USA Today named Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine one of the top 10 history museums in the United States.
The Coal Mine, which takes visitors underground through a coal mine and then on a tour of a historically accurate coal camp, is in New River Park and attracts around 50,000 visitors a year.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Coal Mine exhibit.
It is one of the smallest museums named on the list, and Beckley is the smallest town to feature in the Top 10.
The local museum is ranked #8, above major museums like the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Ark.
“It’s such a landmark for our 60th anniversary,” Parks and Recreation Director Leslie Baker said Tuesday. “It reminds me of the trustees of our city back then, 60 years ago, when they first gave this property away, and they were thinking of developing a park, New River Park, and they thought we should do something with this old abandoned coal mine.
“That probably couldn’t be done today,” she pointed out, referring to stricter federal guidelines regarding abandoned mines.
The mine was formerly owned and operated by the New River Company, which donated New River Park and the abandoned mine to the city in 1962.
Mayor Rob Rappold’s first job was for the town of Beckley in 1962. The town’s director of parks and recreation was the late Frank Rodriguez, a friend of the Rappold family who died at age 93 on March 13.
Rappold remembers his first boss as a humble, patient man who had nine children. The mayor was 16 when Rodriguez hired him.
“He offered me a job that was basically mowing the grass in the summer at New River Park, long before the pool was even a dream,” Rappold said, referring to the sprawling New River Pool. “So we had big open areas there to stay maintained, and it was a great playground for the kids coming through New River Park.
“Frank was the pioneer, in my mind, to work with the New River Company on the idea of a show mine and create the show mine so visitors could see what mining was like. mining in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The mine was not yet open to the public in 1962, but Rodriguez’s team was carrying out “trials” in the mine to ensure visitors would be safe.
“So it was wonderful, if I remember correctly, after cutting the grass in the hot summer sun around 1962, when we were called into the show mine to help a car that had derailed to get back on track,” recalls Rappold.
Rappold left his mower to enter the mine with other park workers. A train car had derailed and city workers used a lever and “what little muscle power” the mayor had, he said, to put the cars back on the tracks so the mine could get out of the way. open to the public.
“If it was 85 or 90 degrees outside, it was 50 degrees inside, underground,” recalls Rappold. “So I always looked for a chance to come in and help.”
Rappold remained friends with Rodriguez for life.
Rodriguez was in a veterans nursing home in the northern part of the state in his last years of life. About six years ago, Rappold said, Rodriguez called Barbara Rappold, Rappold’s wife, and asked her to send him a brochure of the Mine exhibit.
“He said, ‘I’m in a nursing home here, and I want to hand out these pamphlets to people I’ve become friends with, to see what I did when I was younger and what I’ve got. brought to Beckley with the Mine exhibit,'” Rappold said.
“So Frank was very involved in the creation of the mine and the whole concept of working with New River Company.”
Rodriguez died days before his beloved Exhibition Mine was named to USA Today’s Top 10 History Museums of 2022 in the country.
“Frank was a pretty humble guy,” Rappold said. “He was like, ‘I was in the right place, at the right time, I had innovative ideas that worked,'” Rappold said. “I’m paraphrasing what I think he would say.
“He’s not a guy who… is looking for a pat on the back. But he did great things for the city of Beckley.
Rappold credited Baker and his employees for the progress of the show mine. Baker improved the mine by working with a local mining company, which helped reinforce the roof, ribs and sidewalls of the mine to keep it strong and safe for years to come.
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” the mayor said. “And what a tribute to all that this happened.”
The exhibit mine educated thousands of visitors from other states about the importance of West Virginia’s coalfield culture, the historical significance of fossil fuels, and the important role that the people of the state of mountains played in the building of America, according to Baker’s statements.
“They really don’t know anything about our unique culture,” she said of the visitors. “They have no idea how the history of coal mining shaped this nation and then shaped the people of our region.
“Our story is unique. By going underground and then visiting the houses, they really get a sense of what our customs and our communities are like, and they go away all amazed that they didn’t know it before,” she explained.
“So we’re really educating these people.”
She said the other visitors are locals who often reconnect with their history after visiting the mine and coal camp.
“They say, ‘You know, my grandfather was a coal miner.'” Baker said. “That kind of reinstilling pride in hearing about their heritage and what our families did and our grandparents and great-grandparents. in such a way, and it’s such a story, it really brings him home.
“It makes you feel good about where we live and what we’ve done.”
She thanked those who voted for mine.
“I know there were people all over the country who were voting for us, who had deep roots in West Virginia,” Baker said. “I really appreciate that we’re such a small population, such a small museum, but we’ve been able to retain such national significance.”
Chez Chesak, a travel writer and executive director of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, named the museum to USA Today after visiting the mine.
The public voted and chose the winners earlier this month.
The National Infantry Museum and Soldiers Center in Columbus, Georgia, was first on the list, followed by the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts.
“We were in great company and in the whole month of March we only made it out of the Top 10 once,” she said. “We are very satisfied.”
She said the listing, combined with the recent designation of New River Gorge National Park, would likely make for “banner season” for the show mine.
“We’re anticipating a very successful season,” Baker said.
The full list is available at https://www.10best.com/awards/travel/best-history-museum/