Monday, July 29, 2013

Somerset, PA. What's theirs is mine...coal mine, that is.

I got a call yesterday. Apparently the father of some friends of mine was using his tractor in his farm field when suddenly the front wheel sunk into a hole that opened up beneath the machine. It took another tractor to pull it out, and once the tractor was out of the hole, they could all see that the hole was actually subsidence into a long-closed coal mine beneath their land. Visible at the bottom of the hole: a tunnel.

Didn't take long for my phone to ring. They wanted it checked out for possible salvage or mining artifacts and they only knew one person who might be willing to drop down and reconnoiter a bit: Yours truly.

So this morning, I fired up the plane and took off, destination, Somerset, PA. The whole area is honeycombed with old mines and it's notable for the rescue effort that freed nine trapped miners a short distance away at the Quecreek mine in 2007.

I had a nice flight over. Took about an hour thanks to a headwind. (Click on the pics to make them bigger.)
The airport at Somerset, (2G9).

A short drive to the farm, then after I changed into my working gear, it was just a couple of minutes up to the mine.

Now let me pause the narrative for a moment for a bit of background. I've done this sort of thing before. A lot. In my younger days, I used to haunt several fairly extensive old mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. During one summer of grad school, I worked week-ends for a fellow in Colorado who owned a mining museum and he paid me pretty good cash to head out to old mine locations, find or make openings into the mines, and scavenge the tunnels for anything recognizable as a mining artifact. It was hard work and dangerous, but I relished playing Indiana Jones every week-end and I got a real kick out of exploring those old mines, some of which were last worked by men whose kids and grand-kids are now likely dead of old age. I got pretty good at recognizing that hazards in these mines, though not without a few very close calls alone in the dark, sometimes hundreds of feet below the earth or half a mile back into a mountain. These old mines are always dangerous and even if you're wide awake and paying attention, there's still the good chance of finding an unstable timber, a covered winze (vertical shaft in the floor) or a pocket of bad air with your name on it. Old mines are deadly and smart people stay OUT of them.

That said, even though I'm older and ostensibly smarter myself, I couldn't pass up at another trip down the rabbit hole. We shook hands on a deal for a 50/50 split if I located anything and I was gone.
About thirty feet down the ladder, I landed on the pile of muck that used to be the roof in this part of the mine. sliding down the pile into a couple of feet of not-at-all-warm water, I found myself in what was obviously a haulageway, or the main tunnel into and out of the mine workings. This jived with what the farmer had told me about seeing the entrance of this mine blown shut back in the early thirties when he was a small boy. That entrance was nearby and in line with this hole and the passage beyond.
This shot I got maybe a hundred feet or so back in. (What am I doing down here? Its been fifteen years since I've been underground. I'm old now and I know better.) The water was over knee deep and the floor was a deep, sticky muck that threatened to suck my shoe--and my left leg--off with every step. The ceiling was only a couple of feet above the water, making the tunnel about 4-5 feet high and 10-12 feet wide at this point. There were lots of old timbers, some still standing and some on the bottom of the tunnel under the water. Predictably, one of those tripped me up in sort order and I took a bit of a bath. I survived but the GoPro camera went right into the muck, so that put an end to the pictures. Equipment-wise, I was carrying the camera on a head strap, four separate light sources, and an oxygen tank. Please don't think that I was just down there with a Mag-Lite. The oxygen tank came into play a few minutes later when I came upon a rib of rock that make up the roof and extended down to within a foot of the water. The only way past it would have been to crawl/swim under it, and that was a bit more than I was up for on this first trip. Then as I sat there, peering down into the tunnel and trying to see what was there, I started feeling the creeping onset of oxygen deficiency. That settled it. I switched on the oxygen, put the mask on, and worked my way back out. I climbed out soaked and covered in mud and pronounced the mine a death trap that's best filled in immediately. The farmer wasn't too happy, as he believed that there were old ore cars and tools back in there--antique-store gold--and here I was, telling him that I doubted that such stuff had survived in that wet environment, and even if it had, the air quality issue was putting it forever beyond reach. But he was a good sport about it, and he and his wife hooked me up with a great home-made lunch, and then it was back to the airport and off again. "If you find another one tomorrow," I told them, "let me know and I'll be back."

After lift-off, I just had to go see the Flight 93 Memorial, just 4.5 miles from the airport.

I was at the first temporary memorial back in 2007. I have to say that I think that I liked that one better.

Then it was homeward.

I passed over this abandoned airport.
While the idea of a touch-and-go was tempting, the winds were not to be trifled with today and I'd probably pushed my luck enough. I flew on.

Windmills, just east of Somerset. They're everywhere in this area. Cessna-swatters.

Tailwind. I be whipping.
And don't laugh at my archaic avionics stack. It's paid for.

Someone's private grass strip.

A small church and it's graveyard.

Sideling Cut, where I-68 passes through the mountains in the WV Panhandle.

Berkely Springs, WV.

I came in and got cleared for landing just as "Decoy 01 Heavy" called 10 miles out. That's one of the Air Guard's C-5 Galaxys, and they come in a lot faster than I do. He was already gear down in final as I touched down, and he landed just as I turned off of the active runway, before I could even think about getting him on video.

But here he is, stopping.
And here he is, taxiing up to the parking area on their side of the field.

It was a good day, even if the mine was a bust. But I had to check it out and see, otherwise I'd be lying awake tonight wondering what treasures and adventures I'd missed.


  1. Well, while I understand the thrill of the adventure and would probably partake myself, I enjoy reading your blog too much to not issue a heartfelt "be careful".

  2. @ Juvat: Honored I am, Sir. And always careful. I'm not as invincible as I used to be.

  3. Do you take a multi gas meter with you when you do a entry?
    With that wet condition down that hole I was thinking about iron rusting and using up the O2.
    In addition to whatever else is floating around down there.

  4. Careful yes... Please!!!

  5. Careful please! I need an excuse to return to Banjo Country!

    Oh, the avionics stack? If you lose both magnetos you can still wind them up, right =)

  6. +1 on the careful - though I fully agree with the allure of a hole in the ground.

    In the late '80s and early '90s, my Dad & I hunted and hiked many times in an area pocked with crumbling mineshafts from the Ferris-Haggarty copper mine in south central WY. The mine went bust in 1908, but at one time had the longest (16 miles) aerial trams to haul ore to the smelter.

    Every time I came across one of the shafts, I thought how interesting it would be to explore inside.

  7. You make clanking sounds when you walk brother.

  8. Found you! (sorta),-78.282309&spn=0.029347,0.055747&t=h&z=15

  9. Seems to me that they need to punch at least one more hole into that old mine shaft. Can't get airflow to freshen up the air quality with only one.

    Alternatively, perhaps an air compressor (breathing quality) and hoses and mask. Maybe a small raft to float you as far as possible.
    And a backup air tank. Wetsuit/drysuit?
    Maybe a wifi hub at the entrance, for a camera system.
    Maybe you could do an R/C boat with on board camera for initial scouting. Wonder if you could drop repeaters for long distance, or turns?
    I'd be looking at building some sort of amphibious R/C scout vehicle if you really want to get back into this. Hey, second part-time career for you!

  10. Is that abandoned field an old .mil type? Crossed runways makes it look more substantial than average.

  11. @ Jon: No meter this time around. This was just a quick exploratory. Had it appeared more promising, I'd have been back with more equipment, including an O2/CO/CH4 meter.

    @ Will: No idea as to the airport. It's not on my charts. Looks too small to be old military though--not enough surrounding structure.

  12. Used to crawl into the old gold mines around Great Falls, MD, after rose quartz. Until the Park Service finally managed to find and close all our access holes.

    I'm thinking 80 years and wet means that any wood would be rotting out, just metal left.