Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 27, 2013

A glimpse underground

Pocahontas native shares stories of coal mining with exhibition visitors

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

POCAHONTAS, Va. — Exhibits featuring coal miners’ equipment and photographs of them give visitors a glimpse into a miner’s world, but being able to talk to somebody who actually earned his living in the mines offers an even greater appreciation of a world they never knew. This is what volunteer tour guide Raymond Comer gives visitors coming to the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine.

Back in 1996, Comer was asked by his friends in Pocahontas, Va., to be a tour guide for the mines. He now lives in Glenwood, but he can recall the more than 30 years he spent in the Pocahontas, Va., area. His children are graduates of Pocahontas High School.

The exhibition mine was created in 1938, the same year Comer was born.

Now retired, he sat down on one of the mining machines on display near the entrance and remembered how he started his underground mining career.

“That’s what I’ve done about all my life,” he said. “I worked for 40 years in the mines; I worked 30 years for U.S. Steel.”

Like many men who turned to coal mining as a way to make a living, Comer started at an early age.

“I was 15 years old. I quit school and went to work in the mines. I didn’t like it (school), you know. I wasn’t doing any good there.”

Forty years of coal mining gave Comer plenty of information and stories that he shares when visitors come to the exhibition mine.

They often want to know what miners ate while they were at work. Coal miners usually carried their lunches in steel lunch buckets. Sometimes the visitors have heard that smart rats could get those buckets open, but Comer will tell them the story is an “old wives’ tale.”

“Rats, they can’t open a dinner bucket, but I’ll tell you want they’ll do; if you carry a brown paper bag, they’ll get into that,” he explained. However, carrying a lunch bucket was not always possible. Miners who have to crawl through narrow passages cannot carry the bucket with them.

Comer learned to get around this problem by getting some wire and hanging his lunch from a beam. If a rat reached your lunch, it wasn’t going to leave anything behind; if you had two sandwiches, it was going to eat both of them.

Miners got used to rats the same way they adjusted to working underground with only a carbide headlamp as light. Comer said sometimes he would feel something on his leg, look down and see a small rat. What would he do? He just swatted it away and kept working.

The rodents were sometimes a good indicator of methane, Comer said. There were other ways to detect the explosive gas.

“You can hear methane, a hissing sound coming through the rocks,” he said. Sometimes strong pockets of the gas would suddenly come into the mines. Almost every coal mine experienced an explosion; special crews would ignite the gas to burn it off. Comer said he managed to avoid injuries.

“I was a blessed man on account of that — never lost a day’s work over being hurt. They still get a lot of people killed today; there’s no cause for that, no cause for people getting killed,” he said.

When Comer started working in the coal mines, there were few options for earning a living. Cutting timber was another source of jobs, but it had its drawbacks.

“When I was growing up, coal mining was about all there was,” he recalled. “We had coal mines and we had logging. Back then, they cut a lot of mine timbers, and you were either cutting timbers or working in the mines. And the mines were a lot easier.”

Loggers didn’t have chain saws or other modern tools. Cutting timber was dangerous work, and it required hand tools and brute strength. Comer took a logging job and stayed with it for two weeks. Using two-man saws to cut wood was just too physically draining.

“I said, ‘I’m going back in the mines.’ It was tough.” He smiled. “I’ll tell you one thing, you pull on that thing (saw) all day, and boy, it makes your beans taste good.”

Going underground to dig coal might not sound like a good alternative to working outdoors, but Comer said you learned to adjust.

People growing up in coal country often learned to go underground at a surprisingly early age.

“Working in the mines is like any other job. You grow into it. When I was raised, we went underground and dug our own house coal when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Comer said. “There would be a few families that would get together, and we would open ourselves up a mine. I thought it was crazy, buying a ton of coal.”

Sometimes families would obtain the coal they needed by getting it off “bone,” or rock attached to coal. This rock was picked off by hand, but workers often missed some, he said.

Sharing these memories with people from across the country and even the world is one part of Comer’s tours at the mine.

Sometimes he has gone into the mine with interpreters so visitors who do not speak English can follow the stories. There have also been instances when interpreters used sign language so Comer could share his recollections and information with the hearing impaired.

The Pocahontas Exhibition Mine will have a grand opening ceremony at 1 p.m. today, according to Mayor Ben Gibson.

The mine’s museum will be open, but the mine itself will still be closed. Work is currently underway inside the tunnel, he said.