While most travelers are looking for the heights, luxury flights, mountaineering, seeing a city from the top of a skyscraper, visitors to the Scranton, Pennsylvania area can travel back in time to the underground history of coal mining. The Lackawanna coal mine tour takes groups 300 feet below the surface to catch a glimpse of life and death for the coal mine workers.
Guests gather outside the once abandoned and now restored coal mine and wait for the guide, who prepares the group for a 3-4 minute ride on a closed railway carriage at a significant slope to reach the depth of the mine. The temperature is constantly 53 degrees and the air is thick, but still helped out by ventilation openings. It is a carbon black world lit by onions for the tourist, carbide for the original inhabitants, anthracite coal miners from when the mine opened in 1860.
When visitors leave the railroad car, they are led on a half-mile hike through the mine and back in time to the impossibly stressful world of coal miners. The expert guides describe the history of the mine as well as its connection to the larger picture of American industry. Mines like these produce the natural resource that has given rise to the industrial revolution, without a doubt the most important era in human history.
Visitors learn about the process of extracting coal and bringing it to the surface. This in itself sounds like a cut and dry operation, but it is anything but the truth. The process was extremely dangerous with high mortality rates. The twelve-hour workday included breathing carbon dust, which caused other long-term hazards. There was a chance of structural collapse, fires, floods and suffocation.
The term canary in a coal mine is a real thing. Canaries were used to test the air quality in the mine. If the bird was alive, the air was safe to breathe. The trip even includes a stuffed canary. Another animal that shows up on the trip is a donkey. Donkeys were used to pull the coal wagons along a track and out of the mine. Both animals were critical to the success of the mine and its workers.
Although the trip praised the heroism of the miners and fought for their contribution to American progress, it did not try to sugarcoat anything. The models of the workers, some crawling through narrow openings, trapped under the ruins by a collapse or leading the coal wagons up the slippery slope of the paths to the open air. Some of these jobs were done by children long before labor laws protected their innocence and saved their lives. The tour guide solemnly includes the fact that when children died in the mines, their bodies were brought upstairs and placed on their parents’ doorstep.
The trip ends and the rail car rises into the track for sunlight. Before reaching the surface, guests receive a replica pay certificate. This puts it all in context. With an average of 21 cents an hour, one can return a little happier to return to work Monday morning.