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264 pp., 53/4 x 91/4, 6 illus., 5 maps, 1 table, notes, bibl., index

$45.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2765-7

$18.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5435-2

Published: Spring 2003

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To Save the Land and People
A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia

by Chad Montrie

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.




Chapter 1
Making, Taking, and Stripping the Land

The Appalachian Mountains derive their name from the Apalachee, a group of North American aboriginal people who once inhabited present-day northern Florida and southern Georgia. European explorers of the sixteenth century first applied an altered name of the tribe to the highlands as they made their way across the southeastern part of what is now the United States. Only well after the Civil War did "Appalachia" refer to more than a physiographic mountain system. Those who studied and wrote about the region in the antebellum period thought of it solely as a place characterized by a particular topography and lithology. This understanding of Appalachia has been complicated somewhat by late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century efforts to define the area culturally and economically. But contemporary geographers and geologists alike continue to think about the region in terms of its notable surface features and rocks.[1]

Viewed as the eroded remnants of an ancient mountain system, Appalachia stretches from Newfoundland, in easternmost Canada, to northern Alabama, in the southeastern United States, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles. Yet the Appalachians are not a single range of mountains. They can be divided up into northern and southern segments, roughly corresponding to the glaciated and unglaciated sections, meeting at the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys in present-day New York. Furthermore, while the northern segment of the mountain system is undifferentiated, the southern section can be broken up into four belts or provinces, identifiable mountain groups running parallel to the whole chain. Each of these provinces—the Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge Province, Blue Ridge Province, and the Piedmont Fold and Thrust Belt—have distinct geological histories and appearances all their own.[2] [map 1]

Farthest northwest in the southern segment is the Appalachian Plateau, extending from northern Alabama to eastern New York. Despite the name, only parts of this province are true plateau, an elevated and level expanse of land. Most of it is dissected by deep valleys and some of the area is mountainous. The province includes the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York, the Pocono Plateau of northeastern Pennsylvania, the Allegheny Mountains from north-central Pennsylvania to southeastern Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, and southern Tennessee, as well as the Cumberland Plateau from central Tennessee to northern Alabama. The rock layers in these areas are primarily flat-lying or nearly flat-lying and sedimentary in origin, formed by the cementation of pieces of preexisting rocks or precipitated from water. They date from the late-Proterozoic to Paleozoic Eras, and much of the bituminous coal mined in Appalachia comes from the province's strata of the Pennsylvanian Period (ca. 320-286 million years ago).[3]

The second belt, moving southeastward, is the Valley and Ridge Province. This belt follows the length of the Appalachian Plateau and is characterized by narrow ridges running parallel to one another for tens or hundreds of miles. Between the ridges are parallel valleys, some of which are quite broad. The southeastern side of the belt, in fact, is nearly a single valley, varying between 2 and 40 miles across and running from New York to Alabama. Like the Appalachian Plateau, most of the rocks in these ridges and valleys are a varied succession of sedimentary rocks dating from the late-Proterozoic Era through the Paleozoic Era, including shale, limestone, and sandstone. These rocks do not lie flat, however, because extensive folding and faulting have taken place in the province. Yet, again like the strata of the Appalachian Plateau, parts of the Valley and Ridge belt are coal-bearing. The most important of these areas is in northeastern Pennsylvania, where four major coalfields make up the Anthracite Region.[4]

The third belt in the southern segment of the Appalachian Mountain system is the Blue Ridge Province. Shorter and narrower than the other three, it stretches from southern Pennsylvania to northern Georgia in a thin strip that widens somewhat in southwestern Virginia. To the north the province consists of a single massive ridge, 10 to 20 miles across, which then diverges into two principle ridges at Roanoke. The Unaka or Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee are the higher, massive northwestern ridge and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina are the southeastern ridge. Adjacent to these mountains is the Piedmont Fold and Thrust Belt, the fourth province, extending from New England to the middle of Alabama, with the Fall Line as its southeastern edge. Both provinces have sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, dating back to the Cambrian Period and earlier, but neither has any significant coal seams.[5]

The formation of coal in the Appalachian Plateau and Valley and Ridge provinces during the Pennsylvanian Period, and elsewhere at different points in time, is reasonably well understood by geologists. They disagree, however, about the process of deposition. Coal forms when fossil plants are carbonized under high temperatures and pressures, removing various gaseous and liquid compounds and leaving carbon films. Put simply, coal is condensed and altered forms of organic matter, such as spores, ferns, conifers, and ancient scale trees. The amount of heat and pressure this organic matter is subjected to over time determines the rank of the coal, that is whether it remains as peat or ultimately becomes lignite, bituminous coal, or anthracite coal. Peat occurs at the earth's surface and consists of plant debris that has not been carbonized. Lignite is a soft brown coal in which carbonization has begun to take place but has not advanced very far. Bituminous coal is black, hard, and bright and contains more carbon than lignite but retains some volatile matter. This low-grade coal can form under the weight of a thick overlying sedimentary pile. Anthracite coal is even blacker, more dense, and shinier, with a higher carbon content and little volatile matter. The formation of this high-grade coal requires additional heat and pressure, such as that found inboard of tectonically active margins of continents. Coals of each rank are found in beds or seams—sometimes in a horizontal position as when they were deposited—but of varying thickness and distance from the surface.

In the 1930s, J. Marvin Weller noted that coal beds were part of a sequence of rocks, typically wedged between a grouping of sandstone, sandy shales, and underclay and another grouping of marine limestones and shales, and this sequence was repeated in the stratigraphic column. He explained these cycles of sedimentary rock, or cyclothems, as the result of repeated uplift, erosion, subsidence, and inundation by a shallow sea. Coal was formed during the periods of subsidence, which were marked by increased rainfall, the growth of lush vegetation, and the accumulation of peat in extensive swamps. But Weller's tectonic hypothesis, as it was called, required an unreasonably large number of uplifts and downwarps, and this problem prompted a search for another explanation. In 1936, Harold R. Wanless and Francis P. Shepard argued that global fluctuation in sea levels due to climate-induced waxing and waning of glaciers (glacio-eustasy) produced the "rhythmic alternations of sediment" during the Pennsylvanian Period, as well as in the Early Permian. Coal beds were formed across the North American continent, they maintained, when increased humidity associated with melting glaciers and a warmer climate created conditions favorable for the growth of vegetation and swamps developed in the lowlands. A subsequent rise in sea level facilitated carbonization of swamp plants (by creating a low-oxygen environment) and resulted in the formation of shales and limestones. In time, vegetation decreased in the uplands and sands poured out on the piedmont, bringing a sedimentary cycle to a close.[6]

Some geologists have now settled on a blend of the two earlier positions to explain the origins of coal-bearing cyclothems across the ancestral North American continent. Tectonically induced changes in sea level were predominant in the Central Appalachian Basin, they contend, and these were concurrent with climate-induced variations, which had a greater impact on the Illinois and Kansas Basins farther west. Past proponents of the contending hypotheses had simply been focusing on two end-member processes that occurred at the same time. According to George Klein and Jennifer Kupperman, mountain building along the eastern margin of the North American continent caused rapid, short-term tectonic changes and cyclic variation in sea level. With each flexural event, Klein explains in an article with Debra Willard, basins were underfilled and marine waters transgressed on the land. But mountains eroded and shed sediment, which filled the basins to sea level. This produced the swampy conditions conducive to the creation of peat, which later became coal. A cycle then ended with more uplift and the retreat of oceans.[7]

Whatever their origins—and that is still a matter of some debate—the sedimentary cycles responsible for coal deposition in Appalachia ceased by the start of the Mesozoic Era (ca. 245 million years ago).[8] Yet the Appalachian mountain system continued to undergo important geological changes. During the Permian and Triassic Periods some of the horizontal beds of rock laid down as part of sedimentary cycles were subjected to folding and compression. In northeastern Pennsylvania this pressure and the accompanying heat metamorphosed the coal into anthracite. Pressure drove off gases and impurities, increased the proportion of carbon, and left an organic compound with a high heat output and low ash content. On the eastern edge of the Appalachian Plateau, coal was similarly affected by folding and compression, but it was not subjected to enough pressure to transform it into anthracite. In areas further to the west, beyond the deformation zone, the coal retained much of its volatile gases and sulfur.[9]

Taking the Land: Dispossession of Early Inhabitants and Capitalist "Development"

When Europeans first stumbled upon North America in the fifteenth century there were as many as fifteen indigenous tribes living in the southern mountain region. By the eighteenth century, however, many of the tribes had been decimated by diseases, a result of the exchange of European pathogens to which they had no immunities. For those tribes that did persist, continued epidemics and other factors weakened the ability of the indigenous people to resist the encroachment of white settlers, and the Europeans took their lands. The Cherokee alone lost 40 percent of their territory by the end of the Revolutionary War, and they ceded an additional 3 million acres between 1800 and 1819. Through a campaign of so-called Indian wars, U.S. soldiers displaced (either exterminated or forced to reservations) nearly all the bands of native people between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, opening up the northwest and southwest territories for white settlement.[10]

Yet, as Wilma Dunaway explains, not all white settlers fared equally well in Appalachia during its frontier years. Federal laws designed to protect the rights and promote the interests of aspiring homesteaders were not implemented until the middle of the nineteenth century, and these laws were designed to regulate settlement in the Midwest. During the preceding decades northeastern merchant capitalists, land companies, and southern planters managed to expropriate most of the Appalachian region's total acreage. By the mid-1700s tidewater planters and British Court favorites had acquired much of southwest Virginia, present-day West Virginia, and western Maryland. In western North Carolina, planters and two land companies monopolized a good portion of the northern sector. By the end of the eighteenth century, probably three-quarters or more of eastern Kentucky's frontier lands were held by absentee speculators. And in Tennessee, merchant capitalists, land companies, and distant planters amassed more than two-thirds of the territory's mountain region. Having engrossed the land with the purpose of making a profit, these speculators charged high prices for their acreage and, as a result, at least two-fifths of settler households were without land in the antebellum period.[11]

Due to inequitable patterns of land ownership, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Appalachia did not initially exemplify Thomas Jefferson's vision of a democratic, egalitarian society based on independent, small freeholders. A speculative market in land gave rise to social stratification, which characterized rural communities of the region just as it did industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Yet even as the engrossment of land imperiled many mountain settlers' dreams of a "competency," most of them continued to believe in and strive for the Jeffersonian ideal. Their qualified success in achieving a life of propertied independence—often by squatting on land owned by others—is evidenced by the fact that generally self-sufficient family farms did eventually become the backbone of the Appalachian economy. By 1880, Appalachia contained a greater concentration of noncommercial family farms than any other part of nation.[12]

Through the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the inhabitants of the southern mountains were still not "Appalachians." The creation of Appalachia as a coherent region inhabited by a homogenous population with a uniform culture, as Henry Shapiro has put it, was a post-Civil War phenomenon. In the antebellum period, travel literature presented mountain people as no different from other Americans, or at least as no different from other southerners. A few accounts even incorporated an awareness of the ways in which the southern highlands were internally differentiated, recognizing the difficulty of making generalizations about the mountains and its inhabitants. But the 1870s saw the rise of local color writing, which focused on the supposed peculiarities of non-urban people and places. With it came the literary, social, and economic transformation of Appalachia. Though the local color genre was not limited to descriptions of the southern highlands, it was there that it had the most significant and lasting impact.[13]

One of the first writers to assert the "otherness" of Appalachia was Will Wallace Harney, who published "A Strange Land and Peculiar People" in Lippincott's Magazine in 1873. Similar essays by other local colorists followed. In more than two hundred travel accounts and short stories of the local color variety published between the early 1870s and 1890, southern mountaineers were presented as backward and isolated from the mainstream of American life. By the turn of the century, various individuals were citing this regression as the basis for a mission of uplift. In an address entitled "Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains" (1899), Berea College president William G. Frost called attention to the special needs of "mountain whites" and, like many others, compared "Appalachian America" to Revolutionary America. Both had the same population, he said, the former having progressed little beyond the latter's level of civilization. For Frost and other observers, as Allen Batteau notes, it was not so much strangeness as familiarity that made Appalachia interesting and worthy to America. The roots of an American cultural identity could be found in the people of the southern mountains: to be Appalachian was to be quintessentially American. Yet the perception of mountaineers as an isolated people of another time also required ameliorative programs of action.[14]

The social construction of an Appalachian people spoke to the need for a rising, urban-industrial middle class to see southern mountain people as a repository of an increasingly threatened republican inheritance. Yet to missionaries, entrepreneurs, and others shaped by late-nineteenth-century urban-industrial transformation, southern highlanders also badly needed modernization. To missionaries, the mountaineers whom they romanticized as "contemporary ancestors" needed social uplift, the betterment that would bring their values and mores up to date. They were deserving of help because of the independence and individualism fostered by geographic isolation, but their feuding, moonshining, and parochialism had to be addressed if Appalachia was not to remain a pocket of backwardness. "[W]here the local colorists had been content to see mountain life as quaint and picturesque, and for this reason inherently interesting," Shapiro contends, "the agents of denominational benevolence necessarily saw Appalachian otherness as an undesirable condition and viewed the 'peculiarities' of mountain life as social problems in need of remedial action."[15]

Capitalists, on the other hand, interpreted modernization to mean development of the region's resources. Such development came to the mountains under the rubric of a New South Creed, a post-Civil War ideology emphasizing diversified agriculture, industrialization, and urban growth. The Creed was promulgated by native private speculators who had taken stock of the South's timber and mineral resources, as well as its proven agricultural potential, and sought to entice railroads and northern investors. In some respects the speculators were successful, in the South as a whole and the mountains in particular. By 1900, four major railroad lines had entered the southern Appalachians and numerous branch lines extended from these main lines. This increase in track mileage, which provided new links between isolated hollows and the cosmopolitan world beyond, brought dramatic changes to the region. But the changes that followed diverged from the vision of a modern South evoked by proponents of the New South Creed. In Appalachia, logging camps and coal towns proliferated, agriculture declined, and the one-way flow of resources out of the region left its people impoverished. Increasingly, the southern mountain economy developed on the periphery of a distant core, its resources owned by outside investors and removed to fuel industrial expansion in the North.[16]

The rise of the new extractive industries hinged on acquisition of land from resident landholders. This dispossession was sometimes lawful, a legitimate exchange of surface or mineral rights for cash. Such transfers were often facilitated by local entrepreneurs who knew the land, its occupants, and what it would take to get them to loosen their hold on the property. And there were, in fact, many reasons why property owners would want to sell part or all of their land. High birth rates, population growth, and land scarcity had made subsistence farming increasingly difficult for each new generation, and mountain life was never idyllic. Travelers' accounts, census returns, government reports, and demographic studies all indicate that after 1830 population increases began to exert pressure upon available economic resources. At the same time, new stock laws required animals, rather than crops, to be fenced. By bringing an end to open foraging the laws increased the cost of raising livestock and limited the opportunities for mountaineers to rely on the animals for food or infrequent commercial exchange.[17]

The many factors making subsistence farming increasingly difficult with each new generation meant that the first forays of land agents into the region usually were welcomed. But the agents did not receive a kind reception from everyone and, over time, an increasing number of landowners were reluctant to sell land coveted by timber and mineral companies. In these cases, agents acquired surface and mineral rights through illicit methods. Ownership of property in the region was often uncertain because of confusion surrounding the original grants and the subsequent purchase of the land by other settlers or occupation by squatters. Land titles were obscure, deeds were lost, and records were poor in most mountain counties. Speculators with a better understanding of laws, courts, and the workings of local and state governments used their knowledge and connections to their own advantage. As a result, by 1910 outlanders controlled not only the best stands of hardwood timber and the thickest seams of coal but a large percentage of the surface land in the region as well.[18]

For many mountain residents, partial or complete land dispossession brought an end to their reliance on farming to meet basic needs and the beginning of a new livelihood cutting timber. Southern highlanders also joined the wage labor force digging coal as operators opened underground mines across the southern highlands. Beginning in the 1880s, small companies dedicated to industrial mining proliferated as branch lines extended off main railroad lines, providing access to national markets. In the 1890s, bigger mining companies came to the mountains just as the market for Appalachian coal expanded. The region offered cheaper freight rates and lower labor costs than the northern Central Competitive Field, which had been organized by the United Mine Workers of America in 1898, and the new industries of the Northeast and Midwest shifted their coal purchases accordingly. Dramatic increases in mining followed. West Virginia produced nearly 5 million tons of coal in 1887, but this had risen substantially to 90 million tons by 1917. In Appalachia as a whole, coal production increased fivefold between 1900 and 1930, eventually accounting for nearly 80 percent of national production.[19]

Most of the first generation of Appalachian miners worked in the mines only seasonally, taking time off to plant, grow, and harvest crops on the land remaining to them. Even after being absorbed completely into coal camps, mining families continued to keep gardens for their subsistence needs, a practice encouraged by operators through their provision of free fencing and plowing as well as seeds and fertilizer at cost. Yet the livelihood of many mountaineers changed substantially with the expansion in mining, and the population of the region changed as well. Because local people could not adequately supply the mines with a labor force, coal operators imported African American migrants from the South and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In 1880 there were very few black miners in the state of West Virginia, but by 1910 there were 12,000. During the same period, the number of European immigrant miners in the state rose from 924 to 28,000, many from southern Italy. Through the early twentieth century, as the population swelled and diversified, the Appalachian region had one of the highest population densities in rural America.[20]

In many of the areas near logging operations and mines, civic development followed the resettlement of older residents and the settlement of new populations. Yet most of the people of the region did not profit from the extractive industries. This is the enduring paradox of Appalachia, that the inhabitants of a land so rich in natural resources could be so poor. When earlier generations of scholars tried to explain this problem they missed the significance of the economic activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The poverty of Appalachia, they claimed, was due to a lack of modernization. Others tried to improve on this explanation by suggesting that a culture of poverty held back mountaineers from taking advantage of the opportunities offered by urban and industrial development. Ronald Eller and others have argued, however, that Appalachia is marked by poverty not for a lack of modernization or because of inhibiting cultural traits, but as a consequence of a particular type of modernization. Between 1880 and 1930, they explain, the region supplied the raw materials essential to the factory and mill production in the Northeast and Midwest. Because so much of the timber, minerals, and land had been bought up by northern speculators, and many of the companies were controlled from outside the region, the great wealth of the land flowed out from the highlands never to return. As a result, many of the people and much of the environment of Appalachia have been impoverished.[21]

Stripping the Land: From Picks and Shovels to Draglines

The coal mines opened by operators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in Appalachia and other parts of the United States, were not all deep mines. An increasing number were one or another type of surface mine. As practiced in the early twentieth century, surface coal mining included area and contour mining, both of which involved removing an over-layer of rocks and soil to get at a coal seam. In the years after World War II surface coal mining also encompassed auger mining, boring into an outcropping of coal with a huge auger. And by the mid-1970s, some strip operators were extracting coal by a process vividly referred to as "mountaintop removal." In the debate over surface mining—in hearings, protests, and literature on the subject—opponents and coal industry officials alike often failed to distinguish between these different methods. Instead they made reference to "strip mining," "stripping," or sometimes "surface mining." Usually they meant contour mining, the most common form of surface coal mining in Appalachia. Sometimes they were also talking about auger mining, which eventually became a normal part of most contour operations. In other instances, particularly if they were from eastern Ohio, their concern was area mining. This lack of specificity is understandable, and at times in this book I conflate the methods for the sake of convenience. But the differences between the various types of strip mining are important for understanding the rise of a concerted abolition effort. The methods had distinct histories, shaped largely by evolving technology and changing market conditions, and they did not impact the land or the people in exactly the same ways.

Surface coal mining probably began in North America during the colonial period. Except for scattered reports of coal in present-day Illinois between 1660 and 1680, coal was first found in what became the United States underlying the James River, in Virginia, just after the turn of the eighteenth century. One of the earliest references to a form of surface extraction refers to this coalfield and was made by Dr. Johann D. Schoepf upon his visit to Richmond, Virginia, in the winter of 1783. Twelve miles outside of the city, south of the James River, the wind had blown a tree over, exposing white clay-slate, a black clay-slate, and a coal bed. This afforded an opportunity for people to mine the sulfur-laden coal, which they sold at the river for one shilling per bushel. Such early surface mining was typically done by farmers and common town dwellers for local exchange and use. Yet the pick and shovel, which were the miners only tools, limited their efficiency and destructiveness. Coal was mined where it could be seen, and removal of any part of the surface over-layer by miners themselves was minimal. In most cases, some type of natural perturbation or weathering exposed parts of a bed and very little further excavation was necessary to bring the mineral out or up.[22]

During the nineteenth century, there was an increasing interest in making a business out of strip mining by adopting new methods and expanding production. Coal provided an alternative fuel source to dwindling supplies of wood, and that meant there was money to be made in its extraction. By the 1820s, mountain residents in eastern Kentucky were being hired by entrepreneurs to dig coal from shallow beds to supply growing markets in Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville. Like their counterparts elsewhere, the eastern Kentucky miners first exploited visible coal seams, such as along eroded stream banks. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the miners were using steel scrapers, drills, and black powder to expose coal beds. They hitched horses or mules to the scrapers and alternately plowed and removed "overburden," the soil and rocks above a coal seam. Once they had removed the surface soil, a "shaker" sat with a churn drill between his knees while a "driver" administered a blow to it with a sledgehammer. After each strike of the hammer the shaker lifted the drill, gave it a half-turn, and thus gradually sunk it into the cap rock to the coal seam. The holes created by repeated drilling were tamped with black powder, set off by a slow-burning fuse, and the loosened rock was pushed aside. The miners then shoveled the coal onto wagons that transported the mineral to rafts on nearby waterways.[23]

Farther west, in the Danville region of Illinois, miners also used steel scrapers to work the local coal beds. In 1866, Kirkland, Blankeney and Graves opened the first Illinois strip pit on Grape Creek and this was followed, in 1875, by the establishment of a surface mine in Hungry Hollow, owned by Michael Kelley. Although similar to what was being done in the Appalachian coalfields at the time, the mining in the Midwest more closely approximated what became known as area stripping. Area strippers worked coal beds over a period of years, with new cuts made by alternate plowing and scraping in parallel strips. The overburden from the first cut was set to the side in an elongated mound, but the mine waste generated with each new parallel strip was placed in the adjacent pit of the previous cut. Initially, all of the plowing, scraping, and coal hauling relied on teams of horses, but in the late-nineteenth century the efficiency of area strip mining was greatly improved by application of steam technology. The first recorded use of a steam shovel at a surface mine was in 1877, at a Pittsburgh, Kansas, operation owned by J. N. Hodges and A. J. Armil. Other Illinois operators readily adopted "mechanical" area strip mining and, by the turn of the century, miners there were removing overburden and digging coal with steam-powered machinery on a more extensive scale than in any other state.[24]

Mechanized surface mining also moved into the coalfields of Indiana. The state's coal seams were relatively thick, averaging 3 to 5 feet in large areas and 6 to 8 feet over lesser areas, and they were close enough to the surface to make area stripping quite feasible. With the adoption of steam technology, strip production in Indiana increased nearly thirteenfold between 1914 and 1936. In the 1920s, Oakland City, Indiana, became home to what was probably the largest strip operation in the world. Run by the Enos Coal Mining Company, the mine produced 1 million tons a year. As large and advanced as it was, however, the operation still employed some primitive surface mining methods, including team-drawn scrapers, picks, shovels, and wire brooms to remove dirt from the top of the seam. In fact, the scraper method was not replaced at U.S. mines until after 1936, when the Traux-Traer Coal Company first substituted tractors for its horse-drawn implements at one of its operations in Elkville, Illinois. But area mining did become more sophisticated and expanded in the interwar years in Indiana. By the latter part of the 1930s, it had more strip pits than any other state, producing 8.2 million tons of coal, making it the leading producer behind Illinois. As a percentage of total coal production, stripping in the state also jumped dramatically from 4.6 percent in 1920 to 53.2 percent in 1940, taking the lead over underground mining.[25]

In Ohio, as in Indiana, area stripping with steam technology began just before World War I, when the nation was poised for another coal boom.[26] One of the state's first surface operations opened at Rush Run, on the Ohio River, in 1914. In its first two years only 25 acres of a 200-acre tract had been mined there, but Ohio strip coal operators quickly opened other mines and continually introduced the latest technological innovations. The Apex Coal Company started a strip operation in Harrison County, the Kehota Mining Company opened another in Perry County, and sometime before 1916, the Piney Creek Coal Company introduced an electric-powered steam shovel at its strip operations near Steubenville, in Jefferson County. In the 1920s, Ohio coalfields also witnessed the introduction of the first draglines, which maneuvered large buckets by steel cables rather than a fixed boom. Combined with improvements in the methods of transporting coal, electric shovels and draglines greatly facilitated increased production in the state. By 1938, Ohio's seventy-two strip mines produced 2.5 million tons of coal, making it the fourth leading strip producer in the country, behind Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri (where strip mining production quickly declined). Expanded production during World War II increased output even more dramatically to 17.3 million tons, and strip mining edged closer toward eclipsing deep mining. Between 1926 and 1947 the percentage of coal mined by stripping in the state jumped from 9 percent to 46 percent.[27]

Although much of the industry's growth was occurring in the Midwest, during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries surface coal mining also evolved and expanded in the mountainous parts of Appalachia. Operators in Pennsylvania's anthracite fields began to use steam technology as early as 1881, but they worked coal seams by what was referred to as contour strip mining. In contour stripping, miners created a "bench" on the side of a mountain where coal was exposed or near the surface. Strippers scraped away overburden along a ridge top and constructed two surfaces, one that was vertical, called the highwall, and another at the level of the coal seam that was horizontal and met the highwall at its base. The L-shaped bench created by the intersection of these two surfaces extended a variable length, linked at intervals to access roads, and sometimes wrapped back around a ridge. The overburden removed in the process was pushed down the mountain slope, creating a "spoil" pile, or, less often, it was stacked on the bench. As miners discarded the rock and soil over-layer they also extracted the coal below it, widening the bench in the process, until the overburden was too thick to make the operation economically feasible. By the early twentieth century up to 10 feet of overburden could be removed profitably for each foot of coal in the seam.[28]

Difficult terrain and primitive equipment initially hampered the expansion of contour surface mining in Pennsylvania, as was the case in other Appalachian states, but production rose steadily after World War I, and soared during World War II. The process of mechanization and the industry's expansion in the state can be seen in the increase of the number of power shovels at anthracite and bituminous strip mines. Through the 1920s there were less than 100 power shovels working the eastern anthracite operations, but by 1936 there were 364. That number nearly doubled by 1947, to 609, and almost half of these shovels were draglines. In the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania, the number of power shovels also increased between 1936 and 1947, from a minuscule thirty to more than a thousand, the great majority of which were diesel and gasoline dragline excavators. Such a dramatic mechanization of Pennsylvania mines contributed to a sharp increase in production. In 1915, the eastern anthracite region produced 1.2 million tons of strip coal, or 2.5 percent of all anthracite mined in the state. By 1947, production had increased tenfold to 12.6 million tons, nearly a quarter of all anthracite coal mined in Pennsylvania. As late as the 1930s, western bituminous strip coal operators mined only 750,000 tons, but this jumped to 37 million tons in 1947, declined to 19 million tons in 1958, and slowly edged toward 30 million tons in the 1960s.[29]

Mechanized contour strip mining also spread to other Appalachian states and slowly expanded during the years after World War II. In eastern Kentucky, the first strip mine employing steam power shovels opened in 1905, when the Lily-Jellico Coal Company contracted with the Robinson Creek Construction Company to surface mine a seam at Lily, in Laurel County. These first shovels were Vulcan railroad-type shovels, with buckets of 1 cubic yard capacity and mounted on railroad tracks. They worked in pairs, with one to strip the overburden and the other to load the coal, and the mineral was hauled out by horse-drawn wagons to a tipple, where it was loaded for shipment by rail. But the Lily strip mine was one of only a few in eastern Kentucky. In 1945, there were seven surface operations in the state, with a combined production of 130,000 tons of coal. By 1947, the number of mountainside surface operations increased to thirty-eight, still relatively few compared to Pennsylvania, and production was 1.9 million tons. Nearly a decade later, the area had seventy-two strip pits, which actually produced 8,000 tons less than the lesser number of 1947 mines. Not until 1958, when the number of mechanized contour operations increased to ninety-five, did production top 2 million tons.[30]

In West Virginia, contour strip mining with steam technology began in 1916. Fuel needs during World War I brought a brief expansion of the industry there, but the growth was only temporary. Maximum production in the state in the early 1920s was a scant 296,000 tons. By 1938, only the northern Brooke and Hancock Counties reported strip mine production, with a combined total of 207,000 tons for that year. Taking advantage of more powerful equipment and responding to nearly unlimited demand for coal during World War II, however, West Virginia strippers greatly expanded their operations. Production increased tenfold between 1939 and 1943, with much of the early new activity concentrated in the northern part of the state, where the coal was thick, the overburden was well adapted to stripping, and hard surface roads provided easy access and mineral transport. The center of this mining boom was in Harrison County, where production skyrocketed from 50,000 tons in 1940 to 3 million tons in 1943, and accounted for nearly half of all the strip coal produced in the state during World War II. In the following decade, West Virginia surface mine production averaged 10 million tons annually, and by the mid-1960s it made up 10 percent of all coal mined in the state.[31]

In Tennessee and Virginia, mechanized contour surface mining had an even slower start, but as in other mountain states production eventually reached significant levels. Commercial contour operations in Tennessee date back to World War I, when old Panama Canal equipment was put to use in Grundy County, but these strip mines were short-lived. No production was reported for the state in 1936 and a decade later, at the end of World War II, Tennessee produced only slightly more than a half of a million tons of strip coal. Yet, by 1955, production figures had increased threefold. In 1963, Tennessee had fifty-eight strip mines, nearly all in the Cumberland area, which produced 2.5 million tons of coal. Likewise, operators in Virginia began to surface mine coal in significant amounts after mid-century. In 1947, the state had fifteen strip mines, all in the far southwestern counties, with a total production of 1.1 million tons of coal. In the 1950s the number of contour operations doubled, though production dropped below 1 million at mid-decade. Significant expansion occurred only after the national recession in 1958. In 1963, the number of contour surface mines in Virginia increased to 130 and production jumped sharply to nearly 7.5 million tons.[32]

As contour surface mining spread and expanded in Appalachian states it was modified by the advent of auger mining. At first this method was employed after contour stripping had been concluded to obtain more, but not all, of the otherwise irretrievable coal. Increased strip mining during World War II left many miles of highwall containing exposed coal, and after some experimentation operators developed large, efficient augers to recover the mineral from these seams. Augers, which were usually several feet in diameter, were driven into the foot of a highwall and coal came out of the hole like wood shavings produced by a drill bit. With additional extensions, augers could penetrate farther into a seam, sometimes reaching old tunnel-and-pillar deep mines, removing even more of the mineral. But auger holes had to be smaller in diameter than a seam was thick, and they were spaced a few inches apart. Consequently, the machines brought out little more than half the coal. The method was wasteful but relatively cheap, and operators increasingly relied on it in the 1960s to profitably strip previously unmined ridges. An auger operation working a 4- to 6-foot virgin coal seam could realize a net profit of close to a dollar per ton. A large enough auger could load 15 tons of coal in less than one minute and, if the trucks could haul it out at that rate, the total profit might amount to millions of dollars in a few years. Not surprisingly, then, production at auger mines increased rapidly from less than 2 million tons in 1952 to 7 million tons in 1958, and a total of eight states produced 12.5 million tons of coal by auger in 1963.[33]

Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio quickly took the lead in auger mining after its introduction. The method was first used in Kentucky in 1949, when the Blair and Oldham Coal Company opened a strip mine near Isom, in Letcher County. Within a decade, eastern Kentucky auger mines were producing nearly 4 million tons annually, or a quarter of all auger-mined coal in the United States. By the mid-1960s, the area was home to the largest coal auger in the world—with a 7-foot bit that dwarfed all earlier machines—and a total of 202 auger mines, which produced 9.5 million tons of coal. Yet West Virginia followed close behind Kentucky in terms of tonnage. In 1963, the state's auger mines produced 3.7 million tons of coal and, in 1970, they reached a production peak of 5.7 million tons. Auger mining (as well as contour mining) also expanded in southeastern Ohio. In the early 1960s, the state was ranked third in terms of total auger production, mining nearly 2 million tons of coal by that method. Other states with active auger operations by that time included Virginia and Pennsylvania, both of which produced more than 1 million tons annually, as well as Tennessee and Alabama, which mined a quarter of a million tons and 100,000 tons, respectively.[34]

Contour strip mining was modified again in the second half of the 1960s, when operators made early attempts to mine coal using a method that later became known as "mountaintop removal." This occurred almost exclusively in Kentucky and West Virginia. In areas where coal seams were close to the top of a ridge, some strippers dispensed with following its contours and took off the whole top of the hill instead. Miners blasted and scraped away the soil and rock overburden and pushed it over one or the other side of the ridge until the coal was exposed. This could decrease the altitude of a hill by as much as 20 percent, while simultaneously increasing its thickness. But the machinery available to operators using this method was nearly the same as what strippers used on contour operations. This limited the amount of overburden that could be moved and greatly restricted the possibilities for mountaintop removal until technological improvements in the early 1980s.[35]

From the beginning of the twentieth century to its end, in fact, it was technological innovation that facilitated the steady growth of surface coal mining. Like other sectors of the economy, the industry responded to the expansion and contraction of demand, particularly the dramatic increase in use of coal by electric power utilities. But larger and more powerful earth-moving equipment made it possible for strip operators to respond to this demand and take market share from deep mines. In 1936, there were still ninety-six "horse stripping operations." By the late 1950s, horses were gone from the mines and nearly all fixed-boom steam shovels had been replaced by diesel- and electric-powered shovels and draglines. The majority of these still had low dipper or bucket capacity (around 3 cubic yards), but new shovels and dragline excavators were capable of moving ever-larger quantities of overburden and coal. Between 1945 and 1963 the number of dippers or buckets with a 12-cubic-yard capacity or greater more than doubled, from 75 to 154. In 1956, the Hanna Division of Consolidation Coal introduced the first of a number of "monster" draglines. Their twelve-story excavator, dubbed the "Mountaineer," dug for coal 90 feet below the surface near Cadiz, Ohio. And at the other end of the surface mining production process, the movement of coal from mine to tipple was facilitated by the steady increase in truck size. At the close of World War II, the average capacity of trucks working strip operations in the United States was 9.4 tons. By 1958, Pennsylvania had more than 1,800 trucks working strip operations, the greatest number of any state, with an average capacity of 11.4 tons. Kentucky had nearly 500 trucks, with an average capacity of 14.4 tons.[36]

With greatly improved technology, surface coal mining increased and strip operations produced nearly one-third of the bituminous coal mined in the United States in 1963. Expansion occurred most dramatically in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, the leading surface mining states in the country, each producing more than 20 million tons of coal by contour and auger mining in the early 1960s. Larger shovels and bigger trucks also meant that the productivity of surface mining continued to rise. In 1914 stripping produced 5 tons per man-day, and underground mining was only slightly less efficient, producing nearly 5 tons per man-day. By 1958 stripping could produce 21.5 tons per man-day as compared to underground mining's 9 tons. It was this relative efficiency, in addition to the ease with which coal operators could displace environmental and other social costs of surface mining onto the public, that made surface mining so attractive to coal companies. And it was the displacement of the environmental and social costs of surface mining that generated early demands for regulatory legislation to control stripping.[37]


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