(Alison Stine is the author of five books, including “Ohio
Violence” and “The Protectors”. The opinions expressed are her
By Alison Stine
Feb 9 I watched the mountains, what was left of
them, during soccer practice. While my son tumbled on a field
with other five-year-olds, I cast my eyes across the river,
where the hills were a pale brown with deep gorges and no trees:
foothills with flat, bulldozed tops.
Two hundred years ago, my home in rural, Southeastern Ohio
contained some of the county’s largest coal deposits. Three
billion tons of coal was pulled from the ground in the state,
mostly by hand, loaded and shipped across the country via train
and canals. Towns sprung up around coal, populated by miners who
shopped at company stores, who were paid by the ton, and who
often only saw daylight on Sundays.
The small towns and villages of my Appalachian county were
called the little cities of black diamonds. Such was the value
of coal, as precious as gems. Coal paid for towns. Coal paid for
schools. Coal built the Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee, the
Marietta and Pittsburgh Railroad. Families would scavenge scraps
out of the rocks to heat their homes. Houses, like the
hundred-year-old house where my son and I live, sometimes
included little washrooms on the side where a miner could clean
off some of the black dust before entering the kitchen.
Coal was inevitable. A friend of mine once met a former head
of Buckingham Coal and asked him how he got his start. He said
when he was in fifth or sixth grade, a man from the mine had
come to his school. The man had scanned the classroom, pointing
out the biggest boys and asking them to stand, including the
future coal company boss.
School was over for him then, he said. He was expected to
report to work at the mine the next day.
That was a long time ago. As early as the 1900s, companies
in Ohio looked to other sources for heat. Some mines in
Southeastern Ohio closed during the Great Depression, like the
Hocking Valley Coal Company – which re-opened during World War
Two, only to close again for good a few years later. By 1970,
Ohio’s coal production fell sharply due to a combination of
factors, including regulations and scarcity of coal. Machines
replaced men in the mines. Coal was replaced by cheaper
alternatives, especially natural gas.
Meigs Mine 31 closed in 2001, putting about 430 people out
of work. In 2015 Buckingham Coal, sold to a Colorado company,
laid off over 80.
Today, according to the New York Times, there are only
50,000 jobs in coal mining. In the entire country.
Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs feels hollow
in a place where coal died a generation or more ago. Those jobs
are gone. Those veins are tapped. He might as well bring back
the horse and buggy or the icebox.
Mine 31 closed for a simple, inarguable reason: it
“basically exhausted all of its coal reserves,” a spokesperson
for the mine said at the time.
The black hills have lost their diamonds.
What is a coal county like without coal? The largest town in
my county has a university – which a friend who worked there as
a janitor called “the golden teat” – but the other, smaller
towns have few options for work. There’s healthcare and fast
food, a prison, a soft drink bottling plant. There are also a
lot of drugs: Ohio has the distinction of being the state with
the most deaths from opioid overdoses.
“Live Like Me” someone graffitied in pink spray paint on the
burned-out shell of a house near the railroad tracks in
Glouster, where the mining pit closed. This house, like others,
may have burned when a meth lab exploded, or simply from the
winter danger of woodstoves or space heaters, trying to stay
warm in a home without central heat.
To survive in Appalachia is to scramble. What may save my
county and other former coal counties like it will not be empty
promises, but outside companies recognizing the potential in our
fertile land, our empty factories, our waiting workforce, our
lower cost of life. New jobs need to come here, new clean energy
technologies. Companies need to trust Appalachians to call upon
the resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, ingenuity and altruism
that have always guided this part of the country. Appalachia
needs a new chance to do what it does best: make it work.
To believe otherwise is to believe in a dead dream, which
some still do. It is to believe in white nostalgia – though some
of the miners in Southeastern Ohio were Native American and
African American, including slaves – the yearning for a simpler
life, which was only ever simple for a few. It is the false hope
of Trump, the false prophet, to call back a way of life that is
dead: where the father is king, head of his household, provider
and protector and pandered to by women, expected to live and
possibly to die by his work in the dark and silent ground.
(This piece has been supported by the journalism nonprofit
Economic Hardship Reporting Project.)
(By Alison Stine)