was a warm, fall day when we went to the Lackawanna Coal Mine in
Scranton, Pennsylvania. We were excited to be going into
slope mine. Coal had stopped being mined in
1966 and now the mine is an area tourist attraction. This
was an anthracite coal mine that had layers of
between the coal
beds. The tour guide told us that
the sandstone made a strong roof. They stopped mining
here because it cost a lot of money to pump the water out of the
mine all the time and they couldn’t pump it into the river
anymore. This is because there are toxic chemicals in mine
water and the Environmental Protection Agency of our government
would not allow it to be pumped into rivers anymore.
First we got into
the bright yellow mine car on the right. This was
used to take the men down the slope and into the mine. It had a
very low roof, even for us. You could not stand up in the car.
We had no idea what we would find below. The first thing
we saw was that it was cool down there and we were very glad
that we had worn jackets. Mine temperatures stay the same
most of the time--even when it's really hot outside.
One of the biggest threats in a coal mine is the
natural gasses that form below the surface. Coal mines need to
have very good
ventilation or the miners will die from
inhaling the gas. This mine is set up for tourists and someone
goes down into the mine a couple times a day to check the gas
levels. It made us feel very glad to hear that until our tour guide
said that the gas level was at its worst in the morning because
the blowers were turned off at night and gas accumulated in the
mine. It was 10 o’clock in the morning.
Mines like this one use wooden
beams, or timbers, to
hold up the walls and roof of the mine.
Wedges, which are
triangular pieces of wood, were used to make the beam fit
tightly against the ceiling. The picture on the left shows
the beam and wedge.
There is a passageway through the middle of the mine
that is called a gangway. They used this to get the coal out of
the mine, to support the land above it, and to be a firebreak.
A firebreak is an empty space that is used to help stop fire
from spreading to the whole mine.
In this mine, rooms or chambers opened off of this
gangway. Pillars of coal form these rooms and support the
roof. Each room opened off the gangway but it also opened into
other chambers so that a miner had different ways to escape if
something went wrong in the mine.
A mine is “played-out” when the rock or mineral that is
being mined has all been taken out, or it would cost too much
money to keep digging for it. Mine engineers and owners figure
out how much money they can expect to get for the rock or
mineral before it is even taken out of the mine. Then they
figure out how much money it costs to pay the miners and run the
machinery and equipment. The cost includes things we never
think of like electricity, insurance, and other things like
gasoline. The engineers figure out how many hours and days it
will take to get a certain
vein mined and then compare it to
what they will get when they sell it. For example, let’s say
that the mine is coming to the end of its coal. An engineer
knows that the company will get $100.00 for a ton of coal—which
is just an example and not a fact. He knows that two men will
have to work for two days to get that ton of coal out because it
is a hard place to get to, water has to be pumped out first, and
the miners have to crawl to get to it. Let’s say the two men
each get $50.00 a day. This equals $200.00 just to pay the men
to get the ton of coal out of the mine. It doesn’t include the
electricity, insurance, and other costs and still goes over the
$100.00 that the company would get for it. In this case, the
mine owner would decide not to do it because it would
cost more to mine than he would get by selling it.
When the mine owner and engineer decide that it’s time
to stop mining, the
miners begin to chip away at the pillars of
coal that formed the chambers or rooms. Starting at the back of
the mine, they take the coal out of the pillars. This is called
“robbing the pillars.” Once you take the coal out of the
pillars, the roof begins to fall. This is why you do the back
first. If they started at the front, they would be trapped when
the roof fell.
Our tour guide told us that 70% of hillside mining is
done on the miner’s hands and knees or on their stomachs.
In the picture on the right, we see an example of this. We
saw chambers where we, as children, could not stand up. There
were life-size, make-believe miners set up to show the way coal
was mined. In some places, the ‘miners’ were lying down on their
stomachs or backs and chipping at the ceilings and walls. It
would have been a good thing to be small in coal mining!
As we walked along, there was
a damp, musty smell
everywhere even with
ventilation. The walls were damp or wet in
many places. In order to mine the coal, the walls were broken
into pieces that could be hauled out. The process for doing
that is this:
Holes were drilled into the coal. The miner
never knew what might be behind the rock or coal. Sometimes
it was very hard to drill.
Dynamite was put into the drilled holes and a
little sandbag was stuffed in after it. The sandbag is put
in so that the dynamite doesn’t explode towards the miner.
The dynamite has a rope-like fuse that is used to light it.
This fuse is long so that the miner can light it from a safe
Many holes are drilled and filled at the same
time and the fuses are wired together so that they can be
set off at the same time. The miner yells, “The Hole is
charged!” so that everyone knows to get to a safe place.
The miner will also use sign language because there is a lot
of noise in the mine with drills, machinery, and chipping
The fuse is lit and the dynamite explodes in
each hole. The object is to break the coal wall into chunks
that can be loaded up and taken out of the mine.
We found this interesting and
a couple of us were allowed to push the plunger down on a
make-believe dynamite explosion. There were explosion sound
effects! Mr. Ben, our tour guide, told the group that we made
him a little nervous because we obviously enjoyed ‘dynamiting’ a
little too much!
Mr. Ben told us that one coal miner dies each day.
This is a dangerous job with lots of things that can go wrong.
During work, miners listen for sounds that will tell them that
the walls or ceilings are going to fall in. We were told that
it sounds like the screeching of rock against rock and that the
pillar wedges break. If the roof collapses, the force of the
air knocks miners down if they weren’t already buried by it.
Methane gas is given off by coal in mines. It comes
out of the coal through breaks or holes in the coal. After coal
is broken up with dynamite, methane is given off and rises to
the ceiling. This is called
Fire damp. When air combines with
methane gas it makes a mixture that is very explosive. The old
gas lamps would blow up in the mines when they were around the
air-methane gas. Sometimes miners dig into a coal bed that has
lots of methane under pressure. This means that it was trapped
in there and couldn’t get out. The minute that the miners open
the coal bed and the methane and air combine, it could explode
rock right at the miner. Many miners died because this
Canaries were used to warn the miners of white damp, or
carbon monoxide. We tried not to feel sorry for the birds, but
it was really hard not to. Mines had a canary in them because
the birds would feel carbon monoxide right away. The birds were
colorful and kept in a cage that could be seen from far away.
Miners would check the canary to see if it was alive and well.
Then they would know that carbon monoxide wasn’t in the mine.
Unfortunately, if there was carbon monoxide there, the canary
It is the foreman’s job to check on mine gasses. After
Damp is what they call carbon dioxide. The bad thing about gas
is that most of the time it is colorless and odorless so no one
knows they are breathing it into their body. The foreman will
send the miners home if it is dangerous.
Donkeys or mules were used in mining. They lived in
the mine their whole life and were treated better than the men
were. Donkeys were used to pull the coal wagons out of the
mine. If they worked in a dusty mine, they might live from 8 to
10 years. They would live from 28 to 30 years if they were in a
mine with cleaner air.
As the men went to work, they ‘pegged in’ which was
signing into the section of the mine where you would be working
that day. This helped the fire boss keep track of who was in
the mine if an explosion or cave in happened. He would check
on the miners every few hours just to see that they were okay.
There were different kinds of chutes for the coal.
With the shaker chute, the miners chipped the coal from ceilings
and walls as they lay down. This was for places that were so
low that the men couldn’t stand. Then they took the coal and
put it into the chute. The chute was shaken from side to side to
help the coal move down and fall into the coal wagon. Sometimes chutes would get clogged with chunks of coal
that just wouldn’t slide down. This was dangerous for the miner
because he would try to kick it free. If nothing worked,
sometimes they would dynamite the chunks. This
might cause the
roof to cave in and trap them.
This mine had an air lock in it. A boy called a
nipper boy [to the left] would spend twelve hours a day opening the doors when
the coal wagons came through. The nipper boy was usually
between 7 and 9 years old. Kids worked in the mines a long
time ago. The nipper boy might fall asleep and not hear the
wagon coming. The wagon had lots of coal in it and was very
heavy so it would blast through the doors, pin the boy against
the wall, and kill him. Lots of little boys died that way.
Miners would work in darkness with only their headlamps
on. While we were there, Mr. Ben turned off the lights in the
mine. It was the darkest dark we had ever seen! If
case of a
fire, the miners know that they might need their headlamps if
they get trapped so they turn them off. Then they would walk
[in the dark]
right next to the right rail that the coal cars travel on and
follow it out of the mine. This was like a life line to them.
They would not leave the rail or they might get lost.
During our tour of this coal mine, we found out
lots of information that made us stop and think about mining.
When we came into the mine, we thought it was going to be an
exciting underground adventure. We didn’t realize that miners
had to stay in their chamber all day, were in danger every
minute they were on the
job, and then ended up with Black Lung
Disease. This disease is caused by breathing in coal dust every
day for years. A miner starts to show Black Lung after working
in a coal mine for five years. Mr. Ben said that after twenty
years in a mine, the miner would be very sick and need oxygen
all the time.
Today, machines do most of the mining except for poorer
countries that can’t afford the equipment. This makes a safer
place to work for miners. There are still mine accidents all
over the world and, even with machinery, we think it is a very
dangerous job. At the end of the tour, we were able to chip
off and pick up our own pieces of coal! As we got back into the
mine car that would take us back to the surface, we knew that we
would never forget this trip. We learned a lot about coal, but
more about the people who mined it. Miners are strong and brave
people who do a job that most people would not be nearly as strong or
brave enough to do.