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Coal in our Veins

Coal in our Veins: A Personal Journey

Erin Ann Thomas
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Coal in our Veins
    Book Description:

    In Coal in Our Veins, Erin Thomas employs historical research, autobiography, and journalism to intertwine the history of coal, her ancestors' lives mining coal, and the societal and environmental impacts of the United States' dependency on coal as an energy source. In the first part of her book, she visits Wales, native ground of British coal mining and of her emigrant ancestors. The Thomases' move to the coal region of Utah-where they witnessed the Winter Quarters and Castle Gate mine explosions, two of the worst mining disasters in American history-and the history of coal development in Utah form the second part. Then Thomas investigates coal mining and communities in West Virginia, near her East Coast home, looking at the Sago Mine collapse and more widespread impacts of mining, including population displacement, mountain top removal, coal dust dispersal, and stream pollution, flooding, and decimation. The book's final part moves from Washington D.C.-and an examination of coal, CO2, and national energy policy-back to Utah, for a tour of a coal mine, and a consideration of the Crandall Canyon mine cave-in, back to Wales and the closing of the oldest operating deep mine in the world and then to a look at energy alternatives, especially wind power, in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-865-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

    • 1 A Miner’s Lamp
      (pp. 1-10)

      A carbide lamp, no longer used as a functional object, sits on my bookshelf in the living room next to other mementos, relics, and souvenirs from around the world. These objects remind me of the experiences I had in the cities where I purchased them, but displayed in my living room, they bring more attention to me than they do to the location of their origin. For my living room visitors, the carbide miner’s lamp is a visual affirmation of my physical and literary journey into coal. Sometime between the years 1900 and 1930, a miner used this lamp to...

  2. Cymyru

    • 2 A Welsh Coal Miner
      (pp. 13-20)

      Coal mining, in my mind, has always gone hand in hand with Welshness, because throughout my childhood I was told that I descended from Welsh miners—never just minersnor just the Welsh, but both integral, as if to say a particular sort of coal miner and a particular sort of Welshman. I knew it was because of our Welshness that my grandfather sang tenor in choirs (though badly) and my father quoted poetry (in contrast, beautifully). I knew that my sister Megan had a Welsh name, but nothing impressed me more about our Welshness than one Christmas when my family...

    • 3 The First Loco to Run on Rails
      (pp. 21-35)

      According to legend, a Christian princess named Tudful wandered from the northern town of Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil in the fifth century A.D. She was of the house of Prince Brychan of Brycheinoig, a half-Welsh, half-Irish king with a bounteous and educated posterity. Tudful, like a number of Brychan’s thirty-six children, became known as a wandering saint for her dedication to evangelism. Now a county borough of roughly seventy square miles in the Valleys of South Wales, Merthyr Tydfil at that time was primarily populated by sheep. Here among Celtic farmers in the Taff River Valley, Tudful lived simply, founding...

    • 4 Two Miners’ Sons
      (pp. 36-41)

      Although Emylyn Davis was short and wide, he sat thinly, a passive presence in the middle of a sofa in a small, tidy living room with lace curtains and broken-in furniture. His wife, Edna Davis, an entirely practical and talkative person, rested her elbows on the arm of a flowered armchair that contained her neatly, down to the crease in her blue polyester slacks.

      They seemed to be somewhere in their seventies; their company and the comfortable tatter of their living room reminded me of visiting my grandparents. In the local LDS congregation that the Davises attended, Edna was known...

    • 5 The Paths of Blind Horses
      (pp. 42-52)

      After days of cloud cover and brooding, Merthyr Tydfil opened its eyes, blinking at the warm rays of the morning. I stepped out to the road, walking past the rows of houses with brick, stone, and gravel facades. In the backyards, laundry lines and odd pieces of junk were just visible above the fences when viewed from the high road near the mountain. The houses tilted toward the center of the slender valley, where even the dry field over the old colliery looked inviting. I was on my way to take the train to Merthyr Tydfil’s town center to do...

  3. Carbon County

    • 6 The Rattle of Dead Men’s Skin
      (pp. 55-68)

      I grew up under the shadow of a great mountain. The slopes that rose above my cul-de-sac in Orem, Utah, conjure up deep familial love, but also reverence. No matter how intimately you get to know the pink light that kisses the snow on the peaks during a winter sunset, or the spill of radiant light over the dark contours of the morning, the Rockies always keep a distance. They are too grand and too wild to be household mountains. They do not belong to the city that climbs into their foothills below; the city belongs to them. Farther south,...

    • 7 Zeph and Maud
      (pp. 69-73)

      According to family lore, Zeph bought his first pair of Levi’s at age seventeen from a clerk named James Cash Penney at the Golden Rule store in Evanston, Wyoming. (Two years later, Penney opened what would become the flagship J.C. Penney store in Kemmerer, Wyoming.) How Zeph had ended up here from that narrow canyon in Carbon County, Utah, I will never know. Perhaps he caught a train in Scofield and headed directly to Wyoming, or perhaps he arrived there on the twisted path of the wanderer he was bent on becoming. In Wyoming, he found a job in a...

    • 8 The Castle Gate
      (pp. 74-80)

      The section of US Route 6 that passes through Price Canyon is one of the most dangerous highways in America. Semi drivers on their way east lumber along this highway that curves through the mountains, and at night only stars and headlights illuminate the way. On many days in winter it is better to avoid it. Even the elaborate winter snowplow system in Utah is insufficient to remove the danger of ice that accumulates at Soldier Summit, the road’s high point. From Provo to Price, the drive is seventy-four miles, a journey to my parent’s home that I never looked...

    • 9 The Striking Years
      (pp. 81-88)

      Zeph and Maud had moved into the mining camp of Castle Gate in search of opportunity. In Sunnyside, Zeph had proved his supervisory skills as a boss driver, the man responsible for all the movement of the coal along the tracks within the mines. Maud, after years in the classroom, was an expert at encouraging potential in others. Her confidence in Zeph gave him the courage to apply for the open position of foreman of the Castle Gate mine, the top post in mining hierarchy under company management. In 1921, he was placed in charge of several hundred men—the...

    • 10 Get the Men Out
      (pp. 89-97)

      Before Zeph had applied for the job of foreman at the Castle Gate mine, he was required to pass the state licensing exam, a written test that would have been a significant challenge for a man with a sixth-grade education. The job meant a significant raise in salary and a promotion in responsibility; most foremen supervised an average of a hundred men. In 1918, the US Bureau of Mines listed the following job qualifications:

      Physical strength; good health; more than average ability; ability to handle men. He should have large practical experience and a general knowledge of coal-mining conditions as...

    • 11 Leaving Carbon
      (pp. 98-104)

      Six months after the explosion in Castle Gate, the unity that had been developed by the collective tragedy was ripped apart. Strangers drove into the neighboring town of Helper and erected a cross on the hill. This was the first of the burning crosses in Carbon County, where the Ku Klux Klan began to recruit members. The Greeks, the Italians, and the Slavs in these communities formed spy networks to unhood Klan members and erected flaming circles on the hills in opposition to the crosses. My grandfather Robert was six at the time, and he mentioned these in the troubled...

    • 12 Ghost Towns
      (pp. 105-116)

      After burying Zeph in St. George, Bob returned to the shipyards in Oregon. He supported himself through a bachelor’s degree at Reed College, graduating in 1947. Although grateful for the opportunity to study, Bob must have felt very alone. His brothers were in a similar situation, struggling their way through university degrees. Without the benefit of counsel from his parents and at a time when graduate study was far from the norm, Bob decided to pursue a master’s degree in English at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

      At age thirty-one, Bob was balding and had little dating experience. While...

  4. Bridge

    • 13 A Historical Gap
      (pp. 119-130)

      Since Zephaniah’s death in 1943, no Thomas has spent a day’s labor underground, but after moving back to Utah to work at BYU, Robert Thomas maintained his relationship with coal mining by taking weekend trips out to Sunnyside and Castle Gate with his family, driving past the five-hundred foot rock wall that divided his past from his present. This gate is impressed on my father’s young memory and has become an emblem my family’s return to our roots.

      Four Quartetsby T. S. Eliot was one of my grandpa’s favorite poems teach his English classes at BYU, such that two of...

  5. West Virginia

    • 14 The Little White Chapel
      (pp. 133-142)

      Living in the East, you get used to a consuming green—one that reminds you of what it must have been like for the first colonists who beat cities out of the tangled woods. I get the feeling when I drive around the D.C. beltway, where vines climb over the retaining walls, if we were to let the overgrowth go for just a few years, that nature would take back the roads. Roots would crack through the pavement, and it would seem as if there were never such a thing as a highway.

      Seven months after the Sago mining accident,...

    • 15 One Who Escaped
      (pp. 143-146)

      Typically the back windows of trucks in rural America bear items of erotica or patriotica, but on the back of Paul Avington’s window was the decal of a miner crawling on his hands and knees with a headlamp lighting the way before him.

      I followed the brown pickup to Paul’s house. We had met up at a local gas station, either because he didn’t trust an outsider or because he was afraid I’d get lost. “You Erin?” he had asked, sizing me up. My first impression of Paul Avington was that he looked benign, but I had never seen a...

    • 16 A Memorial
      (pp. 147-155)

      The woods were wet and splotched with a pale green fungus. Rust and yellow colored leaves clung limply to the ends of branches; there had been no snow, and remnants of fall still littered the forest. A mist hung low over Buckhannon River, where one stone-block pillar stood like a solitary omen. This pillar once supported an old mining bridge for railroad tracks. A local had told me that she used to play in the river during the summertime, but in early January, no children laughed or splashed. The water lay perfectly still.

      It was just over a year after...

    • 17 Mountains Made Low
      (pp. 156-163)

      The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world and one of the few, other than the Nile, that moves from south to north on the globe. It curves through mountains covered with thick greenery that slants up on either side, and in the spring and summer months professional river guides steer groups of four to twelve tourists straddling bright colored inner tubes through the rapids. After I left Reverend Day near the mining memorial in Sago, I drove south to meet up with some friends in Fayetteville to take a trip down the river. Before my...

    • 18 String-Town Appalachia
      (pp. 164-176)

      String-town Appalachia was a barrage of small white signposts that popped up on the left side of the road before I was conscious of crossing a town line. I was on my way to Sylvester, the first stop in my journey to the sites that had made headlines in the fight against mountaintop removal. Seth, Kirbyton, Fosterville, Orgas, and Keith charged by in ten miles on West Virginia Route 3, Coal River Road. The smaller of these towns indicated they were unincorporated, meaning there was either too little interest in forming a township or too few citizens to lead it....

    • 19 Squatter on a Gold Mine
      (pp. 177-184)

      At a fork in the mountain road up Kayford, I took a right and realized I’d gone wrong somewhere when the road ended at a fence and a guard post. I drove up and rolled down my window.

      “I’m looking for Larry Gibson and a folk festival.” I noticed the company name on the guardhouse and realized I was on the property of Massey Energy. I flashed a wide smile to diffuse some of the tension, and grin crept out the corner of the guard’s stiff lips. The result was a grimace.

      “I don’t know where it is, but you...

  6. Washington, D.C.

    • 20 The Energy Future of America
      (pp. 187-200)

      As I begin to write this chapter, I become aware that I am leaning against the wall, with my back to the window, trying to make the most of the last bit of daylight. In a state like Virginia that uses mostly coal, in country that remains the world’s per capita energy hog, with the whole history of coal and four generations of Welsh miners on my back, I’m in an impossible fix. Flipping a switch revs the engines of a dragline. But eventually dusk will come and then dark, and even if I neglect to turn on the light,...

    • 21 A Drop in the Bucket
      (pp. 201-206)

      The red brick exterior of the Potomac River Generating Station squats on the banks of its namesake, a body of water that has provided an easy outlet for heat and toxic chemical disposal over the sixty years of its operation. Perhaps most significant about its appearance are the five stubby smokestacks, built at a height as to not interfere with pilots landing at Reagan Airport across the river. Tracks are laid out alongside the plant, and a train with a blue engine delivers the coal. The Mount Vernon Trail runs in front of the generating station, and several joggers passed...

    • 22 Yes to Electric Reliability
      (pp. 207-220)

      Mr. Ralph M. Hunt writes: “I support the call for reasonable solutions to provide reliable, affordable energy while also protecting our air quality, so I finally decided to get involved.”

      Alice Bertele writes: “This letter is to share my fear and frustration about how our City Council is gambling with our environment, health, and more than $3 million just for the sake of political rhetoric … Instead of grasping reality, the City Council is playing politics by fighting the Potomac River Generating Station and in doing so, they are actually preventing innovative improvements to our air quality that the plant...

  7. Coda

    • 23 In the Bowels of the Earth
      (pp. 223-236)

      The Wheat Cap Lamp looks very similar to the cap lamp designed in 1912 by Thomas Alva Edison. A wide-faced light clips onto a hardhat, and the wire is fed over the hat to where the battery is held on a belt. The lamp can provide twelve hours of light for each battery charge, and the battery is rechargeable five hundred times. Each bulb has two filaments that add up to 550 hours of bulb life. This is not the type of battery-powered lamp that waited in the storeroom in March 1924 when my great-grandfather Zeph sent in his crews...

    • 24 The Last Deep Coal Mine in Wales
      (pp. 237-244)

      Early in January 2008, the Tower Colliery, the last deep mine in Wales, ceased operations. Until then, it was the oldest operating deep mine in the world. After eighteen years, the seams were exhausted, and the colliers who had fought so bravely against Margaret Thatcher were out of work. On hearing the news, I booked a flight to Wales. In all my exploration of coal and its history, coal has never gotten into my blood like my grandfathers before me, but coal miners, especially Welsh coal miners, plucked a particular ancestral strand. I wanted to get there before they filled...

    • 25 The Winds of Change
      (pp. 245-254)

      At the turn of the century—we still refer to it as this (even though we have witnessed the turn of another) because this turn signified so much—humankind was for the first time experiencing mechanization. America was seized by the excitement of technology and recognized its source. Henry Obermeyer claimed: “Almost the sum total of modern construction in America is nothing more than a monument to coal.”

      As America surged to the lead in coal production, it surged to the lead in the world economy. It wasn’t hard to remember where energy came from because at that time, a...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 255-261)

    One Saturday in November, I looked up from an ultimate frisbee game in Anacostia Park to spot a bald eagle. The park lies upstream from Old Town Alexandria, where the Potomac River splits and straddles the downtown area of the nation’s capital.

    “The power plant along the river developed a bald eagle nesting program to boost their environmental creds,” I told a friend. “Maybe that’s one of their birds.”

    Five days after the eagle sighting on Thanksgiving Day, I had the worst asthma attack I’ve experienced in seven years after playing twenty minutes of ultimate frisbee. I called for two...