Thursday, May 1, 2008

Podcast Appalachia: "King Coal"



Hello and welcome to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

Today I want to discuss Appalachia’s most important natural resource, a black, dusty rock that fueled the industrial revolution and one that countless people have given their lives to extract from the earth. This rock has led to an unprecedented increase in the standard of living, but has also done much damage to the natural environment. This resource, of course, is coal.

No single rock has had a great influence on Appalachian society than coal, nor has any other single mineral been more controversial. Coal is very important in generating energy; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine our economy functioning without it. Certainly, without coal the industrial revolution as we know it would not have been possible without coal.

In the Appalachian region, mining has shaped, or given rise to, thousands of mountain communities and provided employment for generations of mountain people. At the same time, the extraction of coal is very dangerous. Many miners have lost their lives in pursuit of this dirty rock. Additionally, the mining and burning of coal has produced many pollutants. Coal truly is a blessing and a curse, and which of these it is more of is a topic that has been debated for years.

Coal is ancient. It was formed from the remains of land plants that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Appalachian coal was formed from peat deposited which had accumulated from the remains of tropical plants. The peat from these plants, which grew in swamps, built up around 290-320 million years ago. It is from this that coal is born.

In order for coal to form, its building blocks must be buried deep below the surface of the earth. Once peat was buried thousands of feet underground, the temperature and pressure began the coalification process.

The different ranks of coal are the result of differences in levels of heat as well as the depth and length of burial. The differences in ranks are the result of the level of carbon content: the higher the content, the more heat value the coal has.

Coal is also ranked by grade or quality, which is determined by the content of ash, mineral matter, and sulfur. Mineral matter does not add to the energy potential of coal, and must therefore be disposed of following combustion. Most of the environmental problems associated with coal as a fuel source stem from the sulfur content.

Coal mining in the United States began in 1750 near present-day Richmond, VA. A few years later mining began in Pennsylvania, near present-day Pittsburgh, where it would play a major role in the formation of that city. Coal mining would not extend to West Virginia and east Tennessee until the early 1800s, however.

Early mining was predictably very primitive. It usually consisted of digging small tunnels in stream banks where the flows had exposed coal beds. By the 1850s drills and steel scrapers, which were pulled by horses, were used in mining. This mining was normally on a very small scale and had only minimal effects on the environment.

By the 1870s, coal mining was becoming more industrialized. Prior to this time, most of the coal extracted in Appalachia was put to use in the region. By this time, markets were extended well beyond the region. This was the result of the amazing economic growth America experienced between the Civil War and World War I. Railroads were constructed to aid in the transportation of coal and various new technologies were utilized to aid in its extraction. Thus, coal became a large scale operation in Appalachia.

It was during this time of expansion that many of the problems we now associate with mining began to become more apparent. While a small scale operation, mining entailed only minor risks and did very little long term damage to the land. However, as the industry grew, so did the dangers. Miners found themselves going deeper and deeper beneath the surface, increasing the dangers of mining. Safety conditions inside many mines were truly deplorable, and numerous mines used child or convict labor. Additionally, the impact of coal mining became more obvious in the physical environment.

At the same time, coal was proving to be essential in the growth American was experiencing. It provided relatively inexpensive heat and energy for many Americans. So while coal did have inherent dangers, it also led to an unprecedented improvement in the standard of living for many Americans, as well as a period of incredible economic expansion.

During the late 1800s coal operators began to build their own communities for their employees. Although they employed some native Appalachians, they also began importing immigrant labor from Europe. African Americans were brought to the region as well to work in the mines. It is estimated that immigrants comprised about 1/3 of miners between 1880 and 1920. Unfortunately, these immigrants were sometimes used as scapegoats by native miners who were frustrated by the actions of mining operators.

The mining communities were often very repressive, as coal operators exerted great control over the miners’ daily lives. Companies owned everything in the towns in which their employees lived and could evict miners for any reason they saw fit. Often they paid miners with tokens instead of legal tender. These tokens could only be spent at company-owned stores. And of course, miners were prohibited from joining unions.

The mines themselves were also very dangerous. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries several mining disasters illustrated the danger to most Americans. One such disaster occurred in Anderson County, TN in 1902. The Fraterville Mine had long been considered one of the safest in the country and certainly had unusually good working conditions. Miners were allowed to own their own property and even to unionize, a rarity during the 1890s. But even in these ideal conditions, disasters could still happen.

On May 19, 1902 disaster struck as an explosion rocked the mine. The owner of the mine, George Camp, mounted an aggressive rescue effort but tragically he could not save his miners. In the end, 216 men and boys were killed, practically wiping out the entire adult male population of the community. At least ten of miners, trapped far below the surface, survived long enough—perhaps as long as seven hours—to write farewell messages to loved ones before succumbing to suffocation.

Five years later an even larger tragedy would strike in Monongah, WV. At 10 AM on December 6, 1907 the worst mining disaster in American history occurred. On that day there were explosions inside mines six and eight, which were connected by tunnels. A cave-in then blocked the entrance to the mines, preventing rescue efforts and leaving those miners who survived the explosion trapped inside. The explosion also destroyed one of the fans, preventing ventilation and causing the mines to slowly fill with poisonous gasses. Rescue efforts were also hampered by fire. All told, at least 362 men and boys died in the disaster, although the number may have been as high as 478. Most of the victims were European immigrants.

The unsafe conditions, along with low pay, too much control over miners’ lives by coal operators, and competition from foreign labor, led to movements toward unionization by miners. The United Mine Workers of America, or UMW, was founded in 1890, although it would take many years before membership became common. Predictably, mining operators strongly opposed these unionization efforts.

The UMW at first had very little power. However, when it pulled off its first successful strike in 1902, critics had to concede that it was gaining influence. After this strike, the union experienced steady, if often difficult growth.

The drive for unionization led to outright violence in many locations. Mine operators would often use thugs to intimidate miners. Miners would sometimes retaliate with violence as well. In many communities, this violence led to outright war. Though such wars took place in several parts of Appalachia, the most famous happened in West Virginia, culminating in the famous Battle of Blair Mountain.

Between 1898 and the early 1910s numerous efforts were made to unionize West Virginia coalminers, but they were at first mostly unsuccessful. During World War I the union began to make some headway, establishing a foothold in District 17. This became an island of unionism, surrounded by non-unionized mines. From this enclave the union began to aggressively attempt to unionize workers throughout the state.

These unionization efforts were largely successful, and by 1919 most of West Virginia’s coalmines were unionized. However, five counties in southern WV—Logan, Mingo, Wyoming, Mercer, and McDowell—remained non-union. Unions were kept out of these counties by intimidation and violence on the part of mine operators in these areas.

The tactics used by anti-union forces quickly became more serious than simple threats. In what miners called the “gun thug” system, coal operators hired thugs from such outfits as the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to utilize beatings to ensure the labor force remained union-free. In Logan County, the police force was also used to terrorize any miners who considered joining a union.

It should be noted that not all police forces where in the pockets of coal operators. Many law enforcement officers actively supported the miners. In 1920 Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield defended the miners from agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who had come to evict the families of striking miners from their homes. A shootout ensued, killing at least 10 men, including two bystanders who had nothing to do with either side. The surviving “detectives” were tried for murder, but were acquitted. For his efforts, Chief Hatfield emerged as a hero to the miners.

Sadly, Hatfield would pay dearly for his heroism. On August 1, 1921 he was murdered by anti-union forces. News of his death spread quickly throughout the coalfield, and less than a week later 5,000 miners and pro-union forces gathered in Charleston to protest Gov. Morgan’s decision to impose martial law in Mingo County. They were also treated to several pro-union speakers, including Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother” Jones.

On August 20th miners began to assemble in Marmet to prepare for an armed march south. Four days later they began the 65 mile march south to Mingo County. The purpose of this march was to avenge the death of Hatfield, overthrow martial law in Mingo County, unionize Logan and Mingo county miners, and to hang Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, who was strongly and violently anti-union.

The federal government, seeing the strong potential for bloodshed, decided to intervene. President Warren Harding sent word to the marchers, ordering them to stop and disperse. Some of the miners heeded this warning and went home, but others continued to march southward, eventually meeting anti-union forces under the the command of Sheriff Chafin.

On August 30 the miners made their first organized attack. A group led by Rev. John Wilburn advanced up Blair Mountain and engaged three deputies under Chafin. Two of the officers were killed, as was one miner. The next day, fighting erupted all along the line. Miners assaulted Chafin’s defenses, breaking through on September 1. Chafin, now very concerned, was forced to activate his reserves and even utilize his air force, which dropped black powder and gas bombs on the miners.

That same day federal troops intervened to put a stop to the fighting. They succeeded in disarming most of the miners by September 3rd, although fighting would continue until the 4th. More than 500 participants were indicted for murder and treason, although only one was ever convicted.

Although the fighting was intense, casualties were mercifully low. Deaths from both sides totaled only 16 men. Although forced to disband, the miners felt they had won the day. However, area miners would not become unionized until 1933.

With unionization, better technology and equipment, more concern for safety, and more oversight, mining has clearly become safer over the years. However, there is only so safe that mining can be. Digging a mile underground and removing coal will always entail certain risks. The Quecreek Mine disaster, which happened in Somerset County, PA in 2002 had a happy ending when all nine miners were rescued after being trapped underground for 78 hours. The Sago Mine disaster of Upshur County, WV, however, ended in tragedy when only one of the 12 trapped miners were rescued in 2006. Disasters such as these always revive debates on mining safety issues and the proper level of government regulation.

Another controversy surrounding mining has been its environmental impact. The burning of coal has been a major contributor in poor air quality and the carbon it emits is held by many scientists to be a major factor in climate change.

Another controversy surrounding the environmental impact of mining is mountaintop removal, the most controversial of all mining techniques. In this process, all trees and vegetation are removed from the top of a mountain. After this, explosives are used to blast away the tops of the mountains, exposing the coal underneath. The rocks and soil from the mountaintop is then pushed into the nearby valley, sometimes destroying streams that flow through the area. To get to deeper coal, this process may be repeated several times. After all the coal is removed, the land is “reclaimed” by seeding, allowing the vegetation to return. However, the mountain and valleys of course never come back. Thus the mountains, which took millions of years to form, are destroyed forever in a matter of days.

Mountaintop removal is a fairly new process, having first begun in Appalachia during the 1970s as an extension of strip mining. Proponents of the process point to its efficiency, arguing that it can produce coal at a much lower cost. This process also utilizes few miners, and working conditions are safer for these miners.

Opponents point out the environment devastation it causes, as well as the economic impact as it makes the landscape completely ugly and discourages tourism. The fact that it employs fewer miners also means that those living in communities affected are less likely to reap economic benefits. When the coal is completely extracted, the mining companies usually pack up and leave, leaving local residents with fewer economic opportunities and a ravaged landscape.

Although coal mining has provided employment for generations of Appalachians, it has also been responsible for much suffering and heartache. Images of mining in Appalachia tend to be complex: while showing great respect and admiration for miners themselves, they tend to paint coal companies in a very negative light.

This of course represents a basic truth: coal mining is a double-edged sword for Appalachia with both very real and stark advantages and disadvantages. Over the years many observers have wondered if coal has been a net advantage or net disadvantage for the region. It is likely that debate on this issue will continue for years to come.

The sources for this episode were the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell; Coal: A Human History by Barbara E. Freese; the website of Appalachian Voices, available at, and the website of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, available at

That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. I greatly appreciate all of the feedback I’ve received, as well as all the webmasters and bloggers who have linked to this podcast. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at, as well as two videos of photography from the region that you might enjoy. If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is You can also find this podcast on myspace at I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.

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