Taebaek was once the most productive coal-mining region in South Korea.
Coal mining towns follow a predictable trajectory: coal tends to be in places which aren’t good for farming, so before the development of coal mines they are sparsely populated; then coal mines open up, bringing a population explosion of coal miners, families, and support (schools, grocery stores, etc); the coal mine reaches its peak production; the coal mine becomes less and less profitable as the coal veins are depleted; the coal mine closes down, most people in town lose their jobs; the town scrambles to find another economic driver, such as tourism; tourists like me come and experience the coal mining heritage.
Many towns built on natural resource extraction which no longer extract those natural resources because it couldn’t be sustained repurpose the old resource-extracting equipment as a tourist attraction. Hey, the equipment’s already there, and they can’t think of a better use. Taebaek is no example, and near the entrance of the trail of Taebaeksan is a wide array of old coal mining equipment among the trees.
Taebaek’s central coal-mining tourist attraction, of course, is the Taebaek Coal Museum. I went in with low expections, especially since I’ve been to coal-mining-towns-renewed-as-tourist-attractions in both Taiwan and Japan – I figured I’d already seen it all.
Well well well. The Taebaek Coal Museum starts off with a very, very thorough exhibit about geology, far more detailed than at any other coal museum I’ve been to. It’s mostly in Korean, but that’s okay, since I had enough fun looking at the various different kinds of rocks.
I spent a lot of time in science museums when I was a kid, and even I was impressed by the size and variety of the rock collection at Taebaek Coal Museum. These photos only represent a small fraction of what is there.
Coal mining had started in Taebaek during the Joseon dynasty, but before industrialization Korea didn’t need much coal, so it was very small scale.
The Japanese also did some coal mining in Taebaek when they controlled Korea but – to my surprise – not much, even though Japan was rapidly industrializing and ravenous for coal at the time it controlled Korea. Were they not aware of how much coal there was in Taebaek, or was Taebaek’s coal difficult to mine without some kind of technological improvement, or was there higher quality coal available elsewhere? I don’t know, and the museum does not explain.
The 1973 oil crisis prompted South Korea to increased domestic extraction of fossil fuels, and that is when Taebaek’s coal reserves began to be fully exploited. During the 1980s, Taebaek was by far the biggest source of coal in South Korea. Naturally, this created a population boom in Taebaek, which reached hundreds of thousands of residents.
Some time in the 1980s Taebaek reached peak coal production, and after that the mines became less an less profitable, and they closed in the 1990s. Currently, the population of Taebaek city is about 50,000 people.
Once the exhibit got past just how cool rocks are, it started displaying fossils. Since coal is an *ahem* fossil fuel, the Taebaek region of course has lots of fossils.
Again, most of the educational content was in Korean, so I let myself enjoy the fossils in the absence of language.
This geology/science section is only a fraction of the entire museum. The museum has multiple exhibits describing the coal mining process in incredible detail, including the process of prospecting for coal veins, constructing mining tunnels to access different types of veins, different methods for getting the coal out once you have your mine tunnel built, what the daily routine of a coal miner was like, the diseases coal miners could get and how to prevent them, how to conduct a coal mine emergency operation, and so, so, so much detail.
There was lots of equipment on display, so much that my mind could not process what most of it was or what purpose the equipment had. There were also many videos showing 1980s footage of coal mining operations. Even though the videos were 100% Korean without any English subtitles, I enjoyed watching them as a view into a different way of life.
There was also an exhibit about Taebaek’s culture and history, which was mostly about the practices around the shamanic shrines of Taebaeksan.
Generally, this museum did a much more thorough job of explaining coal mining than any coal mining museum I’ve visiting in Taiwan or Japan, even though I could only read the English summaries and not the full descriptions in Korean. Somebody is really passionate about coal mining, has tracked down all of the details and fully understood them, and has a sufficiently powerful curiosity to learn about related subjects such as geology and process that information too, and that person is a curator at this museum.
The last exhibit is the largest – a set of life-size dioramas showing various things happening in coal mines. It was a nice relief for my mind which was DONE with processing all kinds of facts about coal mining. It’s also impressive that they put together this many life size dioramas. I am only presenting a fraction of the dioramas which are in the final exhibit of the museum. Enjoy!