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.
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Coal in Our VeinsA Personal Journey
By Erin Ann Thomas
Utah State University PressCopyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Miner's Lamp
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 illuminate his way through the tunnels of a mine.
Carbide lamps were developed after candles and oil lamps, each an attempt to provide light for mining by a more efficient and safer means. My carbide lamp is about four inches tall and cylindrical—approximately two inches in diameter. It has two chambers: one that can be filled from the top with water and a lower chamber for carbide. This lamp is designed so that water from the upper chamber drips down into the lower, creating acetylene gas when it comes into contact with the whitish carbon "salt." These two chambers screw together like a light bulb into a socket.
When I unscrew my carbide lamp it squeaks slightly; in the chamber below a few crumbs of carbide remain—ashes left by somebody who passed on long ago. After placing the carbide in the lamp and screwing it shut, this miner would have opened a small spout in the middle of a metal disk-reflector in the front. This released the acetylene, which he would have ignited by sparking flint. He would then have turned the spout until the flame was about an inch tall, the reflector casting the light of the flame forward ten feet in a thick beam. This model, made by one of the most popular suppliers of the day, Justrite, has a rubber grip at the bottom of the brass body. The miner might have held it in his hand or hooked it to the top of his cloth hat. But the crumbs of carbide left in my lamp give no indication of the particulars of this miner's life or how the lamp made its way from his possession as much as a hundred years ago to an online antique store where my father purchased it for my twenty-ninth birthday.
In the United States, miners no longer used this sort of lamp by the time my grandpa, Robert Thomas, began mining coal alongside his father in the 1930s. He would have been called "Bobby" then and used a battery-powered light that provided less of a fire hazard in a gaseous mine. Bobby is my primary connection to coal, and growing up I was always conscious that my surname had been passed down through generations of strong-backed and rough-handed men. I have always been proud of this fact, preferring my ancestry of Welsh coal miners over a lineage of kings.
Despite this, the coal-mining stories my grandparents and parents told me were like relics or souvenirs. Through them, the memories of my grandfather, his parents, and those before them were preserved, but ultimately I regarded these stories as something that made me more interesting, rather than linking me to the reality of my ancestors' lives or even the reality of my grandfather's life. During the years I knew him, he was a respected educator in the world I lived in. As a former academic vice president at Brigham Young University (BYU) and the founder of its Honors Program, Bob Thomas was still quoted when I started school there in 1996. This, rather than coal, was the tradition that he passed down to my father, Ryan, who is also a college administrator. My grandfather's choice to leave mining redefined what it meant to be a Thomas. And as a Thomas and my father's daughter, I have also found my place in education, carving out my niche in teaching ESL and English, my occupation now in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Until very recently, Bobby, a teenager in overalls with a blackened countenance, felt as distant as he was different.
This changed early in 2006 when I was walking through O'Hare Airport during a layover on my flight to D.C., returning from Christmas vacation. Hours before, I had been dropped off at the Salt Lake airport by my parents, who, after hugging me and placing my luggage on the sidewalk, traveled back to central Utah. They headed through the valleys and up a canyon to their home in Price, a former mining community of ten thousand residents, where my father was the president of the College of Eastern Utah. When he accepted the job five years previously, leaving his position at Utah Valley State College, I joked with my friends that he and my mother were moving south so he could become a coal miner. Price is near Castle Gate, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandfather mined. This connection to our family history heavily influenced my father's decision to take the position.
My journey to D.C. symbolically leaped in tandem with my parent's journey back to Carbon County and its abandoned coal mines when the voice of a television reporter reached me over the noise of the terminal. I peered up at a screen rigged over the departure gate ahead. The camera shifted from a newsroom to groups of people in T-shirts and jeans with strained looks on their faces in front of the backdrop of a little white church: thirteen miners had been trapped in a West Virginian coal mine.
In my almost thirty years there had been a number of mining accidents. During this time, if I had read a newspaper article or watched a news briefing of a mining explosion, I had never taken note of it. For most of my life, coal-mining stories had been exclusively family stories. But on this day these people in the small town of Sago, West Virginia, brought the past of my family jarringly to my present.
Two of my great-great-uncles met their deaths early in mines, and Robert's father, Zephaniah Thomas, barely escaped two of the worst mining disasters in US history: the Winter Quarters explosion of 1900 and the Castle Gate explosion of 1924, both in central Utah. Minutes after the Castle Gate explosion, Bobby, who was then five years old, stood on the porch and watched screaming women pour into the streets. He vividly remembered the 172 white coffins laid out on rough tables in the local amusement hall. They would have loomed large from a child's view below; only by chance did his family have no body to collect there.
In the O'Hare Airport, I was startled by the ordinariness of the families who gathered for news of their loved ones—coal mining moved from the legendary quality family stories acquire as they are passed down to the actual. For the first time I fully realized, I am a coal miner's granddaughter. As a result of this fact, some sort of responsibility bound me to these people.
The explosion occurred in a small mine in the town of Sago in Upshur County. A methane gas leak had somehow ignited, filling the mine with smoke and lethal fumes and blocking the escape route of a mining crew two and a half miles underground. At the time of the news report I saw in the airport, high carbon monoxide levels prevented rescuers from entering the mine. Teams stationed at the mouth of the mine tested gas levels periodically. Family and community members at the local Sago Baptist church waited for news of the thirteen miners trapped inside. Media vans clogged the narrow streets that crossed in front of the small chapel, and news cameras watched as locals held each other and cried—the intimate expressions of their distress broadcast to a screen in the terminal where I sat waiting for my flight to the District of Columbia. I lingered until it was near my departure.
In my bags, I carried a binder of genealogy assembled by my uncle and aunt for the family for Christmas. It burst at the rings with accounts of my mining ancestors through three generations, from their lives in central Utah back to the dawning of the Industrial Revolution in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. Not long after watching the news report in O'Hare Airport, I pulled this binder off my bookshelf one evening. As the sun set and the night progressed into morning, I flipped through pages of transcribed oral histories, written personal histories, funeral speeches, and school compositions on parents and grandparents. Among these accounts were photocopies of old pictures, and I scrutinized each of their faces for a hint of my own. I had heard these stories since I was a child, but reading them that night in the context of a modern mining disaster was riveting in a way that the stories my parents told me never were. Zephaniah and Maud, and Evan and Margaret began to exist in their own right, not just as great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents who died before I knew them. They had struggled in the collier lifestyle, always wanting something different for themselves and their children. Each one of them had lost a family member in a mining accident—in cave-ins and explosions-—just as miners die today.
Although the Sago mining accident was one of the most closely followed news stories of 2006, coal mining is something we rarely hear about except in times of extremity. Occasionally a social activist attempts to bring the conditions of the coal mine to light. Back in the days when my grandfather mined coal, George Orwell completed an investigative survey of the mines in northern England in 1936, using his experiences as the introduction to The Road to Wigan Pier, a book dedicated to exposing the conditions of the working class. He is not the most recent critic of an industry that has significant human and environmental costs, but one of the more eloquent and perceptive. I quote him because the first time I read his words, I felt they expressed something I was just beginning to articulate. He asserted: "Down there where the coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about." By lamplight, he watched men with blackened hands and faces extract a resource that by now has been the main source of carbon power—and the dirtiest—for two hundred years, fueling the technological revolution that has mechanized our society from the horse to the engine. The lifestyle that produced this energy was, as Orwell pointed out seventy-one years ago, the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above: "Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly." This is almost as true now as it was then. Despite the variety of alternate forms of energy available today, the United States depends on coal-burning electric plants for 50 percent of the nation's power, and it is the second-largest producer of coal in the world.
In 1936, when George Orwell traveled to the northern areas of the United Kingdom to document poverty in the working class, Bob's father, Zephaniah Thomas, had moved his family from Castle Gate, Utah, to Oregon, where he unsuccessfully worked a number of small mines—Bobby beside him after school and on the weekends. Orwell opens The Road to Wigan Pier with this statement: "Watching coal miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit ... The miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins."
If Orwell had visited Oregon instead of northern England, my great-grandfather, Zephaniah Thomas, would have elicited a similar sentiment. With coal dust and sweat rubbed into his face, Zephaniah caught in the act of nudging mules would have stood as Orwell's icon of the miserable, his unique personality subsumed by the drudgery of his occupation. Had Orwell spent the day beside his son, Bobby, he wouldn't have noticed the long, beautiful fingers that Bobby had inherited from his mother Maud. Back then, these fingers would have loaded trams and drilled holes to blast out coal with shots. Later, those fingers would lie calmly in my grandpa's lap, the nails clean and filed, or rise elegantly to shape the words that came from his mouth so his audience would know how to interpret them. Orwell would never suppose that someday this boy would read his writings, and that Bob would write his own books, too. "On my Father's side, I am the first generation out of the coal mines. As far back as we have any record, my father's people have been miners," begins Bob in his four-page personal history contained in my binder of genealogy. Although his father, my great-grandfather Zephaniah, had little education, my great-grandmother Maud had been a schoolteacher. She had gotten a college education and was determined that her three sons would, too. Both Maud and Zephaniah died before they saw any of their sons graduate: Maud a victim of nephritis, a disease of the kidneys, and Zephaniah from a severe case of bronchial asthma developed from breathing coal dust.
Orphaned at the age of twenty-five, Bob worked as a ship welder on the docks of Portland, Oregon, pulling both the graveyard and the swing shifts so he could attend Reed College during the day. He completed his bachelor's degree at Reed and went on for a master's degree at the University of Oregon. During this time, he fell in love with his future wife, Shirley Wilkes, while they were discussing philosophy. My father Ryan was born while Bob was working on his Ph.D. at Colombia and only knew his father as an educated man. By the time Bob finished his dissertation and obtained employment at BYU, he circulated in an academic environment that was very different from the mining camps he grew up in.
This is the grandfather I remember. His house was full of bookshelves. It had a comfortable atmosphere that indicated education and a moderate income. He was an indulgent man who bought me pink soda and let me climb all over his back and head, only reprimanding me when I would pull at the remaining hair above his ears. He still worked with his hands, maintaining a woodshop in his basement as hobby, but we were never allowed to wear overalls at his house. To him, they were the uniform of the working class. He had crossed the chasm between blue and white collar in his lifetime so we wouldn't have to.
When I was younger, I could never understand this apparent snobbery of my grandfather. I realize now that he was proud to have been born to a coal miner, but was also proud to have moved beyond it. The lessons he learned as a boy working in the mines stayed with him. Throughout his discourses as an educator, he made many references to "the family occupation." He reflected that he "displayed both an interest in and an aptitude for digging coal. Fortunately, there were those in my life who did not insist that I choose too quickly." Later in another speech, he explained what motivated him to look beyond mining: "I was born into a family of coal miners—my father was in the mines of Carbon County by the time he was thirteen—but his vision for his sons was part of my future from earliest childhood and that vision was not bounded by what Thomases had done for generations. We were not too good to be miners, but we were too good to be less than we might be. I have dug coal, and there must be some ancestral condition that makes me find the blackness of a coal mine comforting—but I yearned for a different life and worked toward it."
As I read the accounts of my ancestors and the newspaper articles from Sago, I wonder what my life would have been like if Bob Thomas had chosen differently. According to the United States Bureau of Labor, there were 78,170 Americans employed by coal mines in 2006. If Bob had passed down the tradition of coal instead of education, would my father have been the first to leave—or would I? Leaving was an aspiration my mining ancestors passed down from son to son, along with their knowledge of the trade. I have never viewed the occupation of coal mining otherwise. However, among these 78,170 miners across the nation, there are those who are proud of what they do, and many would not chose another profession if they could.
Excerpted from Coal in Our Veins by Erin Ann Thomas Copyright © 2012 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents Introduction 1. A Miner’s Lamp Cymyru 2. A Welsh Coal Miner 3. The First Loco to Run on Rails 4. Two Miners’ Sons 5. The Paths of Blind Horses Carbon County 6. The Rattle of Dead Men’s Skin 7. Zeph and Maud 8. The Castle Gate 9. The Striking Years 10. Get the Men Out 11. Leaving Carbon 12. Ghost Towns Bridge 13. A Historical Gap West Virginia 14. The Little White Chapel 15. One Who Escaped 16. A Memorial 17. Mountains Made Low 18. String-Town Appalachia 19. Squatter on a Gold Mine Washington, D.C. 20. The Energy Future of America 21. A Drop in the Bucket 22. Yes to Electric Reliability Coda 23. In the Bowels of the Earth 24. The Last Deep Coal Mine in Wales 25. The Winds of Change Afterword Acknowledgements Sources