On the forest floor behind a country churchyard near the forgotten village of Winterpock, Virginia yawn two deep holes. One is covered with a square frame of concrete and a metal grate. The bottom is underneath somewhere, but it’s concealed by the tapering shadow the shaft’s walls cast. The other pit is open and you can see where it ends, but that’s many body lengths down and the sides leading there are steep enough that you’re not inclined to get too close to the edge.
The Bright Hope Shafts
You’d not find these holes unless you were looking for them; there are no clues of their out-of-the-way existence. The dense thicket is almost impenetrable except in winter’s dormancy. The trees that have grown around them are still and silent, an anonymous woodlot. You’d never guess that here occurred the deadliest mining accident in Richmond’s history.
I wrote last week about the early efforts to extract coal from the little-known Richmond coal basin. The discovery of coal in the heart of Virginia’s Piedmont began a scramble for power and profit, and by the middle of the 18th century industrial operations rimmed the diamond-shaped seam near the capital city. Chesterfield County, south and west of Richmond, was the heart of Virginia coal country long before railroads opened the vast seams in Appalachia, and the traces that miners left behind sit abandoned, unacknowledged all over Chesterfield and adjacent counties.
An explanation for why these mines are mostly forgotten lies in the joyless vocation they offered–especially for the slaves who worked them before the Civil War. Being sent to the mines was a punishment for recalcitrant slaves. Even after the Civil War men worked the mines because they had to, because there was little other steady employment in a landscape and economy that had suffered from long years of economic hardship.
With many of the near-surface deposits of coal worked out, mine shafts became deeper and miners picked at the seams far beneath ground level. In 1818, a scientific observer descended a 350-foot shaft in Chesterfield County owned by Harry Heth and described the layout underground: a principal gallery, or tunnel, of 1,350 feet was intersected at right angles by shorter galleries where miners chipped away with pickaxes at the face to remove the coal. The underground passages were dank and dismal, the black miners strange in dress and appearance.
Being in the mines was a constant threat to life and limb. Fatal accidents–roof falls and asphyxiation, for instance–were routine. Explosions often occurred when miners’ headlamps ignited the methane that hissed from the freshly-cut coal. In 1839, 55 miners died at the Black Heath pits in a blast so violent it blew the framing timbers that lined the shaft 100 yards from the mouth.
The two portals behind the church in Winterpock were once the rosily-named Bright Hope (or Brighthope) Shafts. Bright Hope coal was in demand; the rock stayed in large chunks and was ideal for cooking and heating. All that energy came at a dear price, though.
The Abandoned Landscape at the Bright Hope Shafts
Scores of miners descended these shafts daily, deep into the bowels of the earth. One of the vertical tunnels was near 900 feet deep, and a couple boilers at the bottom provided the power necessary to keep the mine functioning. Ventilation of the mines was a tricky task requiring engineers to open and seal off various underground passages. If some error, some obstruction compromised the movement of fresh air around the workings, volatile gasses accumulated with terrible consequences.
In 1859, nine men died in an explosion at Bright Hope. That death toll was merely a precursor to grislier episode, though; eight years later, in 1867, an underground blast killed 69 miners, the greatest single loss of life that the Richmond basin’s mines encountered over two-and-a-half centuries.
But you wouldn’t know it to look at Bright Hope today. There are no memorials, save the overgrown and caved in pits themselves. The grate, a protective covering, keeps some foolhardy thrill seeker, maybe, or some unknowing child from falling into the collapsed shaft. There’s no indication here of what a dreadful scene this must have been a century-and-a-half ago. There are pits like this where men died all over Chesterfield.
Some of the few reminders at Bright Hope…rocks miners left behind
There is, however, one memorial to the dear price men paid to extract Richmond’s coal. Mid-Lothian Mines Park opened in 2004 on the site of the ruins of the Grove Shaft, where miners once descended more than 1,200 vertical feet underground. The park holds the teetering ruins of the buildings erected to support the workings here. Towering piles of unwanted tailings line the paved and graveled trail. Someone threw his old Christmas tree in a rusted mine car. Even with the forest that has grown here for nearly a century it’s possible to get a sense for how drastically modified a landscape Richmond’s coalfields were.
Scenes from the Grove Shaft at Mid-Lothian Mines Park
Like Bright Hope, the Grove Shaft encountered its share of deadly explosions. 32 miners lost their lives in one blast in 1882. Poor ventilation and flammable gasses were the culprit. Families rushed to the shaft awaiting word of their loved ones, but when it became clear that rescue efforts were futile, families wailed and wept openly and a scene of harrowing grief blanketed the mine.
Unlike the Bright Hope pits, suburbia has fully enveloped these mines. Neat back yards jut up to the park’s boundaries, so close you can hear the electric hum of their air conditioning units. The coal that makes those machines run comes from distant mines despite billions of tons of it directly underneath them. Once railroads linked the Appalachian coalfields to the power-hungry consumers of the east, Richmond’s coal proved too costly in lives, money and effort to be a viable option for the energy that the growing suburbs demanded.