It is well known how Pittsburgh’s steel industry helped build the city, the region, and the country, but few think about the raw materials that are required to power such enormous factories.
While a variety of raw materials are needed to fuel the plants, coal was one of the most important. While coal is typically more associated with the anthracite fields of northeastern PA, there were (and still are) coal mines in western Pennsylvania.
The coal mined in southwestern PA was often turned into coke, which would then power the steel mills at places like Carrie Furnace at the Homestead Steel Works.
One of these coal mines was the Avenue Mine near Tarentum in the northeastern corner of Allegheny County.
Coal mining at this site began in 1850 and continued for more than 100 years. Finally, in the late 1960s, the mine was closed despite there being a large amount of coal still in the ground. In 1970, the newly-renamed Tour-Ed Mine as was open for tours and education about coal mining.
Today, the Tour-Ed Mine is still open for those wanting to go underground and learn more about the history of coal mining, how it was done, and how it impacted the region.
The Tour-Ed Mine is located atop a hill just off of Route 28 near where Allegheny County meets Armstrong, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties.
The above-ground portion of the museum features a cabin from the late 18th century that was moved to this spot in the 1970s and features a short, but rather old film about coal. While the cabin is neat to see given its age, the video probably isn’t worth watching unless you need to kill some time before the tour starts as most of the information is covered in the introduction given by guides.
The second building is where you buy tickets to tour the site, a gift shop, and the mine’s museum.
The museum features many great artifacts, but many lack signage making it a bit hard to decipher what the pieces are and how they fit into the context of the mine. However, there is a miniature model of the mine as it would look without the ground above it, which does offer some great perspective and helps you better understand the layout when you go underground.
The chance to go underground into a real coal mine is, not surprisingly, the highlight of any visit to the Tour-Ed Mine.
Tours start from the basement of the museum building and begin with a video that offers a bit of history on how coal is formed. While it is definitely a bit old, it does do a good job of showcasing the information.
Tours are led by old coal miners and they are able to offer a ton of fantastic information about how coal mining works and what life was like for the miners who worked here.
It’s also worth noting for those that may be leary of going inside an old coal mine, the mine is inspected daily by certified mine inspectors, and it is also regularly checked by state officials to ensure its integrity.
After grabbing hardhats (If you are over 5 feet tall, you’ll really appreciate having one), tours continue by hopping into a yellow mining vehicle that takes you deep into the mine. This vehicle sits quite low to the ground as the passageway into the mine is sometimes less than four feet tall.
After about half a mile, the mine car comes to a stop more than 150 feet underground in the heart of the mine.
Even with your hardhat, be careful exiting the vehicle as the ceiling is quite low here. This is a common theme throughout the mine. Fortunately, at every stop we made, I was able to either find a spot where I could stand without an issue or there was a bench I could sit on. (For reference, I’m 6’2″, so if you’re taller than me, you might have a bit of an issue. On the other hand, if you’re under six feet tall, you should be fine for the most part.)
There are a handful of stops on the walking tour of the mine, and at each stop, visitors are shown a different era of mining and how coal was removed from the ground. I thought this was an excellent way of showing mining history, and it really gave me an appreciation for how the technology changed and made the work of the miners safer and easier.
My favorite part, however, was that each stop on the tour had working pieces of machinery. These ranged from small, hand-powered tools to very large automatic mining machinery. These working pieces of equipment really brought the experience to life, especially having visited other coal mines, like the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in Scranton, that have great information, but more static displays.
All told, tours last about an hour, of which about 30 minutes is underground inside the mine. After exiting the mining vehicle at the end of the tour, guides show visitors a few more large pieces of modern mining equipment that are located next to the mine entrance. These newer pieces really complete the story of mining in western Pennsylvania.
Overall, I really found the Tour-Ed Mine and Museum to be quite interesting. While the museum could use a bit of modernization and extra signage, the time underground is well-worth the cost of admission.
So, if you want to learn more about the industrial history of Pennsylvania or simply want to see what it’s like in a coal mine (It’s really different from a cavern), definitely take time to visit the Tour-Ed Mine and Museum in Allegheny County, PA.
Tour-Ed Mine and Museum
Hours: Tours Monday-Sunday (closed Tuesdays): 10am, 12pm, 2pm- by reservation only, no walk-ins
Cost: Adults: $9.50, Children: $9
Address: 748 Bull Creek Road