This was the era of deep mines, less destructive to the landscape than the mountaintop removal mines that replaced them once surface coal was exhausted. Then as now, the people who lived in the mountains and depended on coal mines for their income fiercely resisted outside attempts to monitor the industry; even today, when coal mines are largely automated and the number of people employed has shrunk, the battle with environmentalists continues, probably the main reason for the failure or near failure of efforts to reform the coal industry. The mines that were forced out by environmental legislation often moved to the West.
Years ago, Eastern Kentuckians were said to be a bunch of ruffians (this stereotype confirmed by pop culture) and I remember my mother saying that the miners would roll huge boulders down on the cars of outsiders touring the hills. When I worked as a Courier for the Frontier Nursing Service, a group dedicated to providing care during childbirth to women in remote cabins, we were told to sing as we rode in the mountains so the moonshiners would know we were girls and hold their fire.
I became aware a little later of the battle my father’s newspaper, The Louisville Courier Journal, waged in its editorials against the coal mines and the politicians who supported them. Along with early environmental protection legislation, these editorials over a decade helped to close most of the deep mines. No one could have imagined, then, that the deep mines, whose owners did try to remedy some of the damage by planting tree seedlings on destroyed hill sides, would be replaced in a few years by mountaintop removal, still being valiantly fought and still ongoing.
When I was a teenager, my father took me to visit one of these mines, but I was not allowed to go inside; miners believed that a woman in the mine was bad luck and would bring on a collapse. After I endowed the Kentucky Foundation for Women, one of our first purchases, to decorate our office, was a black-and-white photograph of a woman miner surrounded by jeering men. I would be surprised if women miners have been able, even today, to win a place in that industry.
Being a fighter myself, I have always been proud of the crusade The Courier carried on for so many years, with at least some success. Recently, I learned more about my mother’s role in the battle. Visiting Eastern Kentucky in the early 1960’s, she learned that her friend, the writer and teacher Harry Caudill, had written a book about the history of coal mining but felt it was useless to send it to a New York publisher. My mother asked for the manuscript and stayed up all night reading it; she mailed it to a publisher and it was accepted and printed at once. Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands served to educate a reading public across the nation.
Sometimes now it’s hard to believe that a book can have that kind of effect; so much of what is written and published concerns private, not public, battles. Since few writers come from the working class or labor for their living, our literature is threatened with becoming irrelevant except for readers immersed in their own private struggles. I don’t disdain the importance of internal writing, but the situation in the U.S. today calls for what became known a hundred years ago as muckraking: Ida Tarbell’s The History of The Standard Oil Company, published serially in McClure’s beginning in 1902, Upton Sinclair’s revelations about the meat packing industry in The Jungle, 1906, or The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow’s epic about a coal-mining family’s plight after they flee to Detroit.
Since we all want to be entertained, it is not a surprise that some closed mines now offer tours; I went on one a few days ago in Silverton, Colorado, visiting a gold and lead mine closed in 1978 by environmental regulations. A nearby mine, the Gold King, recently flooded the Animas River with its contaminants, stored in the sealed mine since 1908 and released in an attempt to disperse them. The Animas River flowed orange for days, reminding the country of the half a million other closed mines in the West whose contaminated waste water has never been addressed—and probably never will be, since there appears to be no solution.
We were a cheery bunch in our orange slickers and white hard hats as we piled into the long rail car that had carried miners for generations a mile deep into the mountain. As we rattled along in the pitch dark with cold water dripping from the ceiling of the shaft, I was astonished that my nine year old grandson seemed to endure the ride more calmly than I.
Our guide, an exuberant and affable former miner, stopped the rail car and turned on lights to show us the various drills used to loosen the gold from the stone face of the shaft. He explained that one high-power drill—the noise was deafening—created a cloud of particulate that destroyed the miners’ lungs in four years. Someone asked if the men wore masks or ear plugs; our guide smiled, treating that as a solution incompatible with an era when, he said jovially, “Men were men.” The conditions he alluded to reminded me of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers where Lawrence’s coal-miner father, a violent drunk, loomed so large.
After telling us about the explosives that were also used, he asked my grandson to set one off; he, wise for his age, refused, but another small boy came forward. We all stood around gaping while he pushed down a handle that, if we our guide had been serious, would have detonated a deadly blast.
Of course it was a joke, but our willingness as a group to go along with it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” in which a village is persuaded, without much effort, to stone one of its members to death every year on the basis of the outcome of a lottery.
[For more on my time as a Courier, please read my post Rude Awakening.]