I started my academic career in coal country, working in an economic research center at Marshall University in Huntington. It was exciting work that touched on far more aspects of the coal industry than I thought existed.
We studied ways to use coal byproducts more safely and estimated damage risk due to coal slurry impoundments for the National Academy of Sciences. Probably my most satisfying work was in designing a special reclamation fund to treat waterborne pollutants from abandoned mine land. That work resulted in what is still the largest state environmental fund in the country.
The most interesting thing about that work was that I was invited to visit coal mines and coal mine communities across Appalachia.
By the time I arrived in West Virginia, coal mining employment was already more than half a century behind its peak. The introduction of machines called continuous miners and the declining use of coal for home heating cost two-thirds of all mining jobs in the decade before I was born. The energy crunch in the 1970s brought back some of these jobs, but the technological switch to surface mining caused another mass elimination of the remaining jobs while production increased several times over.
The surface mining techniques of the 1980s also opened up coalfields in the state of Wyoming and extended the life of the Illinois basin, including mines in Indiana. That caused more production to shift away from West Virginia. The people I met and worked with in West Virginia spoke in very different ways about the loss of these jobs.
Coal mining’s reputation as difficult, dirty and dangerous work is rooted in reality. One of my mining excursions included an hour-long ride more than a mile underground on a small coal cart. That experience alone is not for everyone. The introduction of the continuous-miner machine in the 1950s brought fewer accidents, but it also led to black lung disease, as mine-shafts filled with dust. Few West Virginians I encountered held nostalgia for the toil of their fathers and grandfathers.
Still, miners themselves were generally proud of their occupation. They operate large, complex machinery with precision while wearing uncomfortable protective equipment in what are, at best, inhospitable environments. I recognized the satisfaction of that work, its camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment that each day brought. I fully understand why that work meant more than a paycheck and health benefits.
The job losses of the 1950s and 1980s were so concentrated that most former coal mining communities were a wreck by the 2000s. The deep loss of coal mining jobs in the 1950s and 1980s led to dramatic population loss across much of the Appalachian coalfields. Perhaps the worst hit was McDowell County, which saw a population drop from just under 100,000 in 1950 to fewer than 20,000 today.
Today, McDowell County has the lowest average lifespan in the nation, one in three residents is in poverty and the labor force participation rate is 28.2%. There is almost exactly one job for every 10 residents. It is poorer than some developing nations and has a worse prognosis for future development.
Ironically, most of these communities weren’t booming when coal mining jobs were plentiful. The volatility of coal mining employment made investment risky, so the usual trappings of a small town were often absent. Grocers, barbers and physicians were mostly unwilling to build a business in a coal town. So, it was often left to mining firms to build their own company towns.
Other industries also were reluctant to compete with mining companies, or to open shop in towns where unions struggled bitterly with management.
Economists call the fate of these communities the “resource curse.” One dominant and highly successful industry can absorb all the labor, crowding out other types of development. Today, there are almost no places dominated by natural-resource extraction that have escaped this dilemma. The few good-paying jobs of today reduce the opportunity for other firms and, inevitably, disappear as technology evolves or demand for their products evaporates.
Coal mining jobs ebbed and flowed, but had their 21st-century peak in 2011, and have dropped by half nationally since. The coal industry employed fewer than 15,000 people in West Virginia in 2019, with roughly 10,600 of those jobs belonging to underground miners. That’s down from nearly 23,000 jobs — more than 17,000 underground — in 2012. These jobs are not returning. Coal mining won’t disappear, but employment will continue to dwindle.
The United States is a young place, and many of the cities and towns born in the Industrial Revolution have lost their original economic reason for existing. This is true for places that once boasted agriculture, manufacturing, mining and moving of goods — especially by rail.
There are no new ghost towns in America. Social Security and the War on Poverty ensure some continuing population in many places, even after their economic reasons for being have faded. However, the future doesn’t guarantee more than that.
The good news is that economic changes have unleashed two important forces that give every place opportunity. The economy now relies on people more than anything else, and this has freed most workers from geographic constraints. This means that places that can attract people can also become the engines of an economic future.
This is, of course, harder the farther a town is from a large urban center, or the more distressed its economy has become. But, it has a far better chance of success than yearning for a past that will not return.