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.
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