18 spellbinding pictures that tell the story of coal country's past and present.
Coal has been part of America's past for just about as long as there's been an America.
It was the energy source du jour for the Industrial Revolution. In the 1300s, some Native Americans used it for cooking fuel. And the first North American coal deposits may even predate the dinosaurs!
But if we're talking America the post-colonial country, then nowhere was it more important than in the Appalachian Mountains, in places like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
Unfortunately, what coal mining looked like back then and what coal mining looks like now are stunningly different. According a new study, coal mining is actually changing the entire landscape of Appalachia.
So let's jump in the Wayback Machine to 1930s Appalachia and see what things were like (and how things have changed for the better and worse) in 18 pictures:
1. Everyone looked dapper as hell back in 1935.
2. Including this ridiculously photogenic schoolteacher.
3. Who may have actually taught in this somewhat photogenic classroom.
4. Check out the awesome kid in the front. Respect.
Unfortunately, the kids in this picture and the one above it probably wouldn't have been seen in the same classroom. Segregation was still very much a thing in the '30s, which meant that many public spaces, including schools, were divided by race. Things would largely remain this way until the mid-1960s.
5. Outside of school and work, people went to the movies – which cost a dime.
6. They entertained themselves by playing music.
Appalachia is home to some of America's richest musical traditions, including country and bluegrass.
7. They even "pirated" football games.
If by "pirated" you mean "watched through a fence while nobody was looking."
8. This is Williamson, West Virginia, in 1935.
It's changed a lot since then.
9. This is Williamson in 2008.
Williamson is home to the Williamson Rail Yard, which serviced the many coal mines in the region.
10. Coal miners worked long hours in dark, dangerous mines.
11. Coal mining was tough, dangerous work.
Coal mining required workers to do backbreaking labor in cramped conditions, often deep underground.
12. But it was honorable work and, for many people, the best way to provide for their families.
13. As much respect as we have for coal miners of the past, it can be hard to support the industry today. Because in 1935, coal mining looked like this:
14. But now, coal mining looks like this:
See how flat that is? A lot of modern coal companies use a technique known as mountaintop removal mining to get at the remaining coal seams tucked deep into the mountains.
15. Mountaintop removal mining is exactly what it sounds like: blasting away the entire top of a mountain to get to the coal below.
This practice is widespread throughout coal country. In fact, a new study found that the area of study became 40% flatter after mountaintop removal mining. This has a lot of people worried about the effects on the geology and ecosystems in the area.
"Even if we stopped mountaintop mining tomorrow, what kind of landscape is going to be left behind?" said study author Emily S. Bernhardt.
16. Even more worrisome is what mountaintop removal mining may be doing to the water.
Excess rock and refuse often ends up dumped in gigantic piles in the valleys and streams below the mountain. Heavy metals and chemicals can leach out of the pile into the waterway, affecting any animals or people downstream.
17. The hardworking men and women who've done this job for generations deserve respect. But ... there's a better way.
Coal is an intimate part of Appalachia's history and the last thing we want to do is claim that it's not important. But Appalachia has a long history of renewables too. They've had hydroelectric power plants for over 100 years!
Even though coal production has been falling in the last few years, many coal companies are indicating that they want to double down on mountaintop removal mining.
But now that we know how harmful coal mining can be for the environment and have the technology and wherewithal to do something different, we can and should be looking elsewhere for our electricity.