History of Coal in Alabama
The story my father loved most to tell was an origin story. He wasn’t a religious man, but he repeated this one with the fervor of any preacher. My sisters and I were asked to recite it back as soon as we could string words into sentences.
It starts with two boys. They were my exact same age until I was too old for my father’s stories. The boys’ names were Jonathan Newton Smith and Pleasant Flancher. My father would always say, “I don’t know what sort of a man names his son Pleasant, but that’s the name on the books.” Though he couldn’t have known which boy did what, Pleasant was always the sissy in my father’s story.
These two boys go out hunting one day, just the two of them, like grown men. They’re after whitetail and rabbits, and they go at it all day. When evening comes, they set up camp near the Big Cahaba River. It’s the early 1820s.
“When was this?” my father would quiz.
“Early 1820s, Pa.”
“Why is it important?”
“Because the State started then. The best part of it, that is.”
“Good,” he’d say. “That’s right.”
My father knew his girls wouldn’t go underground, but he expected them to marry men who would. He started running me down shafts about the time I stopped listening to his stories. I was fourteen.
Jonathan and Pleasant collect some stones and build themselves a firepit. They cook their rabbit supper. They didn’t get a whitetail, but they’re tired from their day of hunting, so they lay out their bedrolls and find some sleep.
It’s long dark when that weakling Pleasant wakes, something fearful in him, some dream. What he sees scares him even more. “Witless boy,” my father would say. “If he hadn’t panicked so much, Jonathan sure would’ve figured it out.”
I feel a bit bad for Pleasant in this story. I keep meaning to retell it in my head, make him a hero in some way. Hell, I could give him a new name. But there is something that keeps it the same, lines my father wrote and whittled into us, scraps at a time.
Pleasant is still the coward who wakes from nightmares to see the stones of their fire ring burning. He is still the one to scream, which wakes his pal. He’s the one to shout about fire and brimstone, some curse brought down on them for children’s sins. Jonathan’s still half-asleep and he doesn’t have the sense to question his idiot friend. Instead, he lets the fear take him, and the boys run together through the night, crossing creeks and forests and fields. Jonathan’s house is the closest, and it’s his daddy they wake, there in the dark morning hours, their eyes gone devilish and their words a great confusion.
Jonathan’s mother sits them down at the kitchen table and feeds them full of food. The boys calm a little. “Those stones were burning, Papa,” young Jonathan keeps saying. They were afire.”
Pleasant can’t even find words. He cowers in his chair, weak-chinned and big-eyed. Every telling of the story makes him worse—smaller, uglier, a bit closer to breaking. Let’s say he’s crying this time, scared to tears. Not even Jonathan’s mother feels compelled to comfort him.
“Eat your breakfast,” Papa Smith tells them. “We’ll wait for Pleasant’s daddy.” He’s already dispatched a field hand to collect Paper Flancher, some dark fellow running his way over the hills to the Flancher farm. He is winded and tired when he arrives, and Pleasant’s pa barely understands what the man’s trying to say. When he finally understands the urgency, if not the details, he saddles his fastest horse. The field hand doesn’t understand the details either.
When he arrives, Pleasant tries to bury himself in his father’s arms, but the man won’t have it. He may have named the boy, but he won’t let him be weak in front of these others.
“Tell him what you told me,” Papa Smith says.
“It was a curse, Papa, something set off to kill us.”
“Quit that,” Papa Flancher hisses. He turns to Jonathan. “What’d you see, boy?”
Why is Pleasant even a part of this story? He is indispensible in his own way—the story doesn’t exist without him—but he is only the weak side.
Or maybe he is reason. Maybe we keep him as a warning.
My father would disagree.
Jonathan tells his story. He has gained strength and pride, no longer scared. He can see the excitement in his father’s eyes. He knows they’ve discovered something.
Pleasant goes back to his chair.
At the end of Jonathan’s story, Papa Smith turns to Papa Flancher. “You thinking what I am?”
Flancher smiles and looks at Jonathan. “Think you can lead us back to the spot?” he asks.
The strong boy nods, yes.
“What about you?” Flancher says to his own son. “Think you can stomach going back?”
Pleasant’s eyes are big. He shakes his head, no. His father looks away. Pleasant disappears.
And the coal industry is born in the state of Alabama, my father’s livelihood tracing itself back to these men and boys.
In the tunnels I worked for him, we mostly used slope and shaft. It’s still the most common.
First, men go in with picks, carving wedges into the lower half of the coal seam. You have to kneel or lie on your side. Then, augers come to drill into the coalface. Theirs is not so bad a lot as the pickers. Next comes the blast. There should be longer wires supplied, but there aren’t. We’re all too close when the blast goes. Dust and more dust. We are all black inside.
Then we head back to the caved shaft to shovel the lumps into tramcars. Load up ten cars, hook up the mule, head him toward the light. The mules don’t last long, but they get to take in the day, so they’re envied, all the same.
There’s work to be done above ground—weighing and sorting—and my father got me up there, too. Leased men don’t get those jobs, though.
The ceilings of the shafts are low, always low, and our heads knock against the beams as we pass lower and lower. The floors are either thick with coal dust or soaked with water. Each is its own discomfort, and we grow darker and damper every day. I left those tunnels when I was sixteen, but there is still dust under the tar in my nails.
Flancher and Smith renamed the nearby creek Coal Branch. The veins they discovered ran north into large deposits at the Locust Fork of the Warrior River. The Warrior flows through Tuscaloosa. The Locust Fork is north and east of there, and the river’s a bit wilder in those parts.
Those fields are part of the great Appalachian coal field that runs in a line from Pennsylvania to Ohio to here, more than 70,000 acres.
That’s a lot of coal, a lot of money.
When you have prisoners working a vein for you, there’s more of everything.
I didn’t realize I was working alongside them when I was down in the tunnels. My father didn’t find the need to tell me, and there was no difference in our appearances. I imagine it’s the same now—just a host of men covered in coal dust, black and blacker. I know the mines. I know the life Wilson is leading. This life those boys discovered for us, there on the Big Cahaba.
Photo: Virginia Reeves (c)Trevillion Images