Pitt archivists uncover the past with old mining maps

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University of Pittsburgh archivists are using humidifiers, muslin fabric and Magic Rub erasers to recover valuable and potentially lifesaving information from cracked and faded coal industry maps, some more than a century old.

The work is part of an ongoing effort to catalog, conserve and prepare the maps, some dating to the 1850s, for a statewide digital database that can be used by the industry and the public.

Pitt announced last week that $200,000 has been pledged to facilitate the Consol Energy Mine Map Preservation Project. Consol has put up $100,000, the state Department of Environmental Protection is giving $75,000, and the federal Office of Surface Mining is chipping in $25,000.

"These maps are not only historically significant, they also serve as vital sources of information to improve public safety, protect the environment, safeguard active miners and improve economic development," said Thomas Shope, director of OSM's Appalachian Region.

The bulk of the maps, along with mining logs, records, survey books, mine artifacts and photographs, were donated by Consol to the Pitt archives from 1991 to 2004. Those materials date from the 1890s through the first half of the 20th century and include more than 8,000 individual maps.

At least 700 of those are "hardback maps," a mining industry term for big paper maps with canvas backing, some five feet wide and more than 30 feet long, that were used as master copies to document and direct mining operations.

"Those big working maps were used because the mining companies wanted a good picture of the working mines. They needed the detail," said Debbie Rougeux, a Pitt archivist. "When you're digging underground, if you're off by a small degree, that could be someone's life."

The failure of mine owners to use good mining maps and records was a major cause of the Quecreek Mine accident in 2002 when nine miners were trapped deep underground for three days after they accidentally dug into the adjacent, abandoned and poorly documented Harrison Mine No. 2, unleashing millions of gallons of water.

Some of the maps have been rolled up for many decades, said Ed Galloway, who heads Pitt's archive service center in a refurbished Point Breeze warehouse.

"The biggest challenge is knowing what we have here," Mr. Galloway said as he walked past racks and racks of yellowed, rolled up maps, some bearing "toe tags" that identified the mines -- "Black Diamond," "Ontario," "Rock Creek," "Imperial" -- and many that don't.

"There are thousands of maps. Some have maps rolled inside of maps and some haven't been unrolled for 50 or 75 years," he said. "We've done some preliminary inventories, but we don't know what we have here until we unroll the maps."

And unrolling the cracked and brittle maps is a delicate, time-consuming job, said Amy Baker, a paper conservator who has worked on the project since June 2007.

The rolled maps are first placed in a "humidity dome," which looks like an incubator crossed with an arcade hockey game. Inside the foggy dome the map's paper fibers absorb moisture to make them more pliable. They are slowly unrolled by hand to prevent cracking.

"It takes five to six hours for a typical hardback to unroll and two to three hours if the map is just paper," Ms. Baker said, reaching through small portholes in the dome and unrolling another inch or two of a map from Pittsburgh Coal Co.'s Tremont Coal Mine in Fayette County. "We still don't know how old this one is but might when its fully unrolled."

When a map is unrolled, conservators place it between heavy sheets of wool and polyester so it dries evenly and flat. Then they pull off any tape, repair holes with cotton muslin and an ethylene vinyl acetate glue and remove coal dust and other grime from the map's surface with erasers.

The maps are then taken to OSM's Green Tree office where a large scanning machine is used to digitize the mine layout and information. Pitt archivists enter information about each map into a database --the Pennsylvania Historical Underground Mine Maps Inventory System -- managed by the DEP.

At DEP's request, Pitt archivists worked on maps for mines in Armstrong and Washington counties, and are about to start on maps for old mines in Allegheny County.

"We get calls and visits from engineers working on highways, developers and property owners who just want to know what's under their homes or the property where they are planning to build," Ms. Rougeux said. "They can call the DEP but there's large parts of the state that it doesn't have maps for."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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