WELCH AND WILLIAMSON, WEST VIRGINIA – ON A brisk early-autumn morning in Welch, seat of the poorest county in America’s third-poorest state, four young men methodically demolish an old car-parts factory. The men wielding sledgehammers are not vandals, but construction trainees hired by Coalfield Development, a local non-profit, and they are working hard.
The low, solid building has good bones, but has fallen into disrepair from extended disuse. The same is true of Welch itself. The beautiful stone and brick buildings, complete with carved mullions, stone flares along rooflines and other architectural flourishes, show that once upon a time this town had confidence and money. Discount shops and boarded-up shopfronts testify to a harder present.
McDowell County is the heart of Appalachia, a once-Democratic region that voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump. Mr Trump won four of America’s top five coal-producing states (Illinois, with much of its population concentrated in and around liberal Chicago, was the exception).
As a candidate he posed in hard hats, and repeatedly promised to put miners back to work. That has won him fans in coal country. Bill Raney, who heads the West Virginia Coal Association, says that Mr Trump “brought an appreciation for what these folks in Appalachia do…He just gave a renewed vigour and enthusiasm and confidence in coal,” which was especially welcome after what Mr Raney calls the “eight miserable years” under Barack Obama’s administration, which “did everything they could to discourage” coal use.
The president’s tenure in office has coincided with increased coal production. In the first six months of 2017, America produced 16% more coal than it did in the same period last year, for which many in the industry, rightly or wrongly, credit Mr Trump.
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