Dark and Dusty, Painted on the Sky

The dirty history of West Virginians trying to get clean of documentary perceptions.

Andrew Donaldson
Jun 20 · 8 min read
Union Carbide Farro Alloy Plant, Alloy, WV 1973, via Wikimedia Commons

The old timers swore that when the old steam locomotives still labored through the Kanawha Valley of West Virignia, the residual coal dust emanating from the mighty Union Carbide plant at Alloy, the loading docks of Marmet and Chelyan, and the mountains of coal at the Mammoth processing plants would light the sky on fire.

I thought grandad was pulling my leg.

Modern technology and the world-wide web has proven him and them right from the other side of the world both culturally and in distance. The proof came in the modern form of viral video of one of the last steam locomotives igniting the Chinese sky as it trundled out of the Sandaoling open pit coal mine in Northwest China. As the images flashed across the globe to the amazement of the world, the workers who had spent their lives working on “this dirty and broken iron stuff” seemed rather perplexed by how their daily reality had become a keyhole into what was thought to be the long-lost past. Soon the last of the steam locomotives will join that past, and folks who worked in a coal mine few can pronounce and fewer still could find on a map will wonder and worry about the universal problem of what a very different future will hold, now that the novelty has worn off and the work they have spent a lifetime doing is no longer required.

How do you say “we feel you, y’all take care over there” in Chinese?

The fascination of outsiders, from curious to sympathetic to morbid to exploitive, is something West Virginians know all too well. West Virginia both in history and it’s present is full of dirty and broken stuff, to the bemusement of outsiders. Most of its history is one of extraction and remnant. First timber, then coal, and now the people themselves are commodities various folks come from the outside to get at, use up, ship out, and make their fortune off of. The problem is, by definition extracting something leaves a hole where the removal takes place.

Thanks to years of misperception and stereotyping, West Virginians along with their Appalachian cousins in 10 other states are never allowed to explain, let alone fill in, that hole. At least our Chinese friends in the Uyghur Autonomous Region don’t have to explain to people their hole, since the massive open pit mining complex full of soot, smoke, dust and flame is pretty self-explanatory. The blanket of beauty nature laid across the hills and hollars of the Mountain State does a much better job of hiding the ugly, dirty, and wrong. Too good a job, in most cases.

The state that was born seceding from the confederacy during the in the Civil War has plenty of history, some hidden and some not so much, of the dirty, the violent, the awful. The pushing of the first railroad lines through the heart of coal country in the 1870s with barely-better-than slave labor of freshly “freed” black men. The explosion of need for coal in the 1880s that sent the hills crawling with mining companies, geologists, and desperate people needing work. The company towns where the store owning your soul wasn’t even in the top 5 things to worry about. The Hawk’s Nest tunnel which killed a thousand and maybe more so the New River could cut a corner and give hydroelectric power to feed the furnaces of Union Carbide, and the dead who were compensated, unless you were black in which case your family might get half what the white families got, but more probably simply wound up in an unmarked grave. The deadly industrial disasters from the hundreds of dead at Monongah to Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Upper Big Branch, and many others.

But it’s the living in the mountains that always draws the most attention. Culturally different in so many respects but so close to the rest of the east coast centers of influence and power (the eastern panhandle is considered part of metro DC census area), if you need to find some “others” without traveling too far, West Virginia has you covered.

Thus the crusaders and do-gooders started to come in force to not only help those poor people but to show everyone how utterly in need of help they were. Print media and the written word are fine things, but when those new-fangled TV cameras broadcast the famous, infamous to those who were the subject of it, “Christmas in Appalachia” CBS news special into people’s homes across the fruited plane, the 1000 words and more needed to explain the unique region were replaced by images that brought to mind only one: Poverty.

Though shot in Kentucky all of Appalachia was immediately saddled with the stereotype. It was shocking to the viewing public. It was also in no small part government approved advertising, dovetailing conveniently with LBJ’s “War on Poverty” that, nearly 60 years on, for most impoverished West Virginian means little except a more consistent government check. But Poverty porn sells well and makes quite the profit. There has been a legion of writers and filmmakers who have come and gone through West Virginia since “Christmas in Appalachia” ranging from MTV’s eye-rollingly manufactured Buckwild which mercifully only lasted 30 days, to those who surprised mountaineers by endearing themselves through listening and approaching them as equals such as the late Anthony Bourdain.

Then there are the thinly veiled profiteers who show up under the guise of assistance, like the Chicago-based “Mined Minds” oufit who promised to teach out of work coal miners to code and dangled jobs which never materialized. Not content to simply document the misery, they decided to compound it, and then publicly pat themselves on the back for doing so. They came, and they left, leaving the people worse off than they found them. And so it goes.

This constant cycle of outsiders trying to come in then go out and explain what they’ve seen as if everything between Bluefield and Morgantown was a lunar colony has been constant in the last few decades. Like those old steam locomotives, they manage to inflame the reside of issues already in the air, but the spectacular sparks fade quickly when the catalyst moves on. Writer Elizabeth Catte, author of ‘What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.’ explains it well:

There’s a famous Appalachian educator named Don West who co-founded the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s and he often wrote that there’s a rediscovery of Appalachia that happens each generation, sometimes more so, where people discover or rediscover poverty and social problems in Appalachia and go to war with themselves above our heads about whether or not we deserve their solutions. And then interest will fade out until the next time that poverty or the problems of Appalachia are discovered. From that perspective there’s a lot of similarities between the War on Poverty and what’s happening now. The sense that, ‘Oh we’ve discovered a problem, it’s a new problem. These are very very unique social issues and cultural issues and Appalachian economic issues,’ when really they are the same issues that are found in many other places in America.

The latest two incarnations of this cycle have been JD Vance and Donald Trump. Trump’s eye-popping domination of West Virginia, which until recently spent a century as a cobalt blue Democratic state, brought scores of political and cultural commentaries and discussions. It was his largest margin of victory in any state and such a failure for Hillary Clinton that she dedicated an entire chapter of her “What Happened” book to it. Vance’s contrivance was cultural and political discussion as a guise for marketing, multi-platforming, and self ambition. While his “Hillbilly Elegy” sold well and was taken as the latest translation of the poor lazy Appalachian Gospel that is settled fact for many, the actual people of West Virginia were less than impressed. If they wanted the opinion on how they too could become an Ivy League educated tech millionaire if only they had grown up in an upper-middle class home an hour north of Cincinnati, they would have asked. As it is, and since Middletown, Ohio might as well be on another planet from Mingo, Welch, Huff Creek, Marlinton, Weirton, or Glenville, for those that actually live in the mountains it’s just another sparking train passing through. Like the coal companies, the government, and writers before him, Vance extracted what he needed and moved on, unconcerned with the actual living remnant of the people, the actual real life hillbillies.

That remnant of people could use some actual attention. An ever-dwindling number still come home from working coal mines covered in black dust so thick all you see is the eyes until the man beneath is revealed by intense showers. More likely though they work in a government job, in the medical field, or are pension and benefits recipients of some kind — the largest three voting groups in the state today. There is an epidemic of opioid abuse, by some measure the worst in the nation, leaving thousands of victims and 10s of thousands of helpless loved ones longing for them to get clean in a very literal sense. The state is demographically bleeding to death, while at the same time trying to cleanse itself of decades of bottom place rankings of the states in almost every category you can think of. The people would love to be clean of the politicians of both parties who celebrate like they are the second coming for bumping them from 49th to 48th on whatever list their campaign ads pronounce, only to fall back again. The Remnant still suffer, still linger, still persevere. The air in Alloy is now cleaner, environmental changes being such that anything other than water vapor escaping the plant means something is not working right. But the perception of the people is as dirty as ever.

And yet, and yet…

What makes West Virginia special, what makes it unique, what inspires so much pride and loyalty of its people both there and in the diaspora that is puzzling to those who don’t understand it, cannot be extracted. It can only be instilled. While outsiders debate the merits and hindrances of the culture they cannot define let alone understand most West Virginians just know it. Like the old saying, if you have to have jazz explained you will never understand it, those mountains and those people and the centuries of tempered hopes, shattered dreams, and determination that next time will be better are just a part of you or it isn’t. Like the long strands of unbroken hills that wall it off from the wider world, the culture is just there and just is.

The residue of poverty, labor strife, inequality, wars foreign and domestic, cross-purposes politics, and folks coming and going to make a buck off it all hang in the air and history, lit up every so often by some new train of wider interest roiling through West Virginia. For a brief moment the sides of the mountains will be alight and grab the attention of the world, only to fade again until the next time.

People are fickle like that. The mountains aren’t. The mountains don’t care. It’s as close to a sure thing as West Virginia has.

Monati Semper Liberi: Long live the people of West Virginia, who whether they or the world know it or not, should always be free.

Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on June 20, 2019.

Andrew Donaldson

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Chronic misspeller. Mountaineer diaspora. Vet. Insufficiently partisan & inadequately credentialed; I write anyway for @ordinarytimemag @arcdigi. Ask me nicely.