What's it like inside a coal mine?
The two sites I visited were the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon, South Wales and the National Coal Mining Museum for England near Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Though unique in location, most underground tours will provide you with similar insight in the routine of the job. Whether you're in the UK or Appalachian coal country, there's no doubt that mining is no small task.
To start off the underground tour of the coal pit, I'm asked to put on a helmet, a miner's belt and hold my cap lamp. So yes, I looked like your standard stereotypical coal miner for a second - sadly there weren't any photos allowed so you'll have to miss out on that image.
A group of about 15 people and myself are shuffled into an old, rusty elevator that's going to take us 300 feet down the mineshaft. To reach the bottom, it only takes about five minutes, but from there on, the only light we had was the small illumination from our cap lamps.
The tour began with a brief history of the coal mine and we were led along the shaft as the miners used to do on the cold, rocky path of the Earth. The temperature is chilly and smells very raw. Imagine shoving a handful of dirt in your face and constantly feeling like you're a little bit damp.
We're taught the different duties that were done underground from extraction to loading to the tasks that children used to do a long time ago pushing coal drams probably twice their weight.
There was a period where we were asked to turn our lights off and stand there in total blackness. A child who went underground for the first time would go with only a burning candle or an oil lamp. If either of those failed, they could sit there for hours in the darkness until someone came.
We're shown the tiny spaces you'd crawl through to get the job done day in and day out. (Don't recommend if you're claustrophobic) In Yorkshire, my guide made me go through the total motions of laying on the ground and crawling through a space I probably couldn't get through had I been 10 pounds heavier. He told me he wasn't going to let me come all the way from America to not get the full experience - and he was definitely right.
Past the horse stables and the transport wagons, we're brought back to where the tour started. We're brought back up the shaft into the real world where there's sunlight and wifi.
Sadly, I don't think I would've made a good coal miner. I had a hard time even adjusting my light and would pass out if I even came close to any rats scurrying the ground.
Until you can see for yourself the risk, danger and fear a miner would face in their job everyday, you can't fully appreciate these industrial heroes. A great history of difficult situations, mental and physical resilience and union power has kept in great memory the importance of the coal miner.
To learn more about coal mining, have a look at these books:
The Road to Wigan Pier - George Orwell
How Green was my Valley - Richard Llewellyn
King Coal - Upton Sinclair
Growing Up in Coal Country - Susan Campbell Bartoletti
When the Lights Went Out - Andy Beckett