of a major vulture-culture jamboree that included a trip to the Woodstock Museum in Bethel Woods, NY, and an exhilarating concert featuring YoYo Ma the next day.
But let’s stay with the coal mining daughters for a moment. Each of us earned a certificate for our 60 minutes of mine time, and though it was one of the more unique tours the vultures have taken, I believe we were happy to resurface and see the light after our close encounter with anthracite coal.
Once we bought our tickets and slipped on our jackets and sweatshirts, we crammed into the mining cars and headed down into Old Slope 190.The light and warmth vanished as we went deeper and deeper into the mountainside, and I believe each of us contemplated the men who spent their lives down below earning a living. The videos available in the lobby area nearby prepared us in advance for the Pennsylvania mining heritage and its perils. The 1959 Knox Mine disaster in nearby Pittston was the subject of one of the theater’s presentations and told the tale of 12 miners who died while inside the River Slope Mine. Miners working beneath the Susquehanna River bed were trapped when freezing water broke through the mine roof and flooded the area with 10 billion gallons of water. The grainy black and white newsreels from the rescue effort and subsequent prosecutions were a stark reminder to the risks miners assume each day. Even as a tourist, it’s nearly impossible to not feel the doom and gloom as you travel lower and lower into the earth and feel drips of water splatting against your head.
This was serious stuff below ground, but our guide, an actual miner who was a walking encyclopedia of mining practices and history, kept up a steady patter of information about miners’ jobs, conditions and the rich coal deposits of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite region, which occupy more than 400 square miles.
Not until you’re deep underground do you really think about the beauty and necessity of light. He recreated the amount of light available to miners in early days by dimming his head lamp and then he went one better–he killed all the lights. It seemed like an eternity for some of us (me!!!) but I’ll never forget the pitch black or the total helplessness I felt without a shred of brightness. A wee bit terrifying, yet many of the workers–children included–encountered the same scenarios when their headlamps failed. It was a hard-knock life for certain. The tour also exposed us to the varied working spaces below ground. While some blasted and dug and loaded coal while standing tall in large underground caverns, others labored on their hands and knees for their entire shift. Being in that spot, just for a moment, triggered our imaginations. Could we have done it? What must it have been like? Did you ever conquer the fear?
We’re happy because it’s about time to shove off for the surface. We’ll never forget this dark, dank cavern of coal or the people–our ancestors– who mined the fuel for a nation on the rise. As much as I’ve admired artwork on display at museums we visited during the past few years, this tour left me awestruck in a different way. There was no beauty here, just a backdrop of extreme danger and challenge. Day after day. Low wages. Long hours. I left wondering just how they did it.