Exploring the History of PA’s Coal Fields at the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train in Ashland
Located in the heart of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, Ashland is one of many communities that once relied on the coal industry. From 1911-1931, the Pioneer Tunnel operated on the outskirts of town on Mahanoy Mountain. Owned by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, the mine was dug straight into the mountain and extended thousands of feet underground.
When the mine was closed in 1931 due to the Great Depression, the equipment was placed inside the mine and the entrance blasted closed. The company hoped to resume mining operations when the economy picked back up. However, the mine would never again be an active coal mine.
In the early 1960s, the borough of Ashland and its citizens were looking for a way to draw visitors to the area, help their economy, and preserve their history. It was from these conversations that plans were made to turn the abandoned Pioneer Tunnel into a tourist attraction.
In the summer of 1962, the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine officially opened for visitors, though work continued on the buildings and trains throughout the next few months. This gave people the chance to tour a real coal mine in Pennsylvania and learn what life was like for those working underground.
Over the last 50+ years, the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train has delighted visitors to this Schuylkill County borough. Located on a small rise above town and adjacent to Higher Ups Park, visitors can take a ride into this old coal mine and ride a steam train along the old rail line.
The coal mine tour takes visitors more than 1,800 feet straight into the mountain. Visitors ride in original mine cars along the track into the mine. These cars used to be the ones that carried coal out of the mine, but have been retrofitted to ferry visitors on their journey underground.
Since the cars weren’t originally designed to carry people, the ride is very, very bumpy. It should also be noted that the car closest to the driver sits about a foot higher than the other cars. If you are taller, like I am, you might want to sit in another car. Otherwise, you’ll have to duck your head a bit during the ride.
Once the mine cars reach the end of the line, 400 feet below the earth’s surface, guides offer tours of the mine. These tours show how the mine operated including procedures and the roles that different workers performed. Mannequins have been placed in key spots to offer an idea of what life would’ve been like inside the mine, and guides do a great job explaining how coal mining was done a century ago.
Tours of the Pioneer Tunnel coal mine last around 40 minutes. It’s worth noting that the interior of the mine is a chilly 52 degrees year-round, so a jacket or sweatshirt is recommended even on the hottest summer days.
Either before or after taking the coal mine tour, hop aboard the steam train for a ride covering three-quarters of a mile. This rail line was how the coal was taken from the mine to the colliery just downhill of the track’s end.
Like the mine tour, this train features cars that were originally used to haul coal from the Pioneer Tunnel. If possible, this ride is even bumpier than the coal mine tour. However, it’s still enjoyable and a great way to learn more about the history of the area.
The train engine is known as the “Henry Clay” after the 19th-century politician who did a lot to help the coal industry. This engine, built in the 1920s, was purchased from a scrapheap in the 1960s and once operated at a coal mine in the Hazleton area. This engine still runs on anthracite coal which adds a neat element to this historical ride.
After a 10-minute journey to the end of the line, visitors are invited to step off of the train while the conductor tells a bit about the history of the attraction, the community of Ashland, and the underground fires in Centralia. Behind the train, a former strip mine offers a look at a different type of mining that was conducted in the area. The conductor also shows off their example of a bootleg coal mine, and explains how these mines worked and why they were used.
It takes another 10 minutes to return to the visitor center, making the entire train ride about 30 minutes in length.
Before leaving the area, check out the displays of old mine equipment and the informational signage around the parking lot and visitor center. Inside the visitors center, there is a nice gift shop with souvenirs and items related to the area, as well as a small restaurant.
Overall, visiting the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train in Ashland, Pennsylvania, offers a great opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in the region and to see the inside of a coal mine. While it is similar in many ways to the Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour in Scranton, this tour offers a look at a different style of coal mine, along with the chance to ride the coal-powered steam train.
Whether you’ve been to the coal mine tour in Scranton or not, a visit to the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train is a great chance to learn about the history of mining and to see what it’s like inside an authentic mine.
Note: My visit to the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train was hosted by the site. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train
Hours: Times vary. See website.
Cost: Coal Mine Tour: $10.50, Kids: $7.50
Address: N 19th St & Oak St