PINEVILLE, W.Va. — The last workers underground rode to the surface at midnight on Wednesday, ending 49 years of constant work at the Pinnacle Mine in Wyoming County. It was a rather subdued ending to one of the longest running and most productive coal mines in West Virginia history.
“From the very beginning it had two portals, a way to bring the motors in and take the coal back out of the mine. They had two different slopes side by side,” said Clinton Collins who grew up in Iaeger, but now makes his home in Princeton. “Later they found a way to come through the mountain straight to the prep plant which changed everything again.”
Collins worked for 36 years, his entire coal mining career, at the mine which in its early days the mine was started by U.S. Steel and called “Number 50.”
“That’s unusual in any industry and I wasn’t the only one, there were a lot of us We came in there as a bunch of skinny kids and they made men out of us,” he said. “Throughout Wyoming, Mercer, McDowell, and Raleigh County, people came from all over to work there.”
Number 50 was considered the place to work for miners just starting out their careers in the 1970’s. Collins came there from high school in 1978. During his first week a foreman told him his son would work there.
“U.S. Steel had some wonderful engineers and solid planning. They looked at longevity. They expected to be taking coal out of there for a long time,” he explained. “My last year there I took my son on a mine tour and if he had wanted to work there, he could have.”
Collins and others who worked at the mine hold cherished memories of the place, but they say things changed dramatically over time especially when the operation changed hands. The long time employees say there was a strong sense of pride in production and the appearance of the operation back in those days. Fresh paint on buildings, mowed grass and landscaping around offices and entrances were a priority. During more recent times, the focus they say seemed to be more on production and little else.
“Doing it right the first time was the attitude when I came there, so we don’t have to do it again,” he explained. “As years went along, there was less of that and more about getting production up and if something goes wrong, we’ll deal with it then.”
Workers at the Pinnacle Mine have expressed frustration in recent days at the attitude of the current owner Mission Coal. Those workers say there was a failure to invest in the mine’s future, eventually leading to the permanent closure. Collins said the people with whom he worked in the 70’s and 80’s were willing to sacrifice to make sure the mine stayed open, productive and could be depended upon for a job.
“It put a lot of food on the table. A lot of young men and women became much more because of that mine,” he explained. “Several of my friends’ kids became doctors and other positions in life not even associated with coal mining because they were able to afford to put them through school.”
Collins’ son today is an I-T professional working in Seattle, Washington which he credits back to the wages he earned in the industry give him opportunities.
U.S. Steel was focused on technology and being on the cutting edge. The Number 50 was one of the first mines in southern West Virginia to utilize a longwall mining system. The forerunner of today’s longwall was known as a German Plow, which was purchased from a German company and set world records for coal production.
Many like Collins shared sadness to see the demise of old Number 50 this week. Signs at the entrance reflected the once proud heritage of the operation with production records, high safety scores, and the National Mine Rescue Team Championships in 2013. A trophy case in the bathhouse reflected proud moments in the mine’s decades long run.
Most of the 400 who will lose their jobs at the mine say they’ll move on and find other jobs, but for many who formerly worked there, a piece of southern West Virginia history and personal nostalgia is gone forever.
“I think the camaraderie, the family atmosphere, protection, and just making sure we had a job,” said Collins. “Those guys would do whatever it took to keep that mine operating and they sacrificed a lot.”