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Lackawanna Coal Mine:
an underground photo-tour

by Gwyneth Cathyl-Bickford, colliery geologist, and Judith Harrow, photographer

Thousands of kilometres of abandoned mine tunnels underlie the city of Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania. Most of these old workings are now inaccessible for exploration, except for the workings of the old Continental No.190 Slope, which was reopened in 1985 as the Lackawanna Coal Mine for public touring.

In mid-October of 1999, we took a short holiday in eastern Pennsylvania, making day-trips from lodgings in Clark Summit on the northwestern outskirts of Scranton. Our first stop was the Anthracite Heritage complex in Scranton, consisting of the Lackawanna Coal Mine and the Anthracite Heritage Museum. The coal mine affords an underground tour of mine-workings, guided by an experienced mine-worker. We had the great luxury of taking the tour twice in one day: the first time with a retired coal miner, and the second time with a mining engineer. Our two guides offered markedly different perspectives on what it meant to work in a coal mine, and gave us the benefit of their two opinions on matters such as working conditions, workplace health and safety, and the benefits of mechanisation. Between our two excursions down the hole, we visited the adjoining museum (admission to one site affords a pass to the other) and learned about the social context and community heritage of the mining communities in and around Scranton. We also were privileged to have a visit with the mine foreman, Lee Ruch, in the hoist-room of the mine; it is not often that one gets to see the inner workings of mine hoists, which have their own peculiar mysteries.

Going down below

In preparing for the trip down the mine, visitors are offered the loan of windbreakers and hard-hats. Most visitors chose to wear the warm jackets, but passed on the opportunity to wear a hard-hat. In our two trips down the mine, we were the only visitors who chose to take such a basic precaution. The roof of the mine is sound and secure, and most unlikely to dribble rocks on an unprotected skull. But all the same, old workplace safety habits die hard...

Visitors wait for the mantrip in a screened porch. Once the mantrip is loaded, it travels down to track into the portal and proceeds about 400 metres down the mine's slope.

Portal of Continental Slope 190, the entrance to the Lackawanna Mine Tour The ride is surprisingly smooth, except for some bumps and starts near the slope bottom, where the track curves towards the bottom landing.

Over the portal, the sign says "#190 Slope", the original name of the mine entry.

The trip down the mine takes about two minutes. Everyone rides together in a bright yellow (and very clean) mantrip car, which runs on a well-laid rail track. The mantrip is lowered into the mine by a steel wire rope, which is spooled in and out from an electrically-powered hoist. Safety cables ensure that the mantrip cannot run away out of control in the unlikely event of a break in the hoisting rope.

The landing at the bottom of the slope is well-lit, surprisingly roomy, and securely supported by closely-spaced sets of steel I-beams.

The mantrip car has comfortable bench seats which can hold four across; its windows are screened with wire mesh as a safety measure, and it has its own headlights.
The mantrip car, waiting at the lower landing of the mine slope

Once the mantrip has arrived at the bottom of the slope, everyone alights onto the mine floor. All of the workings have some sort of flooring, be it crushed stone, concrete or closely-set boards. Although a working coal mine would have less-palatial walking surfaces, the smooth floors of the Lackawanna Mine allow for the possibility of wheelchair access, and certainly make for a more enjoyable stroll through the belly of the earth.

The workings at the slope bottom are 3.6 to 4.4 metres high, which to a collier from Britain or Vancouver Island would be sheer luxury. Roof support appears to be substantially overbuilt as compared with the apparent solidity of the mine's roof and walls. Considering that virtually none of the mine's visitors have any prior experience in underground mining, this is a prudent approach to safety.

One thing that is most surprising is the lack of roof-bolts within the mine. Our guides explained that roof-bolting was not permitted in Pennsylvania's anthracite mines, so timber and steel support is necessary. Here and there we find some small bolts set into the roof, acting simply to support wires, cables and pipes which must be suspended up out of harm's way. The roof itself is most often a hard sandy siltstone, sandstone or grit, quite a bit coarser that what one usually sees in a coal mine.

Railway tracks run throughout the accessible workings of the mine; most of these tracks are now only used to haul materials for repair or reconstruction of the mine, since it is no longer actively being worked. The mantrip cannot travel further into the mine beyond the slope-bottom landing, since it has no power source of its own, and it depends on the hoist at the top of the slope for its motive power. A stout buffer prevents runaways at the bottom of the landing.

Having a look around

From the landing, visitors can look further into the mine, both up and down within sloping rooms or 'chambers' driven on the coal bed, or along the level roadway which curves further into the hillside.

The working-places are capacious, perhaps too capacious for comfort. Piles of siltstone or sandstone 'gob' are left where they fell from the roof. Walkways are cleared alongside the rooms; lines of timber props support the cap-rock above the walkways.

Looking up into a chamber driven updip from the landing.  As we look up into the chamber, a mannequin clad in oilskins provides us with a sense of the great size of this room; it looks to be about 3.5 metres high and 6 or 7 metres wide.

In most places, very little timber has been used to support the mine's roof. The timbers look to be from 20 to 40 cm in diameter. The dip up from the level doesn't look to be all that steep, but looking down on the other side affords a more vertiginous view.

The timbers on the lower side of the main level look to be in better shape; perhaps they have been more recently installed. They are held in place against the roof by wooden wedges. The hard coal stands well alongside this room, with little sign of crumbling.
Looking downdip from the main level. A series of battery boards prevent the loose coal from sliding out of control.

A series of 'batteries', wide wooden boards, are installed between the posts that support the rooms. These boards prevent loose coal from sliding away in an uncontrolled manner.

The main level continues southward along the hillside. Heavy posts, bars and lagging support the roof. The posts are set an an angle across the pitch of the coal bed; this helps secure them in place against the possibility of a creep in the mine's roof. A barricade across the level clearly indicates the point beyond which we may not go. The level is lit by a few light bulbs, but it eventually curves away out of sight, leading the wistful geologist to wonder what lies beyond the corner.

Looking in along the main level, which runs further into the mysterious darkness of the mine. Fiberglass sheeting is used to redirect a watercourse away from the heads of unwary visitors. 

A string of lights leads into the further recesses of the mine. The main level gradually turns a corner as it follows a local cross-fold in the coal bed. Its end is lost to view. 

At the barricade, a display of machinery and equipment has been set up. Our attention is drawn to a stout metal tool-box, which looks to be so heavy that it could not possibly 'walk away' by accident or design. Some miner's tools are arrayed on the box's lid.

The oddly-shaped wrenches are perhaps meant for adjusting specific pieces of machinery, whose internal clearances are so tight that a straight wrench could not be used. As with everything else in this mine, these tools are robustly made.

Most of the tools look like they have lain here since the dawn of time. A patina of rust and stone-dust makes them blend in with the lid of the tool box.
A miner's metal tool box, and some robust-looking tools.

Some of the side-workings approach the main level so closely that the intervening pillars of coal are very narrow. Supplementary roof support in these areas is provided by stone-filled timber cribs or 'cogs'.

Cogs are much stronger than individual timber props, or even three-piece sets of props and crossbars. They take much longer to build, and are usually made by a team of two or three miners working together.

This timber cog is filled with rock, and provides very solid support for the mine's roof. The chalked numbers are a note from the mine's fireboss, indicating the most recent date on which this part of the mine was inspected.

Most of the weight-bearing capacity of a cog is provided by its rock fill. Usually this rock consists of material which has been barred loose from the mine's roof, but sometimes rock from partings within the coal bed is used, if these partings exist and consist of sufficiently-hard rock. The timber cribbing acts mainly to confine the rock fill, and takes a lesser proportion of the weight. Looking up the side of a cog, it is evident that the rock fill has been closely packed between the timbers.

This cog is built in crossed layers, three sticks per layer. Just enough room has been left to step alongside and inspect its side nearest the coal pillar.

The cog is about 1.8 metres square and 4 metres high. It probably took at least a day for its building.

Looking up the side of a cog, showing how tall it is.

During our tour, we pay a lot of attention to the mine's roof and its means of support. A well-maintained mine will have good roof support, and few broken or rotten timbers will be allowed to stay unrepaired for long. The one exception to this rule is in those parts of the mine which are being actively encouraged to cave, either in the course of depillaring, or to relieve pressure on more-important roadways whose long-term stability must be assured.

Having a strong coal bed helps, obviously. The anthracite in the Lackawanna Mine is mostly hard and strong, and its well-banded appearance shows up nicely as we inspect the pillars along the main level. This hard anthracite must be drilled and blasted in order to break it up into pieces that the miner can load. Knowing exactly where and how to drill the coal, and what amount of explosive to use, is where the miner's art comes into play.

Banded anthracite forms the pillars along the main level of the mine. Looking at the side of a pillar, with a wooden crossbar above us, we see banded  anthracite.

Banding in this coal probably indicates alternation of bright, clean layers with dull, dirtier layers. 

Nevertheless, this is a pretty fine sight to behold. The field of view here is about 1.5 metres. 

Sometimes the structure of a coal bed becomes more complex. Local 'rolls' or small folds are apparent in parts of the coal. These probably represent structures formed while the coal's precursory peat was still soft and plastic, and it could flow under pressure. Perhaps a channel-fill of gravelly sand further above the recently-buried peat increased the loading on the peat, and it flowed in response. Also possibly is that a channel-scour removed some of the overlying sediment, locally reducing the pressure on the peat, which would then flow towards the area of reduced loading.

We are looking up alongside the pillar's edge, into a roll within an overhanging part of the coal bed.

The geologist's trusty walking-stick serves as a convenient scale, indicating that our field of view is about 1.8 metres high.

A local roll in the coal bed, of the sort that keeps geologists thinking.

Walking across the measures

From the main level of the mine, we walk along a rock tunnel, driven across the coal-measures and gradually working into successively-older layers. Along the way we see several coal beds in the walls of the tunnel. These level workings are more expensive to construct, since they do not yield very much in the way of saleable coal while they are being dug. But on the other hand, they can vastly increase the accessible reserves within a mine, provided (of course) that the coals being sought are actually there and sufficiently thick to be worked.

Understandably, miners usually prefer to work the thicker coal beds first, but late in the life of a colliery their attentions are inevitably drawn to thinner beds that they passed by in earlier workings.

A thin coal, only about 75 cm thick, might still be considered mineable. Even a thin coal such as this one, might be workable if it was sufficiently clean and it had a decent roof and floor.

This coal is about 75 cm thick. It looks to be quite bright and clean. 

When a coal bed is cut by a cross-measures tunnel such as the one we are touring, it can usually be opened by level workings in both directions from the tunnel. Sometimes the miners will make a side landing on the coal, and then drive up and down along the full dip of the coal, to open up a broader area of workings. This might be done if rapid expansion of the mine's productive capacity was desired, but more often the new coal bed will first be 'proven' by following it in either direction with a pair of levels.

As a mine is further developed, a veritable maze of workings is excavated. Directional signs become increasingly important, especially if the workers must evacuate the mine by means of escapeways which lead through unfamiliar areas. The Lackawanna Mine is well-marked with such signs, and even if an accident befell the tour guide, visitors would be able to find their way out with little difficulty.

A 'second opening' to the mine is required by law. If something happens to the main exit, this escapeway affords a second chance for the workers.

The sign-board's message is clear enough, even if the miners cannot read English. An arrow indicates the best way to travel. The reflective signboard increases its chance of being read when smoke or dust fills the workings.
A sign shows the way out of the mine, via an emergency exit.

At the far end of the tunnel, a thicker coal bed is reached. This coal was entered late in the mine's life, and only a limited amount of work was done on it. Level roadways and rooms extending up-dip provide several working-faces in the coal. In this part of the mine, the dip was too low to allow the coal to slide unaided along chutes, so shaker-conveyors were used to get the coal down from the faces to the loading-points on the level. Shakers were most productive when the coal was being conveyed along level or descending workings, but they could throw the coal up-dip with reduced efficiency.

Shakers consist of a series of sheet-steel troughs or 'pans', which may be supported on flexible trestles or hung by chains attached to the mine's timbers.

Looking up-dip into a room which contains a shaker-conveyor. An extra piece of troughing lies upside-down along the right side of the room.

This coal bed has only a fair roof, and thus warrants more closely-spaced timbering. Some parts of the roof have scaled and slabbed away between timbers in the foreground. 

Shaker-conveyors worked by making a jerky, cyclical oscillation back and forth along the pan-line, causing the coal to bounce and slide along the pans. They were powered by compressed-air or electric motors, which made for efficient working. Still, they were generally so noisy that the miners were unable to hear the sounds of the mine's roof cracking or 'working', which increased the likelihood of being caught under a roof fall.

The discharge-end of a shaker was usually cribbed up on blocks, providing sufficient clearance to run a mine-car in underneath the conveyor to receive the coal.

What's missing from the drive unit? 

The drive unit has recently enjoyed a fresh coat of paint, but it lacks a drive belt. 

Perhaps the rats ate it?

The motor drive of the shaker, usually sited at its discharge end.

Coal mines need to have a back door

The second means of egress from a coal mine is usually one of its ventilation shafts or airways. All other things being equal, it's usually better to escape the mine by walking into the intake air current, since then it is less likely that you will be overtaken by smoke, flame or gas. In the Lackawanna Mine, ventilation air is provided by a wide-diameter borehole which extends down about 90 metres from the mine yard. A double set of fireproof steel doors provides an airlock at the base of the borehole, allowing people and equipment to pass from the tunnel into the workings near the borehole without causing the air-current to be short-circuited. The doors have been concreted into place, to make a better air seal.
An intrepid visitor enters the airlock through a set of steel doors. The notice on the airlock says "pull to open". Airlocks are made to close in the direction of air movement, so that they are less likely to be inadvertently left open.

The fireboss has chalked the dates of inspection on the other door. 

Where it is not necessary to pass through between two sides of a ventilation circuit, concrete-block stoppings are used to seal roadways. Concrete blocks are laid in mortar, and at least one face of the stopping (the high-pressure side) is usually plastered-over to reduce air leakage.

Although these stoppings are intended to be permanent, they are can be blown out by blast waves in the event of an explosion. This yielding feature reduces the distance that blast waves will travel through the workings.
Concrete-block air stoppings prevent the ventilation current from being short-circuited.

Heading back home

Eventually it comes time to leave the mine. Although an eight-hour stint is typical of a working mine, we've been underground just a bit less than an hour.

We retrace our steps along the tunnel until we come again to the landing at the bottom of the Continental #190 Slope. We board the mantrip car, and ride up the slope. Most of the slope is supported by closely-spaced steel sets. Each set is numbered, for convenience in reporting the need for repairs, or the location of service equipment.

Looking up the slope, through the steel sets that support its roof and walls. As we look through the front window of the mantrip we count down the numbers.

The widely-spaced lamps atop the sets indicate that we are about to follow the slope up around a curve to the left. 

As we ride the mantrip up the slope, the car's wheels squeal loudly while we round a curve in the slope. Although it's a noisy and bumpy ride, we are definitely on our way home. Near the portal, the slope is supported by segmental steel arches and corrugated-metal sheeting.

Daylight shines along the rails, and shows the three cables which are being wound by the hoist. The taut cable is actually hoisting the mantrip, while the loose cables on either side are there for our safety; either one could arrest the mantrip if the main cable were to break.
Daylight glimmers at the mouth of the slope.

Finally at the surface, we return our windbreakers and hard-hats with thanks. Our guide bids us farewell and goes into the hoistroom for a well-earned break. He hangs his hard-hat up on the wall, and plugs his lamp into a charger. Overnight charging brings the battery back up to full strength for the following day's work.

Headlamps are recharged overnight, by plugging the lamp into a charger. The headpieces of the miners' lamps provide their own connections to the battery charger.

The framed photographs show the crew that rehabilitated the Continental #190 Slope to make the Lackawanna Mine Tour possible. 

A telephone links the hoist-room to the mine. The phone equipment is specially constructed to be flame-proof and explosion-proof. Mine rescue equipment is also kept here, just in case.

About the photographs

Judith Harrow took the photos using a standard flash attachment on an Olympus digital camera. We asked permission of the mine foreman before taking the camera and flash underground; he assured us that it was both permissible and safe to do this, since there is neither significant dust nor explosive gas in the parts of the workings traversed by tour groups. Where electric lights were available, the camera angles were chosen to maximise the amount of light available to the scene. It can be clearly seen that some parts of the mine are quite dark.

Using flash equipment, let alone using light-metal cameras containing batteries, is not normally safe practice in a coal mine. Always ask first before taking such equipment into a mine, and obey the instructions of the mine officials.


Thanks to Lee Ruch, mine foreman at the Lackawanna Mine, for his hospitality in allowing us to take photographs in the mine, and answering our many technical questions.

Visiting the mine

The Lackawanna Mine Tour is located in McDade Park in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To get there, take exits 182 or 191-B off I-81, and follow the signs along Keyser Avenue. The mine is open from 10:00 until 16:30 Wednesday through Sunday  from May until October, but it is closed on state holidays other than Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labour Day. Tours take an hour, and cost $6.00 for adults and $4.00 for children.

The mine is not suitable for children under the age of 6, owing to the extensive walking required. Good walking shoes or boots are recommended. Light refreshments and souvenirs are available at the mine. For more information, telephone the mine on (570) 963-6463 or (800) 238-7245.

Pennsylvania has several other heritage sites and museums that document the history, social conditions, and technology of the anthracite industry. Details are available via the Pennsylvania's Anthracite Museums website.

The address of this document is: http://www.westwatermining.com/library/lacktour.html
This document was most recently revised on June 21, 2004. Photographs of the mine were taken in 1999.
Copyright to original text included herein is held by Westwater Mining Ltd., ©  2001, 2004.
Photographs are copyright by Judith Harrow, ©  1999, and are here used by her prior and explicit permission.
Distribution restriction: This document may be freely copied and distributed for educational purposes, provided that Westwater Mining Ltd. is duly credited, including a link to our web-site.
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