Old Coal Mine Offers Tours

Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine – Ashland, Pennsylvania

Visited May 2018

Mine cars, heaped with black, crawl as iron wheels screech over a narrow rail toward the mountainside. Their final destination, the breaker: a processing plant staffed by boys between eight and 12 years old, sitting on wooden seats, their coal-patched faces absorbing minute rays of light as they labor tediously above chutes and conveyer belts, cutting their bare hands against sharp slate, separating it from the precious black cargo.

The cargo is coal, anthracite coal to be exact, unique for its high luster, high carbon count, and low impurities. That was back in the early 1900s in the small Pennsylvania borough of Ashland at a place now known as Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine.

Nowadays the mine cars are filled instead with people; the children in those cars are on school field trips. The miners are not minors, but tour guides. Apart from not being in operation for almost 80 years, the mine is much the same as it was at the turn of the century. Mining anthracite itself really hasn’t changed a whole lot, its deep vertical veins making modern machinery useless below ground. And while machinery is now used instead of boys to break coal, the mining is still done by hand.

Howard Smith knows all about mining. It’s in his blood, a family tradition that goes back 150 years. At 16, he began his career loading coal into cars at a mine operated by his family in the small mining community of Locustdale, just one mile from Pioneer Tunnel. Family mines back then were much like the dwindling small farms of today. There was no hired help, so young Howard soon became experienced in every aspect of the mine’s operation - drilling holes, setting explosives, loading and breaking coal.

By age 18, he was a full partner with his father and two uncles. Even his son worked with him until he entered college. While the family business ceased operation some time ago, Smith has no regrets about his career choice. “If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. Twenty years later, the 53-year-old mine foreman finds himself at home in Pioneer Tunnel. Instead of the rigors of mining, he spends his time giving tours and making sure the facility is safe for its many visitors.

It is between tour groups as we sit just outside the gift shop, not far from the mine entrance, held open by thick timbers of white oak. The timbers, three feet round by ten feet high, run throughout the deep caverns below. Native to the area, they come from a nearby mountainside and are felled and cut to size by Smith and his small band of miners each winter. In the distance, steam steadily rises from a small locomotive trailed by a line of mine cars situated in front of a set of wooden buildings with a matching wooden water tower. Visitors, mostly school children, look around at the peculiar scene waiting for their turn to explore more historical wonders in the depths below.

Smith points towards the mine entrance and says in a thick coal region accent, “What you’re seein’ here today is exactly the way it was when it was a workin’ mine. You could start minin’ coal here tomorrow,” he says. “Everything’s real here, even the way the mine’s been re-timbered and maintained. It’s the way it was when it was a workin’ mine.”

Ashland is one of many small localities in what is now commonly referred to as the Coal Region, an area covering seven counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania, home to the largest known deposits of anthracite coal in the Americas, with an estimated reserve of seven billion short tons. This hard, compact variety of mineral, used for home heating and power generation, burns with a short, blue, smokeless flame, making it relatively clean and friendly to the environment. There are enough anthracite reserves in Pennsylvania alone, roughly three fourths of the world’s known supply, to sustain current consumption needs for approximately 500 years.

And while the region was inhabited well before the American Revolution, this shiny black mineral went relatively unnoticed until the early 1800s. Its discovery is said to have taken place in Pottsville, just 15 miles south of Ashland. Legend says that in 1790, hunter Necho Allen fell asleep at the base of Broad Mountain and awoke to find a huge fire, his campfire having ignited a deposit of anthracite coal. And while this unique form of coal had already been used in Europe for over 300 years, Necho gets the credit for its discovery in Schuylkill County.

By the early 1800s, an anthracite-fired iron furnace was in place along the nearby Schuylkill River and small mining towns, owned, operated and policed by the mines, cropped up throughout the region. Coal was king and the area boomed with economic vitality.

Children take their seats in a line of coal cars waiting on the track just outside the mine entrance. While the summer air is relatively warm, most wear sweaters anticipating the cold below with temperatures averaging 52 degrees Fahrenheit during the tour season. Smith cautions this new group of passengers, the last of several tours for the day, to keep their hands inside the car. Warning signs hang throughout just in case someone wasn’t paying attention.

And Pioneer Tunnel is safe. There have been no accidents since opening for tours back in 1962 and no one has ever died in the mine’s entire history of operation going all the way back to 1878. “You’re constantly inspectin’ the mine. First of all you have to know the mine pretty good to know somethin’s out of place or not right. You have to make sure your track and rails are in good shape and that your operators are driving nice and cautious because you know the peoples’ life is in your hands,” said Smith.

Daily inspections are conducted using a methane detector and anemometer to check air and ventilation. These handheld monitors have come a long way from when miners carried caged canaries. And each year a section of the mine is re-timbered so that the wood holding tunnels open are only 25 to 30 years old. The Department of Environmental Protection awarded Pioneer Tunnel with a safety award.

Our tour begins as the cars, pulled by a battery-powered electric mine motor, slowly enter the tunnel. We pick up speed, the miners’ head lamps lighting a few feet ahead as we begin our descent.

Christy Curtis, who grew up in nearby Pottsville, brought her husband and two children from Utah to see the mine. “It reminded me of an amusement park ride, but the stuff was real and you could learn things,” she said.

Even the wheels and axles on these cars are authentic, the very same used in the early days, back when Pioneer Tunnel was called the Bancroft Mine and cars carrying cargo and the occasional weary miner were pulled by mules. Mules were company property and among the mine’s most valuable assets. They were treated like kings. There were even veterinary stations deep inside the mine to make sure these stubborn animals, known for their strength and endurance, were in top shape. Miners often joked that it was easier to replace a man than it was a mule. If someone was caught abusing one of the ten mules employed at the mine they were promptly fired.

We’re just one quarter mile below, really only scratching the surface of the nine-mile deep mine. We leave the cars and follow our guide, passing a mask-wearing replica of a miner, his face mottled with coal dust. Water drips from the ceiling and runs down walls glimmering with patches of red, the accumulation of sulfur iron oxide. Suddenly the lights go out leaving only a small moon-like disc of light from Smith’s headlamp. He switches it off and for a few moments we experience the complete absence of visible light and wonder how men and boys worked so far below the earth for hours at a time for so little pay.

He switches the lights on again and we squint as our eyes adjust to the dim lighting that somehow seems brighter. We see anything from a 100-year-old phone to old mining tools, to emergency exit shafts, all the while being taught by a real coal miner. Even Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter wasn’t satisfied with just exploring space. He visited back in 1969 leaving his name painted in white on a wall of space black coal.

Smith reaches into a wooden cabinet hanging on the wall and pulls out a plastic rat. “If you see the rats leavin’ the mine, it would be a good idea to leave yourself,” he says. Besides caged canaries, this was yet another way to know when danger filled the air. It was also common for rats to walk up to miners at lunch hour in hopes of being given some food.

Brad Homer of Sayre, Pennsylvania was looking for something to do with his wife and 19-month-old son when they stumbled onto a billboard highlighting Pioneer Tunnel. “I thought it was really interesting. I didn’t realize there were mine tours. You just don’t see this anywhere,” he said. Soon we board our coal cars and we’re moving in reverse back up the long, dark passageway. Sunlight pours through the tunnel opening, momentarily blinding us, signaling our departure from this strange, new, yet very old world of coal.

Those who pay a little more can board The Henry Clay, a small steam locomotive ready to take us on a short three-quarter mile jaunt around Mahanoy Mountain. Built in the early 1920s and named after the nineteenth century American statesman and orator who represented Kentucky in both the Senate and the House of Representatives (Clay was a friend to the coal industry), this authentic engine was saved from the cutting torch in a junkyard by the local Kiwanis Club.

Further down the tracks we see the Mammoth Vein, an unusually thick segment of anthracite that outcrops at the surface. Predecessors of The Henry Clay hauled millions of tons of coal from this exposed vein, leaving a wall of rock some 150 feet high and several miles long. Across the valley sits the nearby borough of Centralia, the site of an enormous underground mine fire burning steadily beneath the town since 1962. And we see bootleg coal holes, made by trespassers who risked cave-ins just to get a few extra bags of coal to sell or for heating their homes.

For years this historical diamond in the rough sat idle until the early 1960s when an ex-mine engineer and a lawyer began looking for ways to bring revenue into the town. “These guys were sittin’ ‘round the round table one night havin’ a couple beers. Well, the one gentleman knew the mine here and they got the crazy idea of openin’ it up for tours. Mostly everybody told them that they were crazy and that it wasn’t gonna work, but they went ahead and did it anyway,” said Smith.

The skeptics were wrong. Each year, over 40,000 people from around the world take the 35-minute tour. Many visit the gift shop where you can find a variety of items, many of which are handcrafted by local artists -- jewelry made from anthracite coal, railroad hats, antique miners’ lamps, and Christmas stockings filled with lumps of coal for naughty children. You can even buy some coal candy, a locally made liquorice-like hard candy that resembles a lump of coal packaged with a miniature coal hammer. And if you just want a lump of authentic anthracite coal to prove you were inside a real mine, you can buy those for between $5 and $10 each depending on the size.

For Howard Smith, Pioneer Tunnel is a reminder of where he came from and a way to pass on his life experience to the next generation. “So we’re just fortunate enough to have this old abandoned mine where we can take the people in and educate them on it and show them about it,” he says. “We have somethin’ here really nobody else has, you know.”


The tour season goes from April through October. Check with Pioneer Tunnel for specific schedules and prices as they vary depending on the time of year. Call ahead at 570-875-3850 to make arrangements for large groups.

Gift Shop:



Pioneer Tunnel is a non-profit organization so all fees and sales are to keep the mine running. Donations are welcome.

Helpful Tips

What to Bring

• Bring a jacket even if it is a warm day since the mine gets cold.

• There is a small gift shop that sells food, snacks, and other memorabilia. Bring cash. Some cards can be used but only for purchases $10 and above.


• The steam locomotive is undergoing extensive reconditioning and maintenance and is unavailable until further notice according to the Pioneer Tunnel website.

• GPS: 2001 Walnut St., Ashland, Pa

Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine
2001 Walnut St, Ashland, PA, USA: 40.779898, -76.3539009
About Uncharted
We are a group of explorers that were frustrated with the insane difficulty of finding essential information and resources for exploring the world's off-the-beaten-path locations and activities so we founded Uncharted. We exist to help you more easily explore whatever is uncharted to you.
Hometown: Logan, Utah, United States
Languages: Our team speaks the following languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese.
Profile Photo

Helpful Tips

What to Bring

• Bring a jacket even if it is a warm day since the mine gets cold.

• There is a small gift shop that sells food, snacks, and other memorabilia. Bring cash. Some cards can be used but only for purchases $10 and above.


• The steam locomotive is undergoing extensive reconditioning and maintenance and is unavailable until further notice according to the Pioneer Tunnel website.

• GPS: 2001 Walnut St., Ashland, Pa

Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine – Ashland, Pennsylvania
Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine – Ashland, Pennsylvania

Leave a Reply