Ghost in the Machine - Part One
“The story’s been undertold,” says Thomas Garner, Jr., President of the Mid-Lothian Mines & Rail Roads Foundation. There is a 230-year history behind this outpost of Richmond, beginning in the early 1700’s, the discovery period. Major American cities, including Philadelphia and New York, were supplied. Thomas Jefferson, from his Monticello estate in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, commented on the high quality of “Chesterfield coal.”
Garner talks of making a compelling site with parts “working synergistically.” Plans for other structures, such as an observation tower and museum, are taking shape, too, according to Foundation Director Peppy Jones.
The land escaped strip development and was supposed to feature a village green, but Garner says protection for developments downstream required a large lake instead. The headstock towers over this watery, quiet expanse.
Meanwhile, the work in progress is organic and enchanting. A footpath winds around the lake, leading to a small plot of land. Headstones, tilted and Tower-of-Pisa-like, sit in the shadows of cherry trees, shielded by a fence wrapped with honeysuckle vine. It is the resting place of the mine’s founders.
Continue to take the footpath, and a tunnel leads below ground before opening to a forest trail. The lake’s silence is replaced by the silence of stone ruins: this is the Grove Shaft, site of multiple deadly explosions. Peppy Jones, the Foundation’s Director, and Bryan Truzzie, a historic sites specialist, were on hand to tell the story of the mine’s ghosts. They spared no mechanical detail.
“Deep shaft coal mining was revolutionary,” Truzzie points out. Earlier, the fossilized stuff had been mined by digging the surface, leaving behind hundreds of pits. Deep shafts required ventilation and Jones tells of the dangerous bellows technique originally employed. Later, the Grove Shaft used fans and a series of vents.
Still, there were problems. A vent became blocked after part of the Grove Shaft’s structure crumbled. Jones describes a calm-before-the-storm event, with a group of workers taking lunch, getting up, re-entering the mine and turning on their headlamps—igniting trapped fumes.
Flooding was another menace. On a particularly disastrous occasion, Jones explains how a wall shared between two shafts allowed an explosion at one to let in water from the other. This incident attracted international attention, mostly due to the engineering wizardry used to empty what was then dubbed the Pump Shaft.
And there were less obvious occupational hazards, such as when the company’s superintendent poisoned both the founder’s son and son-in-law, and then embezzled $8 million. In a story with many “first time” moments, a deep seam of buried history can be detected.
Jones concludes his tour back at the headstock, where visitors regularly gather to snap pictures with their heads craned. It is difficult to disagree–the Foundation’s efforts to uncover an undertold story, filled with the admirable and the eerie, are looking up.