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Watts Museum exhibit, open house explores coal mining mechanization

A photo of an exhibit in the Watts Museum.

 A new exhibit in the Watts Museum explores how mechanization changed the mining industry.

From late 19th century coal mining with picks and shovels to the huge longwall machines used today, mine mechanization has transformed underground coal mining from an industry once reliant upon muscle power to one now powered by machines. A new exhibition at West Virginia University’s Watts Museum showcases that transition.


“Man Power, Mine Power: The Evolution and Impact of Coal Mining Machines” explores how the introduction of machines drastically altered the workplace structure, labor relations and livelihood of those that relied on the coal industry. Prior to mechanization, miners were considered independent craftsmen. Working either alone or in pairs and with little supervision, their job required a high level of knowledge, experience, strength and dexterity. These men maintained a degree of freedom on the job that workers in other industries lacked.

With the introduction of coal mining machines—such as continuous miners and longwall shearers—both the number of miners and their workplace freedom drastically declined. New machines could produce more coal in one minute than a worker in a non-mechanized mine could extract in an entire shift.

“As underground mines became increasing mechanized, mining transformed from a cottage-like industry, where miners often worked part-time, with family members and in small mining operations, to one that operated with the efficiency and coordination of modernized industrial factory,” said Watts Museum Curator Danielle Petrak. “Mechanization meant that miners no longer controlled things like how much they worked or what tools they used, but it also meant that they no longer spent their days doing the strenuous, backbreaking work of cutting and loading coal by hand.”

On Wednesday, September 6, from noon–6 p.m., the Watts Museum is holding an open house for the public to view the new exhibit. Museum staff will be on hand to answer questions, and there will be refreshments. Admission is free, and parking is available behind the Mineral Resources Building.

“Man Power, Mine Power” is on view through June 2019 and will be available to travel to other venues throughout West Virginia after its installation at the Watts Museum. The Watts Museum is located in Room 125 of the Mineral Resources Building on the Evansdale campus of WVU. The Museum is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, from 1–4 p.m., and by appointment.

For more information, contact the museum at (304) 293-4609 or

Housed in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, the Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum is dedicated to preserving and promoting the social, cultural and technological history of West Virginia’s mineral resources and their related industries through the collection, preservation, research and exhibition of artifacts and archival materials.



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Phone: 304-293-4135