Gnadenhutten Museum and Historic Site
Harrison County History of Coal Museum
Inside the Museum
Strip Mining Operation
Library of Congress
Coal Mine Mule and Handler
Library of Congress
  Although the Harrison County History of Coal Museum’s display area isn’t especially large, it is filled with artifacts such as a mine car once used in the Ohio & Penna Coal Company as well as equipment used by miners. Hats with lamps mounted in front were sometimes family heirlooms passed down from father to son to grandson, even when more modern ones that offered better head protection existed. In the days before the electric lightbulb filled a hat’s lamp, open flames were used. To help prevent them from igniting explosive gas, they were enclosed in glass or behind a screen. Later the methane detector was used to prevent explosions. Canaries and other birds were replaced with carbon monoxide detectors. Mine inspectors used the anemometer to check the air flow.
   There is much about mine workers and their lives, including one unsung member: the mule. Although one might think the electric locomotive would have replaced this hardy animal in the twentieth century, such was not the case. They were still being used as late as the 1950s. Many mines employed electric locomotives to move the cars in the main line and mules to pull them in the side tunnels. Mules were preferred over horses because they could be hitched single file rather than side by side, they were hardier, not as likely to spook, and ate and drank less.
   Mining mules were specially bred for this purpose. Like humans, each had a distinct personality and its own quirks. Some mules could be controlled by patting them on the head while others needed severer methods of control, including use of the outlawed whip. Most were treated humanely because their handlers became attached to them. Some mules only worked well for a particular handler. Others refused to work until receiving a ration of chewing tobacco.
   In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mines were filled with immigrants who spoke a babel of languages, meaning mules often only responded to commands in a language other than English. One mule in Gary Hollow, West Virginia, was limited to Italian. When not working, mules were kept in underground stalls. Here rats had a habit of eating the mules’ food, and when efforts were made to prevent the rats from doing so, they got vicious and gnawed on the mules’ hooves. The mules didn’t take kindly to this, so finding a room full of dead rats tramped to death was not unknown.
   In the darkest part of the mine the lead mule had a headlamp. Despite sometimes being kept underground for years at a time, when allowed into daylight, mules were surprisingly quick to regain their outdoor eyesight. What they didn’t like was eating the grass now available beneath their hooves. Most only worked for two to three years before being retired. When hurt too badly for recover, stablemasters put them down. Sometimes mules broke free from their chains and, while dragging them, accidently made contact with an electric rail, resulting in electrocution.
   When I discovered the museum had a little theater, I asked a librarian if there was something to watch in it. There was. A few other visitors and I sat down to view Coal: The Inside Story. Although it is really just a public relations piece produced by American Electric Power (AEP) in 1989 with the purpose of putting coal and its production in a heavenly light, it’s nonetheless very informative. I learned all sorts of new coal mining jargon in general and about strip mining in particular. Overburden, for example, is all the earth removed to get at the coal.
   Strip mining is only economical when the coal is close to the surface. Its history in Appalachia goes much further back than one might expect. The area’s earliest white settlers stripped the land using draft animals dragging scrappers, but the impact on the land and the ability to go deep were limited. It wasn’t until the introduction of power equipment such as the steam shovel that it would be done on an industrial scale. The first steam shovel used for strip mining was employed in 1877 near Pittsburg, Kansas. Within a few years these machines appeared in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields, but strip mining was only viable on flat land.