major cities. Life is good. But it canrnchange. Just look at Los Angeles.rnRoger D. McGrath is a professor of historyrnat the University of Cahfornia, LosrnAngeles, and the author, among otherrnworks, of Gunfighters, Highwaymen &rnVigilantes (J 984).rnLetter FromrnAppalachiarnby Loren MitchellrnHome, Sweet HomernCoal miner. What’s that bring to mind?rnSomeone dumb and dirty? I used tornthink so, and I’m born, raised, and livingrnsmack in the middle of Virginia’s Appalachianrncoalfields. Well, actually notrnthe middle. More like the fringe.rnVirginia has 9S counties but onlv sevenrnthat are coal-producing, and all sevenrnare in the Great Southwest (at leastrnthat’s what they call it around here).rnThe anonymity of my hometown ofrnRichlands, Virginia, isn’t surprising, consideringrnour remote and mountainousrnlocation (we’re closer to the capitals ofrnfour other states than we are to Richmond),rnlack of big-time attractions (everrnheard of the Pocahontas ExhibitionrnMine, or the Historic Crab Orchard Museum?),rnand the fact that the 17 countiesrncomprising the Southwest claim onlyrnfour of Virginia’s 41 cities and barely 10rnpercent of the commonwealth’s population.rnSay “Virginia” and everyone thinks ofrnNorthern Virginia, with its battlefieldsrnand Bobbitts, or of Charlottesville andrnThomas Jefferson, of the capital’s MonumentrnAvenue, or maybe of VirginiarnBeach and the Tidewater area out east.rnThey never think of us. Once, not wantingrna source to think I worked at somernbig city daily, I identified myself over thernphone as the editor at a weekly newspaperrnin Southwest Virginia, promptingrnthe lady to ask, “What part of WestrnVirginia are you from?”rnGod forbid.rnRichlands (population 4,456) gets itsrnname from the “fertile river lands,” asrnthe historical pamphlet says, surroundingrnthe nearby Clinch River, and fromrnthe fact that the little valley it inhabitsrncontains about 5,000 semiflat acres,rnwhich is something of a commodity herernin the Appalachians. If you think thernname is corny, blame the Northern industrialistsrnwith the Clinch Villey Coalrnand Iron Company. They could haverncalled the town whatever thev wanted.rnThey had the right to since the town wasrntheirs, bought and paid for in 1888.rnThey built most of it. Laid out everyrnblock and named every street. Saw itrnmyself on a plat dated 1889. My wife,rnLynna (and, yes, her middle name reallyrnis “Mae”) and I got the plat from therncourthouse when we moved out of ourrn11-year-old mobile home and finally gotrna house in town.rnThose Yankee industrialists just camerndown here, bought the land (and thernmineral rights, of course), and had theirrnengineers design a town. The tree-linedrnstreets are nice and straight and most arernnamed after politicians and soldiers fromrnthe South. (My friend, John the HardwarernMan, lives on Lee Street. I walkrnover there an) time I want a beer.)rnWhat with the coal and all, Richlandsrnwas going to be the Pittsburgh of thernSouth. Really. That’s what they wererncalling it back then. But the town neverrnbecame anything like Pittsburgh, northrnor south. It did have its hevdav, though;rnfour rollicking, coal-inspired boom years.rnAnd so have the rest of the coalfields, tornsome degree or another, during the morernthan 100 years since the first tons werernmined.rnAbout five miles away, up on JewellrnRidge, a few rows of houses remain. Butrnback in the boom days, the coal “camp,”rnas it’s still known, boasted 10,000 residents,rna bowling alley, a movie house,rnand more. But for a real heyday look nornfurther than Pocahontas, about 40 milesrnover Stonev Ridge and bordering WestrnVirginia.rnIn the late 1800’s, the immigrant minersrnof Pocahontas lived in the rows ofrnidentical coal company houses, andrncould take their pick of 25 saloons, almostrnas many churches, and an operarnhouse; in later years, they even had anrnannual celebration called the HungarianrnGrape Festival. It seems shortly after thernWar of Northern Aggression a ColonelrnThomas Graham of Philadelphia saw arnreference in an old journal to a blacksmithrnwho had obtained fuel from coalrndeposits literally jutting from the hillside.rnThat outcropping was a visible tentaclernof the mighty No. 3 vein, “averaging 10-rnfeet thick, of clean coal, with a good solidrntop.” In addition to providing thernname for the local high school and itsrnfootball team (the G-Men), Mr. Grahamrnis recorded as “the promoter of thernSouthwest Virginia Improvement Company,”rnwhich promptly bought up all thernland for as little as a dollar an acre. (Atrnthe time, the locals were warned thatrntheir children would see “in their dayrnand generation the rich coal lands pass tornother owners and the mines developedrnby foreign capital.” I guess no” one listened.)rnThe railroad, of course, camernnext. Thus began the bittersweet historyrnof Pocahontas, today little more than arnghost town.rnThe coal in Pocahontas, all 44 millionrntons of it, ran out in 1955. The cobblestonernstreets are still there. The companyrnstore, now an IGA, closed in 1980 andrnwas “believed to be the oldest companyrnstore in continuous operation, in thernsame building, in the nation,” accordingrnto the history of Tazewell County byrnLouise Leslie. The buildings that werernthe opera house and coffinmaker’s stillrnstand, as do some of the saloons, but,rnalas, only one of those remains open. It’srncalled The Cricket, and for $1.25 yourncan buy a fruit jar of draft beer. Fond ofrnblack leather jackets and sporting rambunctiousrnblonde locks, Anita Brown isrnthe rotund proprietor and bartender, andrnshe holds the distinction of being thernfirst woman ever elected mayor of Pocahontas.rnAside from The Cricket, a few otherrnestablishments, and the Center forrnChristian Action, not much else is left,rnpeople included. The Census Bureaurncounted a mere 215 residents in 1990.rnRebellious town officials conductedrntheir own literal head count, petitionedrnthe feds, and won. The official populationrnof Pocahontas is now 513.rnSo the coal is gone in Pocahontas. Butrnnot in the rest of southwest Virginia.rnThen again, they say only 30 years’ worthrnof the stuff is left. I am only 35, and I rememberrnwriting news when the analystsrnestimated mineable reserves would lastrnhundreds of years. That’s why the distinctionrnabout living on the fringe of therncoalfields is necessary. The top coal-producingrncounties are really hurting.rnBuchanan and Dickenson counties leadrnthe state in unemployment, everyrnmonth. Seventeen percent and 14 per-rn46/CHRONICLESrnrnrn