Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation's museum to get influx of history

| Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 11:43 p.m.

A replica of the iconic yellow steel cage and other artifacts from the 2002 rescue of nine miners trapped for 77 hours in the Quecreek Mine near Somerset have come full circle.

“It was certainly meant to be,” said Bill Arnold, executive director of the Quecreek Mine Rescue Foundation, which operates a museum near the rescue site. “Very few artifacts not related to that aren't here.”

Thousands of mining artifacts — including many from Quecreek — recently were donated to the Quecreek foundation by the Windber Coal Heritage Center, which closed last month because of rising costs and fewer visitors. The Windber collection covers 117 years of Pennsylvania bituminous coal mining history.

The mine rescue played out almost 12 years ago on Arnold's 212-year-old dairy farm, where a permanent memorial to the miners and rescuers has been built. The nine miners were trapped on July 24, 2002, when they broke through an abandoned, water-filled mine that flooded the Quecreek mine with more than 150 million gallons of water.

Officials at The Progress Fund expected to tap into the area's “heritage tourism” when they opened the Windber Coal Heritage Center, which sits between the Flight 93 National Memorial and the Quecreek site in the mining town of Windber. It was touted as “the only interactive bituminous coal museum in the eastern United States that tells the story of miners and their families.” But the number of visitors declined over the years, from 32,000 annually to just 7,000, said Chris Barkley, executive director of the Windber center and a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.

“Pennsylvania was a top tourist site, but it's changed,” he said.

A Hollywood version of the yellow steel capsule used to pull the men to the surface in a movie about Quecreek will join the actual capsule used in the rescue, which was donated to the Quecreek foundation in 2004 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Baby strollers made from old wooden crates are among the artifacts being transferred.

Turn-of-the-century miners “were creative, used to piecing things together,” Barkley said.

The center amassed more than 8,300 artifacts during the past 15 years. The process of moving the artifacts, which include tools, lunch buckets, helmet lights, augers, mine maps and other documents, is ongoing. Some larger relics are still in crates.

Barkley, who is descended from four generations of miners, believes the Windber artifacts will be “a natural fit” with Quecreek.

Their preservation is important to the history and culture of the region, experts said.

“Industrial archaeology is a fairly big field in the United States,” said Ben Thomas, director of programs at the Boston-based Archaeological Institute of America. “A lot of people are interested in how technology has changed over the years and using artifacts to understand cultural and societal changes.”

They also are important to local communities.

“Artifacts should always be made available to the community whose collective memory they record,” said Julie Porterfield, archivist at the Coal & Coke Heritage Center at Penn State Fayette, the Eberly Campus.

Some documents, murals and photographs that deal specifically with the Windber community will remain in the building that housed the coal heritage center, which is being donated to the Windber Medical Center.

Barkley said he has mixed emotions about the closing of the center, which was in financial trouble in 2010 when it was purchased for $250,000 by the Rosebud Mining Co. “to keep alive the history of the region's miners and the story of the Quecreek rescue.”

“This was my baby … it's hard,” he said. “My son, who is now 13, was a volunteer.”

Court documents link Rosebud to Freedom Industries Inc., the West Virginia company whose leaking tank was blamed for poisoning the drinking water of 300,000 people near Charleston on Jan. 9.

Company officials did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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