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Published: January 10th 2006
West of Cleveland
Sign on Truck-
"We Support Our Troops Whenever They Go!
No Aid Or Comfort To The Enemy, No Way!"
So, went on another little jaunt for a client, including sunny Cleveland, Ohio (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!) and the coalfields of West Virginia…Shooting conditions weren’t the best, and quite a bit of driving & scouting was involved. Along the way I saw constant reminders that the heyday of coal came and went half a century ago…Town after town, the windows of the buildings were boarded up, half the buildings that had survived consecutive years of flooding were on the verge of collapse, and you couldn’t kick the hillside without finding more coal…
The roads were black. Not just black from the asphalt, but black from the coal dust…Coal dust picked up by dump trucks leaving the strip mines, coal dust shaken off of dump trucks, coal dust shaken off of railroad cars…in some places the dust was so thick that it hid the double yellow lines of hairpin turns. In other places the mine stood at the center of town, and a water truck rumbled through daily, sprinkling the road in an attempt to keep the dust down.
Deep mining, the kind done in shafts underground, is labor-intensive and doesn’t offer the same profitability as scraping the
Artwork at the Cleveland Airport
top off of a mountain in a strip mine. So all these little towns: Northfork, Powhatan, Kyle, Big Four, they all had hard-working citizens back when deep mining was the only game in town. But when the switch came, the jobs got cut, and then the town got cut. Then the demand for coal plummeted, and all but a few of the remaining mines shut down and even more folks were left jobless. The Cadillac dealership? Gone. The grocery store? Gone, too. County after county, the small schools built on an affluent tax base have been boarded up…now what students remain are bussed to the central county school.
It’s easy to rhapsodize about work ethics and pockets of poverty, employment opportunities and market-driven economics, but it’s quite another to realize that entire counties lie beneath the poverty line. “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” and there seemed to be a whole heck of a lot of people looking for an escape, be it chemically or spiritually induced, judging by the two growth industries: churches and drug addiction treatment clinics.
So take these images for what they are…a brief picture of an America that most people don’t even
think about, until a mine owned by a company with a less-than-stellar safety record explodes…I went to college in Upshur County, just twenty miles from the mine explosion. Across West Virginia the flags flew at half staff. And as I sat at the Holiday Inn Express, reading some fool wondering in “USA Today” why anyone would go back into the mines, all I could think was, “Why wouldn’t they?”
Why wouldn’t they take a paycheck in a dark, dangerous hole in the ground? If it fed my kids and put shoes on their feet, I’d put my life on the line, too. I may question the long-term ecological wisdom of dependence upon carbon fuels, and I may question how well the people of West Virginia have been compensated for the damage caused by mining to their communities and land, but I can sure understand why some someone would take a job in the mines.
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