Posted by: ktzefr | October 16, 2010

Kentucky: Mining and Moonscapes

I watched, along with millions of others around the world, as the Chilean miners were pulled to safety.  It was especially rewarding that people from a number of countries were involved in this rescue effort in one small way or another. Cooperation can be powerful and sometimes produce amazing results.

I had mines on the mind all week as I spent the long Columbus Day weekend in Eastern Kentucky, the coal country where I grew up. The first known coal camp was at a place called Peach Orchard (it’s interesting how some of these communities  have pretty names that are not related at all to the reality of the place) in Lawrence County.  This was the late 1700s when coal was transported by river raft.  Once the railroads were built the rivers ceased to be important to the coal business.


Kentucky's bridge to nowhere??


(We decided to turn onto this spiffy bridge near Harlan County and discovered nothing but a dirt road at the other end…that led up to a strip-mining site.  Nothing else around — no town or houses or schools or people except a few folks out for a Sunday ride on ATVs.)

My mom grew up in a coal mining camp.  They bought almost everything they ate, wore, and used at the company store.  Mom was one of nine surviving children; she had to leave school early to help care for the younger ones.  She often talked about how much she wished she could have stayed in school, but she accepted life the way it had to be lived at that place and time.  Her father rode a mule to work each day and carried his lunch, often nothing more than an onion and a chunk of cornbread.  On special occasions my grandmother made a molasses stack cake and he’d take a slice of cake and sometimes save a small bit for my mom.  She was favored, she said, because she always ran to meet him on the way home and he’d pull her up on the mule for the rest of the ride.  Life was hard, but she talked about those days as if they were the happiest family in the world, and she made molasses stack cake every Christmas well into her 90s.

In the 1930s a mining explosion in Kettle Island, Kentucky, where my mom lived at the time, killed sixteen men.  She knew them all; they were family and friends.  In the last century more than 400 people were killed in mining accidents in Kentucky.  Other family members and friends died of black lung disease.  Deep mining is a harsh business.

When I was growing up there were two mines within walking distance of our house.  Both closed down when I was still a young child, so my experience was limited to playing in the woods alongside the abandoned mines.  In one case the coal tipple was still intact, but rickety and dangerous, so we weren’t allowed to climb on it or play beneath it.  We had a great time, however, on the slate dump (a gray mountain of rock separated from the coal).  The slate was slippery and we would slide down the man-made hill in cardboard boxes.  We didn’t have sleds and didn’t get much snow.  I recall that both mines had a reservoir of water inside a “cave” and we would crawl up to the edge and peer at the still, black water. It was one of the spookiest places I’d ever seen.


Strip-mined mountain top near Kettle Island, Kentucky


In the 1970s strip mining became the major means of extracting coal.  Though my grandfather often worked on his knees with a pick and shovel, the strip miners had technology that made them more than twice as productive and mining a lot safer — no cave ins, fires, explosions.  But the strippers scalp the mountains, destroy forests, and pollute streams.  The big trucks from both types of mining destroy the roads.  The underground miners are against strip mining; they want to keep their jobs.  Those who turn to strip mining often find a very lucrative business.


Mountaintops adjacent to strip-mining area


I love Eastern Kentucky’s mountains.  The foothills of the Appalachians are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.  The hills are full of tulip poplar (the Kentucky state tree), sassafras, hickory, sugar maple, oak, elm, wild cherry, beech…  A million years ago, after the last ice age, the Appalachians were responsible for reforesting North America.  No other forest ever had this much diversity of species.  It’s something to think about.

Kentucky is noted for its horses, but it seems as of late horses have become “a dime a dozen” and are an expense that some folks can no longer bear…so they’ve dropped them off on top of the strip-mined mountain.  The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has also introduced bull elk to this area and locals make the long drive up the mountain to look for elk and watch the sunset.  Elk season opened last weekend and some of our group (not me, thank goodness) came across an elk that had been shot.


"Wild" horses living off the strip-mined land


The names of local mining communities — Kettle Island, Four Mile, Straight Creek, Jensen — were familiar to me from stories my mom used to tell.  I had also seen what is often referred to as mountain-top removal mining at a distance, but I had never been to a strip mining site.  Others who have been to these sites describe them as moonscapes or eerily reminiscent of the American Southwest — the flat, dusty desert.   They’re right.  And the views of one jagged, forested ridge after another in the distance and in every direction was very pretty.  There are no houses or stores or lights anywhere.  I imagined how amazing it might be to sit on that mountaintop that is no longer a mountaintop with a telescope on a moonless night.  But I couldn’t get passed the fact that Eastern Kentucky is not a desert.  It has always been a forest.  And I would prefer finding a clearing amongst the trees to aim my telescope at the stars.


A few goldenrods, the Kentucky state flower, insist on growing...


For more info about mining in Kentucky:

“Death of a Mountain” by Erik Reece

“You Can Move a Mountain…”

“Coal Mine Disasters in the US”


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