The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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The buying up of such treasures began about 1885, when into Kentucky, close on the heels of the timber buyers, came the mineral buyers, affable, storytelling agents representing northern bankers and businessmen. Their primary purpose was to purchase not land but the rights to whatever minerals (coal, primarily) lay beneath it. The mineral buyers found the pickings even better than had the timber buyers. With the greatest of ease they managed to get thousands of mountain landowners to put their “X” to the so-called broad-form deed.

This now infamous legal document not only gave the coal companies title to whatever “mineral and metallic substances” might lie beneath the soil, but it authorized the grantees to do whatever was “convenient or necessary” to extract those same substances. And to insure against any further troubles with the owner of the property, there was a final clause absolving the coal company of all liability for any damages resulting from its mining operations. The price generally paid for such rights was fifty cents an acre. On the average, over the years, an acre would yield a minimum of five thousand tons of coal, worth about twenty thousand dollars today. But the really tragic consequences of all this would not be felt for another generation or more. No one back then had any reason to imagine anything like strip mining.

By 1912 or so “the railroads had been built, and, as Caudill has written, the vast, backward Cumberland Plateau was tied inseparably to “the colossal industrial complex centering in Pittsburgh, and a dynamic new phase in the region’s history had begun.” The coal companies put up houses for the help; doctors, teachers, coal miners, and their bosses began moving in. The coal began rolling out in endless carloads. A ten-hour day in the mines was routine; men died of “black damp” (methane gas), cave-ins, explosions; or, like Caudill’s father and his older brother, they were crippled for life. Still, wages were good by standards of the day, extraordinary by Kentucky standards, and nobody complained much until the Depression struck. Then followed years of suffering in the coal towns. The dole and the first chronic despair made themselves known in the mountains, and as Caudill likes to remind people, it was then, too, that the mountaineer, traditionally clean in his personal habits, began making garbage dumps of his streams, many of which had already been ruined by silt and sulphuric acid draining out of the mines.

With the Depression also came John L. Lewis and his United Mine Workers, a massive W.P.A. program, and in time, the war. Coal became a cash crop again and stayed that way until 1947 and 1948, when coal production hit its peak in Appalachia. Then came the 1950’s, automation, some of the hardest times ever known in the mountains, and the start of one of the most important migrations in American history. Between 1950 and 1960 something in the neighborhood of one and a quarter million people left the mountains to find work in the cities; they were soon to be a large part of what would be labelled “the urban poor.”

It was also at this time that strip mining began. If anyone opposed it, out came the old mineral deeds. A man would one day be informed that the bulldozers were going to rip through part of his property, and there was not a thing he could do to stop it. His father or grandfather or someone had once put his mark to a broad-form deed. Such cases were taken to court soon enough, but the courts decided in favor of the coal companies.

The issue was litigated anew in 1968 in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, with the judgment going again in favor of the coal industry. Until then the strip mining proceeded unchecked, quickly becoming an intensely emotional, dangerous issue, with no shortage of abusive language on either side. And with feelings mounting, the bulldozers soon became targets for more than just invective. Snipers began firing from nearby wooded hills—sometimes using armor-piercing bullets. (“Where those bullets hit the steel,” Caudill says, “it looks just like somebody dragged his fingers across the butter.”) Operators and sheriffs began returning the fire, and at least one man, Tom Fuson of Pineville, was killed. Then, one night in the fall of 1968, a watchman for the Round Mountain Coal Company in Cowfork was captured by four unidentified men who proceeded to blow up (with the company’s own store of explosives) nearly $750,000 worth of equipment. Among the items destroyed were a bulldozer (a No. 9 “dozer,” as it is called, which is the biggest model made by Caterpillar), a truck, a jeep, a coal auger, three rubber-tired high-lifts, three generators, and a giant diesel shovel. Other operators have had equipment destroyed that was valued as high as $90,000. In one such after-dark strike a dozer was blown completely in two, a feat that left a lasting impression on everyone who saw it, since such work, it is said in tones of great respect, could have been handled only by an expert. To date there have been no arrests, and it seems unlikely that there will be any, even though nobody expects the dynamiting to stop.

“And just suppose we did make an arrest,” a state police detective told Tom Bethell, a reporter for the Mountain Eagle . “Try getting a Knott County jury to convict the guy. They never would.”

With so much going against them, why, one might well wonder, do the strip miners keep gouging away? The answer, aside from money, is that there are several significant attractions to strip mining that must not be overlooked or underestimated if one is to understand the problem.