Coal miner. What’s that bring to mind? Someone dumb and dirty? I used to think so, and I’m born, raised, and living smack in the middle of Virginia’s Appalachian coalfields. Well, actually not the middle. More like the fringe.
Virginia has 95 counties but only seven that are coal-producing, and all seven are in the Great Southwest (at least that’s what they call it around here). The anonymity of my hometown of Richlands, Virginia, isn’t surprising, considering our remote and mountainous location (we’re closer to the capitals of four other states than we are to Richmond), lack of big-time attractions (ever heard of the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine, or the Historic Crab Orchard Museum?), and the fact that the 17 counties comprising the Southwest claim only four of Virginia’s 41 cities and barely 10 percent of the commonwealth’s population.
Say “Virginia” and everyone thinks of Northern Virginia, with its battlefields and Bobbitts, or of Charlottesville and Thomas Jefferson, of the capital’s Monument Avenue, or maybe of Virginia Beach and the Tidewater area out east. They never think of us. Once, not wanting a source to think I worked at some big city daily, I identified myself over the phone as the editor at a weekly newspaper in Southwest Virginia, prompting the lady to ask, “What part of West Virginia are you from?”
Richlands (population 4,456) gets its name from the “fertile river lands,” as the historical pamphlet says, surrounding the nearby Clinch River, and from the fact that the little valley it inhabits contains about 5,000 semiflat acres, which is something of a commodity here in the Appalachians. If you think the name is corny, blame the Northern industrialists with the Clinch Villey Coal and Iron Company. They could have called the town whatever they wanted. They had the right to since the town was theirs, bought and paid for in 1888. They built most of it. Laid out every block and named every street. Saw it myself on a plat dated 1889. My wife, Lynna (and, yes, her middle name really is “Mae”) and I got the plat from the courthouse when we moved out of our 11-year-old mobile home and finally got a house in town.
Those Yankee industrialists just came down here, bought the land (and the mineral rights, of course), and had their engineers design a town. The tree-lined streets are nice and straight and most are named after politicians and soldiers from the South. (My friend, John the Hardware Man, lives on Lee Street. I walk over there an) time I want a beer.)
What with the coal and all, Richlands was going to be the Pittsburgh of the South. Really. That’s what they were calling it back then. But the town never became anything like Pittsburgh, north or south. It did have its heyday, though; four rollicking, coal-inspired boom years. And so have the rest of the coalfields, to some degree or another, during the more than 100 years since the first tons were mined.
About five miles away, up on Jewell Ridge, a few rows of houses remain. But back in the boom days, the coal “camp,” as it’s still known, boasted 10,000 residents, a bowling alley, a movie house, and more. But for a real heyday look no further than Pocahontas, about 40 miles over Stoney Ridge and bordering West Virginia.
In the late 1800’s, the immigrant miners of Pocahontas lived in the rows of identical coal company houses, and could take their pick of 25 saloons, almost as many churches, and an opera house; in later years, they even had an annual celebration called the Hungarian Grape Festival. It seems shortly after the War of Northern Aggression a Colonel Thomas Graham of Philadelphia saw a reference in an old journal to a blacksmith who had obtained fuel from coal deposits literally jutting from the hillside. That outcropping was a visible tentacle of the mighty No. 3 vein, “averaging 10-feet thick, of clean coal, with a good solid top.” In addition to providing the name for the local high school and its football team (the G-Men), Mr. Graham is recorded as “the promoter of the Southwest Virginia Improvement Company,” which promptly bought up all the land for as little as a dollar an acre. (At the time, the locals were warned that their children would see “in their day and generation the rich coal lands pass to other owners and the mines developed by foreign capital.” I guess no” one listened.) The railroad, of course, came next. Thus began the bittersweet history of Pocahontas, today little more than a ghost town.
The coal in Pocahontas, all 44 million tons of it, ran out in 1955. The cobblestone streets are still there. The company store, now an IGA, closed in 1980 and was “believed to be the oldest company store in continuous operation, in the same building, in the nation,” according to the history of Tazewell County by Louise Leslie. The buildings that were the opera house and coffinmaker’s still stand, as do some of the saloons, but, alas, only one of those remains open. It’s called The Cricket, and for $1.25 you can buy a fruit jar of draft beer. Fond of black leather jackets and sporting rambunctious blonde locks, Anita Brown is the rotund proprietor and bartender, and she holds the distinction of being the first woman ever elected mayor of Pocahontas.
Aside from The Cricket, a few other establishments, and the Center for Christian Action, not much else is left, people included. The Census Bureau counted a mere 215 residents in 1990. Rebellious town officials conducted their own literal head count, petitioned the feds, and won. The official population of Pocahontas is now 513.
So the coal is gone in Pocahontas. But not in the rest of southwest Virginia. Then again, they say only 30 years’ worth of the stuff is left. I am only 35, and I remember writing news when the analysts estimated mineable reserves would last hundreds of years. That’s why the distinction about living on the fringe of the coalfields is necessary. The top coal-producing counties are really hurting. Buchanan and Dickenson counties lead the state in unemployment, every month. Seventeen percent and 14 percent, respectively, at this writing. Remember, too, that the tally by the Virginia Employment Commission does not include people who have given up looking for work or “those whose benefits have been exhausted,” as the officials like to say.
In other words, even the VEC spokesmen admit that actual unemployment is two or three times the reported rate. Other demographics and statistics are just as troubling. In Tazewell County, per capital income is under $10,000, the average weekly wage is less than $550.19 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a fourth never made it past the ninth grade, and only around 700 of us can claim a graduate degree.
Living here now is like showing up the weekend after the party. Someone else had all the fun and the place is a mess. Richlands and Tazewell County arc a little better off than most of the rest of the coalfields. Again, because we are on the fringe, where the coal deposits were not as heavy, and that means the local economy is not tied as tightly or as directly to what used to be called King Coal. Does it sound as though I’m trashing the area? I hope not. Once, on The Tonight Show, I saw a more or less unknown actress dodge Johnny’s question about where she was raised. Rather than even mention the name of her hometown in Tazewell County, she sidestepped, saying only that she had been raised in “a small town in the Appalachians.” She even said “Appalachia” like an out-of-towner, with a long “a.” I sensed she was ashamed of her hometown.
Sure, some of us in this area are ignorant and uncultured, and Southwest Virginia does have its share of ills. But everyone—locals especially—seems to overlook the good things, many of which are natural and therefore not as valued as the man-made. The 7,500 square miles that arc Southwest Virginia claim few gigantic shopping malls and nary a skyscraper, but in addition to having all of the commonwealth’s coal deposits, all the natural gas in the state lies beneath these timber-laden mountains, whose peaks include Mt. Rogers and 32 more of Virginia’s highest points. Virginia also has 2,500 caves—only four other states have that many—and half of those are in the Southwest, serving as homes to at least 50 globally rare species. Know, too, that we all made fun of the “mighty” Clinch River, which sprouts as a trickle a few miles up the road, until General Norman Schwarzkopf and the Nature Conservancy—an international organization claiming 772,000 members—declared the river and the land around it one of the “Last Great Places” left on the planet. Home to three times more species of freshwater mussels than found in all of Europe, the free-flowing waters of the Clinch drain 1,500 square miles of pasture land and forests. Those forests teem with deer and other wildlife, including the mountain lion, wild turkey, even the bald eagle and falcon.
Over the years I have learned to recognize what is good about my hometown in this isolated tip of Virginia. I like leaving my 1986 Mazda parked in front of the house with the keys in it. I like leaving my front door unlocked. Fine with me that it’s November and no one in my town has been murdered. It’s hard not to chuckle when caught in the local “traffic jam,” that bottleneck under the signal lights out by the mall. You can forget the hectic anonymity of the urban sprawlscape. Most everyone who walks into our newspaper office is a distant relative of one sort of another. You won’t go to the grocery store without running into the pastor, your fourth-grade teacher, or one of the town councilmen. And if you run out of money in the checkout line, chances arc the manager will let you slide until next time you come in.
Then there’s the beauty. I realize now that many people go on vacation to see the sights we see every day: never-ending mountain chains, vibrant with fall colors or lush with spring, towering over fogfilled, rolling valleys, dotted only by cattle and the occasional farmhouse. If you think that is a melodramatic description, rent the Lassie video, which was filmed in Tazewell County. My life has been filled with visits to nearby places like Lost Mills, the Indian drawings on Paintlick Mountain, The Peak over in Tazewell, Maiden Springs where we used to jump off the steel frame bridge before some nut blew it up with stolen dynamite, and unbelievable panoramic views that unfold unexpectedly after rounding some bend in a mountain road.
I remember once driving break-neck up a winding road—no yellow line, of course—en route to interview Jeff Fenholt, the guy who played Jesus on Broadway in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and who was speaking at the War Auditorium in War, West Virginia. As usual, I was late and in a hurry. Most of the drive had been between the mountains, until 1 popped around this curve, cleared the trees, and came sliding cop-style into the empty parking lot of a little white Pentecostal church. As the dust settled and the engine coughed, before me lay several hundred miles of mountain tops. Ridge after ridge after ridge, fading into the blue-green distance. Never seen anything like it, and I live around here! That view literally took my breath away, and then I cried. Later, I thought, that is where I would like to take all my city friends. If only they could see that view from the parking lot of that little white church, then they would understand. Paradise is not anywhere on earth, but this is home, ya’ll. That’s why I’m here. And there is lots to be learned about that place we call home.