A great out of the way stop is the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Museum in Beckley, W.V. We discovered it about five years ago and have returned many times since on our way to and from points east. Beckley is about 60 miles south of the state capital, Charleston, on the West Virginia Turnpike.
The route to the mine is well marked from the turnpike. A couple of miles of city streets lead to a valley containing the mine, museum, and a pleasant little RV campground on the hill (mountain) above. There are nice walking trails between the sites. A typical coal mining small town has been reconstructed consisting in a church, school, and several homes, and a museum next to a formerly operating coal mine. Guided tours of the mine are offered and take the visitor from the museum down a short walk to board the mine train.
The train engineer is a retired coal miner who narrates the trip to the passengers seated in several small mine cars. He wears a miner's hard hat and electric light. The train rolls into the mine portal past dripping water from the bedrock joints and cracks. The bolted ceiling is only about a foot above our heads, and coal seams jut from the tunnel walls as the train moves back into darkness. At a pause in the ride the engineer calls attention to two miners, mannequins shoveling coal from a recent blast into a small mine car.
Old mines used mostly hand labor, subsequently replaced by mechanized equipment — cutters, loaders, pneumatic drills, and bolting equipment. At other lighted stations in the mine the engineer explains the improvements in mining over several decades. He demonstrates the use of a carbide lamp which many visitors found very novel (but as cavers we have extensive experience using). The tour of a few hundred feet of the once-vast mine is about 35 minutes in length and thoroughly fascinating. Those with bad claustrophobia may want to see the many outside attractions instead of the mine.
A spacious museum devoted to coal mining history presents 3-D exhibits, a miner’s personal equipment, rescue breathers, and many pictures of prospering mines in the region's heydays. Among other gifts, the shop offers more kinds of fudge than are prudent to eat, clean restrooms, and a registration desk for RV travelers who want to spend the night or a few days in the tree-shaded campground located above the exhibition mine. Full hookups for campers up to big Class A units are surprisingly affordable. We highly recommend the friendliness of the campground hosts and the peaceful surroundings in an otherwise busy small town.
Just north of Beckley on the turnpike is Tamarack, a unique West Virginia center for the arts and crafts of the state. On a high setting overlooking a valley the unusual modern round folded-roof building houses a number of shops selling native crafts and art, plus working artisans. Want to build your own dulcimer? Butter churn? Or throw your own pot? Tamarack is worth several hours of careful inspection and maybe a delicious lunch. There are parking lots and we have heard of RVs parking overnight there.
In the valley below Tamarack is the Beckley travel center (Turnpike Service Plaza) with restaurants, transportation services, and an immense parking lot. We arrived there (from points east) late one dark night after a harrowing drive through what we later learned was the infamous derecho storm of summer 2012. Tree branches were blowing over all four lanes, and windshield wipers were set on full speed. In one place, a downed tree blocked one lane of the Interstate highway.
When we reached Beckley, Lynn insisted we stop for the night. It is hard to sustain white knuckle driving when wind gusts are shaking your vehicle and sheets of rain are overwhelming your windshield wipers.
We pulled into the oddly very full service center parking lot with our Roadtrek and parked while Lynn walked up to the building, marveling at why so many people were out in the middle of the night in such nasty weather. She reported massive lines of people at the restaurant – why was everyone eating at midnight?
It never occurred to us that it was because it was the only place for miles around that had any power. Apparently many had been stuck in traffic on the turnpike since before dinner time. We were not the only travelers camping that night in the parking lot, but we were snug in our comfortable beds with a furnace, lights, and food to ride out whatever the storm might bring. We are always thankful that comfortable housing lies just behind our front seats. Those poor souls trying to get a little shuteye in the car seats of wind-shaken vehicles were the unlucky ones that night.
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