A Visit to the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine & Steam Train
[Published in the November 2002 issue of the Bull Sheet]
Twice each year - spring and fall - Oakleigh Tours offers bus trips from the Baltimore area to points of scenic and historic interest. This year's fall tour took its faithful clan of followers to Ashland, Pennsylvania, home of the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train.
Ashland lies in the anthracite coal region of east-central Pennsylvania. One of the mines in the area, which had ceased operations in 1931, was reopened in 1963 as a tourist attraction. Coal is no longer mined at this facility; instead, the mine has been made tourist-friendly, and visitors may ride in comfort aboard a battery-operated train into the horizontal shaft where a guide explains how anthracite coal was once extracted and moved by mules to the surface. Pioneer Tunnel has been given an award for excellence by the Pennsylvania Travel Industry Advisory Council as one of the top 10 tourist attractions in the state.
The narrow-gauge steam train operates from the mouth of the mine for over half a mile along the side of Mahanoy Mountain overlooking the town of Ashland and the surrounding valley. The line used for the steam train is the same as was used to transport the coal until the mine ceased operations. The terminus is also within sight of an abandoned strip mine.
The steam locomotive Henry Clay is a 30-ton saddle tank engine, built in the 1920's, and one of the last of its kind in existence. The open-sided passenger cars were crafted from parts found buried within the mine when it was reopened in 1963. A miniature caboose, with seating for about six people, is on the rear of the train.
October 19, 2002, was the date of the Oakleigh Tours visit. Thirty-six patrons attended the trip on a rather dreary day. A light rain fell throughout most of the two and one-half hour trip from Baltimore, but it was dry by the time the group reached Ashland. The respective rides - into the mine and aboard the steam train - consumed about half an hour each. There is a gift shop and lunchroom adjacent to the mouth of the mine.
Pioneer Tunnel is owned and operated by Ashland Community Enterprises, a non-profit corporation established to educate the public on the operation of the former coal mine, with profits being used for community welfare, parks and playgrounds.