The first upheavial related to coal took place when coal began to be exploited by outsiders. Coal's presence in Appalachia had been known for basically the whole of the 19th century, but exploited only locally during that period.. Many small-farm Appalachians, if they lived in coal country, had outcrops of coal on their land, and supplemented or replaced wood with coal for heating and cooking. If they needed coal, they went to their own coal bank, and dug out a coal bucket or two. A few of them took advantage of the availability of coal to stoke local furnaces for smelting iron or for similar purposes.
It was not until around 1900 that rich outsiders began to exploit coal. Industrial titans like the Rockefellers, Roosevelts, and Delanos began to send representatives into Appalachia to buy thousands of acres of land and of mineral rights - the latter often at fifty cents an acre - and began to open coal mines on a large scale.
When these coal magnates established a coal mine in the Appalachians, they generally built a town to go with it, including all the dwellings and businesses. The town was established to a pattern, and everything in it, from the stores to the recreation facilities, and from the scrip that served as currency to the houses the miners occupied, belonged to the coal company.
If the town had a medical clinic, it belonged to the company. If it had a constable or a mayor, that person, if not actually appointed and paid by the company, served at the sufferance of the company, company-owned in a different way. An official who stepped out of line would find himself no longer constable or mayor. Until the union wars of the twenties and thirties wrested some independence for coal miners who essentially had been serfs, the companies often also controlled how the miners voted. If it was known that a miner had voted “wrong,” he was likely to lose his job. That meant he also lost his house. The houses were there for coal miners; if you were no longer employed by the company, you could no longer live in the town.
The company-housing model that coal towns brought to Appalachia was a departure from traditional Appalachia in a deeply fundamental way. The small-farmer Appalachian family had always had its own house. My husband Dean’s family lived that traditional Appalachian life. His father was an accomplished farmer who carpentered on the side for cash income. His family, for generations back and as wide as the family tree spread, had always lived on their own land, and anyone who had land and trees had a house. If not, the family threw up a log cabin to live and raise a family in. Dean’s sister Martha once described to me her first exposure to the concept of renting a house: “I was flabbergasted. In my world, you had your house. It was just there. I could not grasp the concept that someone else owned the roof over your head.” To those brought up in coal camps, though, renting was the norm, and a house was tied to a job.
That house-sufferance applied to more than voting wrong. If a miner was injured and could no longer mine coal, he not only lost his health and his income, he also lost his shelter. A widow whose husband was killed in the mines could find herself, her children, and her household possessions deposited by the side of the road well before the ground had settled over her husband’s burial mound, or even before the grave flowers wilted. Companies usually owned all the land the town perched upon, and they brooked no competition with their rule. In many coal camps, the only non-coal-company structures were the post office and the school, and it's hard to be sure about the school.
Coal camps worked under a different economic system as well. The economy in a coal camp was not the subsistence economy of traditional Appalachia, but it wasn’t a cash economy either. A coal camp economy was based on scrip. For those who don’t know about scrip, scrip is exonumia. That is, it’s coinage minted outside the legal tender of the United States, It was the lingua franca of financial transactions in most coal camps. In the beginning, scrip’s purported purpose was to alleviate shortages of U.S. legal tender (coins and bills) occurring in coal camps because of the camps’ alleged remoteness. Coal companies were quick to see the monopoly value offered by controlling a town’s currency, though, so in actual use scrip gave the coal companies a virtual stranglehold on miners. Company stores were able to add huge mark-ups to the goods they sold to miners, and the miners could pay those inflated prices or travel substantial distances to buy the goods they needed. Since few miners had cars in those days, or any transportation except their feet, the company store became their default option..
In addition to the impediments that blocked miners from leaving the coal camps to shop, another factor kept miners shopping with the company. If a miner was paid in scrip, no place besides company facilities was obliged to accept it. Some nearby towns might, but never at 100 cents on the dollar. Generally, a miner or his family traded scrip for cash or for goods bought outside the company store at seventy or eighty cents on the dollar, and the price might be as low as fifty cents.
Scrip held sway in coal camps for decades, but began to lose its power in the post-war years. After the success of some of the union wars of the thirties, followed by the boom times of World War II, miners both gained more power to negotiate with coal companies and found themselves more flush with money. They could begin to afford cars, and that mobility to shop away from the coal camp began to affect the success of the scrip-and-company-store regime.
Besides coal camp structure and economics, other differences existed. Coal camp culture differed from traditional Appalachian culture, even as that differed from mainstream American culture and even from historic Anglo-Saxon culture in significant ways. Language is one. Mobility has always been another.. Many traditional southern Appalachians have lived in the same small area--in the same county, for instance, or even on the same creek – for all their lives and the lives of their ancestors before them. In many areas of southern Appalachia, there are people who live on the same plot of land their ancestors took up two hundred years before. The old joke about Kentucky, “Two million people and sixteen last names,” has a basis in fact. Families came and stayed. In traditional Southern Appalachia, still today, any conversation between strangers is likely to start with, “Whose boy are you?” Placing people into a family is as natural as speech to an Appalachian. But that depended on the came-and-stayed factor. In coal country, that question never came up in conversation. It made no sense to ask whose boy you were, because the response would have had no meaning. Everybody in a coal camp was from somewhere else.
Coal camps also differed in the makeup of the population. Traditional Appalachia was almost solidly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant – English, Scottish, Irish. But coal camps reflected the mix of Ellis Island immigrants coming into the country in the early years of coal, so there were Italians, Hungarians, Slavs, many middle Europeans. In a coal camp, you might come on a road called Hunk Holler, now full of assimilated Americans, but originally named for the influx of job-seeking Hungarians, or perhaps other people from Mittel Europa lumped under that general name. Coal camps also attracted blacks, who, while they still were segregated from whites in housing and schools, worked in the same mines at the same jobs, and were part of the same culture.
Another cultural difference related to the land and to primogeniture. In spite of a strong Anglo-Saxon heritage, the principle of primogeniture never took hold in the mountains. There, the custom frequently was that the older children, as they reached adulthood, established new households, usually close by and often on land deeded by the parents. It was the youngest child who stayed at home, took care of the parents as they aged, and inherited the house and land when they died. That heritage and that expectation still survive today among some Appalachians. Recently, the wife of the elder of two brothers complained bitterly to me that the younger son had got the family homestead, which she felt should have gone to her husband. Chances are, there was nothing personal in that; those parents were following established custom. But there is a third twist to the way land was passed on in families, another dividing line between traditional Appalachia and coal Appalachia. That twist is that choosing to pass the homeplace on to the eldest or youngest child was irrelevant in coal Appalachia because people living in coal camps had no land. Primogeniture, whether in the traditional or upside-down version, was rendered irrelevant.
Another difference between traditional and coal Appalachia was land use. Touring traditional Appalachian roads, viewers find that a high proportion of houses are built on steep hillsides. The main floor will often be level with the hillside in back, while the front of the house, facing the road, will be a story or higher off the ground. Many graveyards lie on steep hills as well. There was a reason for that. Good arable land in the Appalachians – good bottom land in Appalachian parlance – had to be devoted to the highest and most economic use, and that was not for housing or graveyards, it was for producing food. So the flatter land along the creeks often held the gardens and fields, and the houses and graveyards sat above them on steep hillsides. In coal camps, which were designed from the beginning for coal extraction as opposed to farming, there was no reason to take on the more expensive and more complicated path of building houses on hillsides, They were built on the flat land along the river bottoms. A lot of people in coal camps raised gardens, but they were forced to sacrifice their small yards for that, or go up on the side of the mountain to till and plant, because the flat land and the best soil was covered with houses.
Coal Appalachia was different, too, in population density and social structure. Coal camps were dense with cheek-by-jowl-houses, unlike the scattered small farms of traditional Appalachia. They were also full of children.
The one-room schools still found in traditional Appalachia well past the mid-twentieth century had never been a significant factor in coal camps. In McDowell County, West Virginia, for instance, coal camp children might attend a big brick edifice that needed three stories just to accommodate the first six grades. After that, they might be bused to another big brick school for the next three grades, and then a third one in a third town for the three grades of high school.
But that population density was about to change. Around 1950, the coal mines began to mechanize and slash jobs with the brutality of a machete felling cane, casting tens of thousands of miners adrift. In 1970, the nation produced 17% more coal than it had mined in 1950, but with only one-third of the work force. Two hundred and seventy-five thousand mining jobs had disappeared. Considering that coal camp families at that time might commonly have four to twelve children, millions of people were affected.
Those changes hit Appalachia particularly hard because, except for resource extraction industries like coal mining, there were few industries in Southern Appalachia. Even when the nation as a whole was booming, Appalachia was a one-trick pony and that trick was coal extraction. When mining jobs disappeared, there were no others to seek, nor likely to be anytime soon. The difficult terrain and lack of decent transportation almost assured that.
By the time John Kennedy made a campaign stop in Welch, West Virginia while seeking the 1960 Democratic nomination, businesses were struggling all over coal counties. Kennedy later that summer said of the cataclysm hitting the coal fields and southern West Virginia, “McDowell County mines more coal than it ever has in its history, probably more coal than any county in the United States, and yet there are more people getting surplus food packages than any county in the United States. The reason is that machines are doing the jobs of men and we have not yet been able to find jobs for those men.” In 1961, the first food stamps ever issued went to a family in McDowell County.
Kennedy was right. In West Virginia, which had led the nation in coal production for decades, McDowell County had not only led West Virginia but had decade after decade produced more coal than any other county in the United States. In 1960, it still led, but for the people who lived there the world had changed in unimaginable ways. The county seat, Welch, which had 6600 people in 1950, lost a fifth in the ensuing decade, and another fifth in the next ten years, a trend which continued until, in 2000, the population was maybe a third of its heyday in the fifties.
War, another shopping town in the county, fared worse. In 1950, nearly 4000 people lived in War. Between 1950 and 1960, it lost 25% of its population, and in the next ten years another third. Business activity fell even more sharply, because much of that business had come from the coal camps, and they too were suffering. The drop was felt in a variety of ways. With its 1950 population of 4000, War had supported numerous churches, restaurants, pool halls and stores, and even two movie theaters. By 1970, the customers for those businesses had transferred themselves to Detroit or Cincinnati or Baltimore, and War was dying. By 2010, at the end of sixty years, War’s population stood at roughly 20% of its high-water mark.
McDowell County’s overall population also kept on dropping. By 2011, a county which had fed and sheltered almost 100,000 people sixty years before had lost population until it was almost down to its level in 1900, before industrial-scale coal mining began. This over-the-cliff plunge occurred at a time when the nation as a whole was growing four-fold, from seventy-five million to more than three-hundred million.
Comparing that coal-country out-migration to what is generally considered our greatest national displacement--the Dust Bowl of the 1930s—the numbers are stark. As McDowell County was the coal epicenter of Appalachia, Cimarron County, Oklahoma was the geographic center of the Dust Bowl. Both suffered a decline in population, but to a very different extent. Cimarron County dropped 32% between 1930 and 1940. That was seven percent more than the 1950-1960 drop in the population of McDowell County, West Virginia, but it falls short of telling the whole story. Another ten years on from 1940, the Cimarron County population had rebounded by 25%. McDowell County, in contrast, lost another 32% of its people in its second ten years. As Cimarron county continued to recover, McDowell County continued to bleed. Sixty years out from the onset of the dust bowl, Cimarron County population was a fairly robust 61% of its 1930 level, whereas, sixty years out from 1950, McDowell County’s numbers stood at 20% of its apex. The coal fields’ scale of loss - unheralded and indeed almost unrecognized - occurred on a magnitude that makes a piker of the well-documented and often-studied Dust Bowl migration.
In many coal counties,almost every young person left after high school or college. All those big brick consolidated schools began to empty and close, as the towns and coal camps had. The scale of the out-migration was stupendous, and the impact on those left behind more stupendous still, both economically and socially. The coal companies had begun the destruction of traditional Appalachia when they bought the land and minerals, built the coal camps, and lured so many formerly independent Appalachians to mine “their” coal by the promise of a better life. Now they drove another upending of the Appalachian world and culture by taking away those coal-mining jobs that, for miners, had replaced the land as their source of survival.
Now, what you see is towns not dying but virtually dead. Welch, county seat of the once-richest county in West Virginia, coal's counterpart to Virginia City, Nevada and the Comstock silver lode, but longer lasting, now has street after street of empty brick-and-glass storefronts, studded here and there with the type of businesses that support the moribund or nearly moribund: funeral parlors, florists, drugstores, and medical supply stores.
Now another seism is seizing coal country. Coal mines are closing down permanently across county after county. Residents of those counties are blaming the closures on EPA regulations and on politics,. There is a lot of talk of a "War on Coal." But those factors are not the problem. The problem is, coal is not a renewable resource, and it has virtually been mined out in Appalachia. What is left lies in small seams in hard-to-get-to places.
The problem is not mechanization, nor EPA rules, or the "War on Coal.".
The problem is markets and supply. Extraction costs are very high for the coal that is left. High-cost coal cannot compete with western coal.or with the bonanza of natural gas being pumped from formations like the Marcellus Shale. The CEO of Arch Minerals, the largest mining company in the US, says that regulations, while cumbersome, are not the problem. The problem is the market. Arch cannot find buyers who will pay as much as it costs to get the coal out. The CEO of Alpha Resources, another big coal company, has said the same. No change in political leadership is going to change that factor.
So Appalachia, especially coal-country Appalachia, is in flux again, as it was in the early nineteen hundreds and in the 1950s to 70s. The likelihood of replacing coal with something else that will support as many jobs as coal mining is low. Many coal camps had populations of several thousand, and there were coal camps like that all over
Appalachia. It’s hard to believe that degree of population density will ever again be seen in the Appalachians, although some hope that after a fifteen or twenty year period of extreme difficulty, the area may slowly grow again. If that should occur,however, it would defy the pattern of coal Appalachia since 1950, and is not something a prudent gambler would put down money on..