Coal mining’s legacy

I’ve been gushing lately, to pretty much anyone who will listen, about Denise Giardina’s two novels about coal mining in West Virginia, “Storming Heaven” and “The Unquiet Earth.” Both books have been around for quite a while, published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively, but I happened to delve into them just after the 2016 Presidential election, in which the anger and discontent of working class and rural whites, including coal miners, became major topics of discussion.

One of the lessons of the election was the folly in dismissing the concerns of a significant segment of the population, which also happens to hold disproportionate sway in the electoral college. The anger voters expressed in 2016 was not just a product of recent economic changes, but was an overflow of resentments that have been building for decades as a result of dwindling opportunities and stagnant wages. Giardina beautifully portrays the generations of hardship experienced in the coalfields of southern West Virginia and gives historical context for the current political climate.

“Storming Heaven” opens in the late 1800s, when large coal companies, mostly based on the East Coast, took control of large swaths of coal-rich land, either through purchasing the land for less than its value, or forcibly evicting residents. Within a few years, coal had become the dominant industry in Mingo, Logan and other counties. (In Giardina’s books, the fictional Justice County is a stand-in for Mingo.) With enormous demand from the steel industry and power companies, there were fortunes to be made from mining. Those fortunes lined the pockets of coal company executives, while the miners themselves were paid starvation wages.

Giardina writes of men and boys, as young as eight years old, working long hours, six days a week, in underground mines where deadly roof collapses were common, and black lung disease was the reward for those who could withstand decades of back-breaking labor. Deprived of land ownership, miners lived in company houses, and rent was deducted from their paychecks.. Their wages were paid in scrip, currency printed by the coal companies that could only be spent in company stores. Hunger and disease were rampant.

While there are clearly some artistic liberties taken in “Storming Heaven,” the historical details are so vivid that I did several online searches while I was reading the book to distinguish fact from fiction, and found that most of the dramatic details in the book were true to life.

Despite the horrible work conditions, at the turn of the 20th century, mining was still the most promising industry in southern West Virginia, and miners were willing to put their lives at risk to support their families. However, over time, as company abuses worsened, and death tolls rose from mine accidents, miners began organizing themselves into unions.

Even though the labor movement was already established in other industries and regions of the country in the early part of the 20th century, the coal companies did not permit workers to unionize, so miners met clandestinely, fearful of being discovered and punished. Giardina writes of miners being threatened and even murdered by armed guards hired by the coal companies, simply for joining a union.

In spite of the intimidation, following a mine explosion that killed dozens of miners, union members organized strikes at several Mingo County mines in 1919. In retaliation, the coal companies evicted the miners from their company-owned houses, forcibly throwing women and children out with no prior notice. Rather than give in, the striking miners organized tent communities in the West Virginia hollows, where they lived for months, subsisting on meager diets.

As a whole, local, state, and federal governments turned a blind eye to the miners’ concerns, often because of graft from the coal companies. However, there were some exceptions. In the town of Matewan, an important railroad junction in Mingo County, the mayor and sheriff sympathized with miners. On the morning of May 19, 1920, they watched as a group of Baldwin-Felts agents, hired by the mining companies, changed trains in Matewan, on their way to evict striking miners from a nearby coal camp. When the agents returned by train to Matewan later that day, the mayor, sheriff and other locals met them with an arrest warrant. Prepared for a battle, miners and other sympathizers were stationed inside storefronts overlooking the railroad tracks, with guns trained on the Baldwin-Felts agents.

What happened next was a shootout that would become known as the Matewan Massacre. It is unclear who fired the first shot, but in a matter of moments, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and three Matewan residents, including the major, were dead. The massacre helped to embolden miners, and fueled the outrage many felt toward the coal companies. (The site of the massacre is now a historic landmark, which I visited on assignment as a college intern for The Charleston Gazette.)

Over the next few months, the miners began literally building an army, collecting firearms from as far back as the Civil War, in preparation for further conflicts with the coal companies. In addition to orchestrating workers’ strikes, they used explosives to damage mining equipment and shut down operations.

Sid Hatfield, Matewan’s sheriff, and others who stood off against the Baldwin-Felts agents in Matewan, stood trial for their involvement in the massacre, and all were acquitted. However, on August 1, 1921, Hatfield and another man, Ed Chambers, were to stand trial in a separate case involving dynamiting a coal tipple, a structure used to load coal onto trains. As the two men ascended the McDowell County Courthouse steps with their wives at their sides, they were ambushed by Baldwin-Felts agents who assassinated them in front of their horrified wives. In “Storming Heaven,” the names are different and various details are embellished, but the overall events are historically true.

Following the courthouse assassinations, the miners’ rage culminated in the Battle of Blair mountain, an armed conflict between unionized miners and armed forces on the payroll of the coal companies. The federal government got involved as well, but not as a neutral agent. Instead, U.S. military planes flew over the Logan County battlefield, dropping WWI era bombs on the miners. Ultimately, the coal companies were able to crush the miners’ revolt, and managed for quite a few years afterward to subject workers to even worse working conditions. The United Mine Workers did not have the right to fully organize in West Virginia until 1935. Eventually, laws required safer working conditions and fair compensation for miners.

Giardina’s follow-up novel, “The Unquiet Earth,” shows the evolution and decline of the coal industry from the 1930s to the 1990s. This second novel is less dramatic but equally reflective about the impact of coal mining on local economies, the environment and workers’ health. Even in the best of times, Giardina’s portrayal of mining is of a dirty, dangerous, back-breaking industry. While the coal industry has at times been a source of sustainable wages for those without higher education, it has always come at a steep price, and the benefits of the industry have been disproportionately in favor of coal and energy companies over the miners themselves.

Giardina’s books portray historical events from multiple points of view, demonstrating the humanity on all sides. Even though I grew up in West Virginia, I was removed from the coal industry, and had not given much thought to the lives of coal miners, with the exception of viewing the excellent 1987 film “Matewan.” Giardina’s books portray the hardships of miners in a very relatable way as workers who sacrificed for their families, took pride in their work, and loved the mountains that contained the coal. The books also made me think about the legacy of the coal industry as I never had before.

West Virginia’s economy has been largely dependent on the coal industry, which is why some politicians continue to fight to preserve it, at the expense of building new, more sustainable industries. Giardina demonstrates that even in its glory days, the coal industry exacted terrible consequences. Today, the consequences are different — working conditions are safer, but modern mining methods, such as strip mining and mountaintop removal, are more damaging to the environment while employing fewer workers. And, as a resource, coal has a finite supply.

All of this has been written about at length in newspapers and non-fiction books, but Giardina’s fiction artfully brings these realities to life. Toward the end of “Storming Heaven,” two characters travel to Charleston, my hometown, where the unions are organizing. Giardina describes the mansions lining the Kanawha Boulevard, built by coal executives. I have always loved the beautiful homes on the Boulevard, but had never stopped to consider who had built them, or how they made their fortunes.

The knowledge that the wealth that beautified my hometown came at the expense of workers’ health, safety, and prosperity, was eye-opening, and made me realize that these historical events are more immediate than we realize, and have ongoing effects. We would do well to reflect upon these long-term effects as our leaders consider changes to economic, energy, and environmental policies.


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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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