Jim Thorpe’s story began 250 million years ago when Carbon County was a densely covered swampy plain. During this period the materials were put in place that, over time, became anthracite – a geological event that would shape the future of the region.
Anthracite, the fossilized remains of vegetative matter, is a hard coal that was once treasured because it burns almost smokeless. If you know anyone who still has a coal chute in their cellar, their home was probably heated with anthracite at one point. Anthracite was discovered in the Lehigh Valley in 1792. Because anthracite is very labor intensive to mine as compared to other coals, it has gradually fallen from favor. The last anthracite mine in the Lehigh Valley closed in 1972, but was recently opened to the public as the No. 9 Mine & Museum. It was a hot day when we visited, and the year-round 54-degree temperature sounded tempting!
We were greeted by two volunteers who seemed old enough to have attended the grand opening of the mine in 1820. While we waited for a suitable number of tourists to arrive (tours are not given on a set schedule), we gave ourselves a leisurely tour of the "Wash Shanty" museum, where the clothing of up to 450 miners was once stored and cleaned. The building now houses numerous mining artifacts from the area.
The tour was worth the wait! We were given warm jackets emblazoned with the company logo, and ushered into a freshly painted original train that our guides expertly drove out of the sunlight and into the dark tunnel leading to the mine.
Contrary to popular belief, one does not 'descend' into the mine. The train pulled us up a 6-degree slope, which would have been a nice gradual downhill for the mules that once dragged the heavy coal wagons out of the mine. After a few minutes we stopped. Daylight was just a memory as we disembarked in the damp, dark tunnel.
We were lucky to have as our guide Dave Kuchta, the founder of the non-profit organization that built the Museum. Dave spent many years restoring the abandoned mine and making it safe for tourism. Although he modestly claimed not to be a miner, he and his crew spent almost a year digging a several hundred-foot escapeway to satisfy Federal safety requirements. Dave was full of entertaining stories, like the one about the mule that was so smart he could count, and would refuse to pull more than three wagons full of coal at a time. If he caught you hooking up a fourth wagon, he’d stop in his tracks until it was removed. Dave also confirmed for us that canaries really did have a place in the coalmines, though they were notoriously imprecise as measures of air quality. This didn’t prevent miners from using them for testing up until the 1970s.
The "heart" of the mine is the elevator shaft that took miners and coal bins up and down to the four levels of the mine. This was no muzak-filled, wood-paneled closet – the "elevators" were nothing more than metal frames from which were suspended metal rings that the miners had to hang from. If they got an itch, they could forget about scratching it. The shaft was filled with rubble when the mine was abandoned, but was painstakingly dug out by the restoration crew. It is the only intact anthracite coalmine elevator remaining today.
Like the Quecreek mine that filled newspaper pages this past winter, the No. 9 mine is a wet mine. Dripping water combined with minerals in the earth to create a palette of contorted colors and formations on the walls.
In the photo below you can see the mine's "hospital", which held medical supplies but no doctors or nurses to help the miners when they were injured. It is built directly into a coal breast, and hasn't changed much since it was built in the 19th Century, except for the addition of electric lights. Not the kind of place you’d want to be taken after an accident.
The cheery little yellow train creaked on its rails as Dave and his assistant drove us back out of the mine. Water gushed in thin but urgent trickles from the occasional opening or crack in the walls, forming little rivulets next to the tracks. We shuddered. Emerging from the tunnel into the bright summer day, we shed our brown jackets and blinked away the darkness, happy to be free of the unspoken weight of the earth above our heads.
No. 9 Mine & Museum
9 Dock Street, off Route 209
Admission to Mine and Museum $7
Mine open May-November - tours Fri-Sun 10am-4pm