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Touring West Virginia: COal history in our present stories

By constructing the history of coal mining as “national heritage,” the coal heritage movement centers West Virginia in American national history and naturalizes its status as a sacrifice zone. - Rebecca Scott

Present Stories within a Historic Master Narrative:

The cultural landscape of Central Appalachia has long been mapped by story. The trajectory of these stories span from William Frost’s stories of an uncivilized people in 1894 to the story of “Trumpnation” in 2016. Storied spaces of Appalachia have been a marker of what the region is in the national imagination and what it is destined to be. Using narrative as a tool of mapping, markers of place are shaped by pieces of history, however there is lack in continuity of the whole story. This lack is made relevant in West Virginia by the dominance of story by the coal industry. As Rebecca Scott points to the construction of this history in the above quote, this essay addresses the sacrificial zone of West Virginia as a storied space and questions the dominance of a coal narrative in a post-coal landscape.

The New Yorker, 2016

Appalachia has a long history of storytelling as a tradition. Growing up in southern West Virginia, I remember many evenings of family gatherings on the front porch during a warm summer night with lightning bugs floating on the breeze. My uncle would set up the best stories with intricate details about family members past and present. There is meaningfulness in these stories both personally and broadly in the history of this space. When the tradition of storytelling is juxtaposed with experiencing a place, there is meaning produced. This meaning produces a way of knowing, of knowledge, about a place. As a way to explore the storied space of central Appalachia, in particular West Virginia, I address the use of tours as a producer of stories and knowledge about the region and expand on how these stories are utilized and criticized within the shift to a post-coal Appalachia.

The master narrative of Appalachia is in crisis as the region transitions into a post-coal landscape. As the physical landscape—which has been scarred and manipulated by the coal industry—changes, so, too, does the cultural landscape.
Breaking people down into simplistic stereotypes in national media creates a powerless society.
There is a continued method of "othering" Appalachia in story. The New Yorker, 2016

The construction of Appalachia entwines geosophy as an exploration of terrae incognitae, travels of the “unknown” land, producing both “knowledge of observed facts and knowledge derived by reasonable inference from observed facts, with which we fill in the gaps between the latter” (Wright 3). These gaps are spaces where tourism produces a sense of knowing. This knowing is wrapped up in a carefully organized coal narrative. By organizing this narrative as “…a vision of a “postmodern” economy to be sure, selling a commodified version of the coal culture that economic exploitation has generated to visitors who must be protected from the real effects of historical and on-going coal production” (Scott 16).

I explore a coal produced narrative by touring multiple spaces in West Virginia as the multiple “media” of storytelling such as the landscape, museums, roadside markers, tourist signage, and memorials in order to question how these stories are framed. I use the term tour by focusing on local particularity in storytelling and how these spaces are experienced through a sensorial ethnographic experience of space. Sarah Pink explores sensory ethnography as “a critical methodology…to insist that ethnography is a reflexive and experiential process through which understanding, knowing and (academic) knowledge are produced” (8). This production of knowledge is explored by riding a coal car underground in the Exhibition Coal Mine, riding an ATV to explore the Burning Rock Adventure Park history tour and the performative exploration of history at the West Virginia State Museum.

Through these experiences, the story of Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, is patched together in recognizing the storied history of this space. In non-representational theory Nigel Thrift asks, “What is present in experience? It is not entirely clear what a politics of what happens might look like…” I am exploring these spaces within these methodologies to question how these spaces create a hyperreal experience of coal heritage in spaces through nostalgia and history. What becomes our heritage is often found in the stories we are told.

This shaping of an Appalachian narrative through story is taken up by exploring the spaces allotted for tourists to understand coal heritage and the story of West Virginia.

I begin with a visit to the Gavin Power Plant in Cheshire, Ohio. A visit here found the plant to be offline. Meaning, the large and powerful machines that create energy from coal were silenced due to the diminished need for coal produced energy. This is to frame the transition into a post-coal landscape as we explore the historic narratives and their work within a present discussion of what makes Appalachia, "Appalachia".

"By constructing the history of coal mining as “national heritage,” the coal heritage movement centers West Virginia in American national history and naturalizes its status as a sacrifice zone." - Rebecca Scott
These spaces are constructed as reminders of how the coal industry operate as cultural and economic markers in West Virginia. What do these stories mean in the mapping of Appalachia?
West Virginia State Museum, Charleston WV

The West Virginia State Museum is a required stop for most 8th graders in West Virginia. It is here that students interact with replicas of company stores and hear an obtrusive voice over telling you how to experience the place. When these stories are presented in authoritative spaces such as landscape and museum narratives, they become ‘the’ story of Appalachia.

These spaces are constructed as reminders of how the coal mines operate as cultural and economic markers in West Virginia.
West Virginia State Museum, Charleston WV.

For example, this marker on the wall states, "living in company towns created and intense sense of community and bond with other town residents." This quote negates the plight that many coal miners and their families experienced. Because coal companies owned everything in a company town, they basically owned the miners. Miners were paid in scrip, not money. This scrip could only be spent in the company store which inflated prices and sent many families into deep debt. As the song written by Merle Travis says, "16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't you call cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."

West Virginia State Museum, Charleston WV. Here there is minimal mention of the problems with scrip.

"Assemblages of words and things act to produce the self; identity is shaped, and self-image is materialized through writing and through collecting. These processes of the construction of the self operate within the framework of broader social processes of advantage and disadvantage. The imagining of possibilities for the self is materialized and made tangible through objects" (Greenhill-Hooper 9).

Tourism is being positioned as economic diversification for Appalachia as coal mining dwindles.
Exhibition Coal Mine, Beckley WV

This construction is a space where memory and meaning merge. This merging provides a truth that is felt in and about a space. When riding in a coal car into an old coal mine, we experience what it “must” have been like for miners, therefore we construct the meaning and memory without the context of the temporal circumstances. The exhibition coal mine in Beckley, West Virginia is funded by Friend of Coal. They are responsible for the rhetoric of the mythic "War on Coal" in order to divide and conquer the politics of rural spaces. With this tour experience being funded by pro-coal supporters, the narrative only speaks to the positives of the industry. Therefore, a specific narrative is shaped for visitors to this place.

Friends of Coal Website
Notes on the Exhibition Coal Mine, Beckley WV
Exhibition Coal Mine, Beckley WV. Again, company towns are positioned as pillars of the communities which they created. This, again, negates the problematic circumstances of coal industry ownership.
Exhibition Coal Mine, Beckley WV. Very basic imagery and signage tell a not so complicated story of the history of mining. This narrative leaves so much out of coal history in West Virginia.
Through these experiences, the story of Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, is patched together in recognizing the storied history of this space.

As Rebecca Scott posits in her article, Why Coal Heritage? Tourism, Progress, and the Politics of Mountaintop Removal, “Coal heritage is in part a popular history project, but it is one that is also useful for the coal industry and local elites who are tied to the coal industry” (2). In the above clip, you can hear the tour guide say that he is not allowed to talk about the unionization of the coal mines. Therefore, the control of the narrative stays on the side of the coal industry.

“This progress narrative does not leave room for questions about the physical, environmental and social costs of increased productivity and mechanization” (Scott 9).
Burning Rock Outdoor Adventure park sits on multiple acres in Tams, West Virginia.
Burning Rock Adventure Park, Sophia West Virginia

As Allen Batteau postulates about decoding the invention of Appalachia, “...one must grasp the multiple and contradictory realities that that situation might be part of; and to truly understand these realities, one must understand the archetypes from which they are derived” (11). Without the contradictory narratives as part of the tour conversations, tourists walk away with a monolithic perspective of West Virginia history.

“If you are not familiar with this area or the history of our mining heritage it may be difficult to imagine that at one time there were about 20,000 inhabitants in this 5 mile stretch.”

An ATV tour of Burning Rock states, “If you look there you will see plentiful berry bushes and small natural saplings. In an unmined state this would be much like the surrounding area, densely shaded, and covered with mature trees, providing very little substance to wildlife. By reclaiming this land we have a safe haven for our native white tail deer.” This quote positions the reclaiming of the land as more beneficial than before it was mined. This type of narrative positions the coal company as a positive marker on the region rather than destructive to the environment.

Playboy, May 1973
Playboy, May 1973

In a 1973 issue of Playboy, an interview of Major William Tams, Jr. describes what the space of Burning Rock was like as a coal mine, before it became an ATV park. In the article, Laurance Leamer says, “surely, no group of men so symbolized all that was evil and brutalizing about the early years of industrial capitalism as did the coal barons” (114). This text is juxtaposed to the contemporary moment of this space which is still owned by the coal company but structured as a tourist space.

"Life in the camps left people stunted, with some small sense of freedom, with the illusion that flight was possible, but without ever having learned to manage their own lives" (Leamer 170).
Burning Rock Adventure Park, Sophia WV
Playboy, May 1973

Another quote that shows the power structure in the tour of this space states, “take a moment to look around, listen…what do you think? We are on what is a valuable commodity in West Virginia…flat land! You could build anything here, a picnic area, a camp ground, a home with a beautiful view.” Again, as a tourist, we are to experience this moment with thanks to coal company for flattening the mountains that make up the mountain state of West Virginia.

“If you’ll take just a moment to look over there you can see a small stream. Looks pretty natural to this setting, but it is not a “natural” stream. This stream was man made to facilitate drainage of a nearby coal mine that was shut down.”
These are elements spread throughout Burning Rock park because it is still owned by the coal company and is rented out to many industries.
What becomes our heritage is often found in the stories we are told.

Tourism is being positioned as economic diversification for Appalachia as coal mining dwindles. Here, the Exhibition Coal Mine and Burning Rock Adventure Park operate as both nostalgic and a venture into a new economy. Both places offer an experience of moving through spaces of history in Coal heritage. These spaces are constructed as reminders of how the coal mines operate as cultural and economic markers in West Virginia. Exploring these spaces as a tourist, I am interested in how the narrative reinforces the master narrative of Appalachia as well as how their narrative operates in a post-coal Appalachia. However, “because of the continued economic and political dominance of the coal industry… this “post-coal” vision must conform to its demands” (3).

Burning Rock Adventure Park, Sophia WV

As coal can no longer fuel the master narrative of “progress” what narratives emerge in its absence? How can we reimagine a space outside of a coal economy when a historical mapping of the region is embedded in and formed by coal? These are questions that continue to be explored as Appalachia's stories continue diversify just as much as the economy.

Works Cited:

  • Batteau, Allen. The Invention of Appalachia. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990. Print.
  • Condee, William Faricy. Coal and Culture : Opera Houses in Appalachia. Athens : Ohio University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Crouch, David. Meaning, Encounter, and Performativity: Threads and Moments of Spacetime in Doing Tourism. The Cultural Moment in Tourism. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.
  • Gaventa, John. Power and Powerlessness : Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1982. Print.
  • Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
  • Powell, Douglas. Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.
  • Scott, Rebecca R. Removing Mountains : Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Print.
  • Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road : Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.

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