Curious about the coal mining history of Wise County? The Bridgeport Heritage Museum reminds us that early Wise County coal miners worked in the dark and cold so that Bridgeport citizens could have light and warmth. But the real heroics lay in more than just the coal miners’ tolerance for their working conditions. Bridgeport coal tunnels (nineteen known mines have been located in the Bridgeport area) were between 85 and 125 feet deep, making a tight squeeze for miners, many of which were laborers from countries like Mexico. In fact, most Bridgeport miners dug coal while lying on their backs or kneeling. In order to provide for their families, Bridgeport miners also had to suffer the vagaries of Bridgeport Coal Company’s salary arrangements. Miners weren’t paid in dollars. Instead, the company issued scrip, or credit, which could be used to pay for rent in company housing and for food and clothing at the company store. Any scrip left over could be converted at times to U.S. dollars at the company-owned bank.
Bridgeport’s late 19th and early 20th century heritage is dominated by the coal industry but the museum manages to make room for exhibits on railroad history, the construction of Lake Bridgeport, and Bridgeport’s role as stopover on the Butterfield Stagecoach route as well. Housed in the lower floor of the Bridgeport Visitors Center, the museum also features an exhibit on natural gas, the Wise County resource that helped end the region’s coal mining era with a history all its own and still in the making.