Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Coal mining, like whaling, inevitably will fade away


In this Oct. 6, 2015 photo, a miner works underground in the Sewell ‘R’ coal mine in Yukon, W.Va. Communities in coal country have suffered economically as utilities turn away from coal generation and production slides.
In this Oct. 6, 2015 photo, a miner works underground in the Sewell ‘R’ coal mine in Yukon, W.Va. Communities in coal country have suffered economically as utilities turn away from coal generation and production slides. AP file

To the best of my knowledge, whaling was not a major issue during the presidential campaign of 1916. Incumbent Woodrow Wilson and challenger Charles Hughes sparred over labor relations, and war in Europe loomed. They did not fight over hunting whales.

By that time, however, America’s whale-oil industry was in serious decline. The nation’s whaling fleet had dropped by more than 75 percent from its mid-19th century high. Only three ports still sent out whalers; that would dwindle to two by 1920, and in 1927 New Bedford, Mass., sent out the last whaling boat to leave the continental United States. The industry was dead.

It had been a big business. The corsets that fashionable women stuffed their bodies into were made out of whale-bone stays. But whale oil was the real prize of whaling.

Whale-oil lamps lit American homes across much of the 19th century. By the 1850s Americans were killing enough whales to produce roughly 10 million gallons of oil.

But it was miserable work, whaling. Out at sea for months or even years, sailors found whaling dirty and dangerous even if Captain Ahab wasn’t at the helm. Some boat owners back in Boston or Nantucket might get rich, but the crew risked life and limb for a pittance wage.

Production of whale oil cratered during the Civil War, and it never really recovered. Whale-oil lamps were replaced by kerosene-fueled lamps and eventually by electricity. Women decided that they didn’t want to wear corsets anymore.

Whaling was driven out of business by new technologies, to say nothing of decimated whale populations, and the communities that had depended on whaling suffered as a consequence. Even so, no political candidate in 1916 ran on a call to bring whaling back, to hunt every whale in the sea, and to restore whale-oil lamps to people’s homes. That moment was gone, and everyone knew it.

One hundred years ago, even as those last Yankee whalers shipped out, employment in the nation’s coal mines boomed. Nearly 800,000 miners went underground in the year that last New Bedford boat left the harbor. The two industries share much in common.

Mining has also been dirty and dangerous. In the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania between 1870 and 1970, 31,000 miners died, according to scholar Gerald Sherard. That’s an average of over one miner killed each day for 100 years. And if you survived the mines themselves, you might spend the rest of your (shortened) life coughing with black lung disease. In 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office counted more than 75,000 deaths due to black lung since 1968.

Coal provided the fuel for the nation’s industrial growth, and coal mine owners got fabulously rich, though their miners never did. Like the devastation whaling visited upon the seas, coal mining and burning has caused extensive environmental damage.

The sulfur spewed out of coal-fired plants in the Midwest caused acid rain to fall in the mid-Atlantic and New England; the carbon released by burning coal contributes significantly to climate change. In mining communities themselves the landscape is marked by open pits, mountains with their tops removed, billions of tons of slag, eroded hillsides and toxic water.

And like whaling in the late 19th century, coal mining is in decline because of new technologies and large economic forces. Only 80,000 people work in the mines today, one-tenth of the number from 100 years ago.

Coal miners have been replaced by coal-mining machines; coal mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia have been supplanted by those out west, especially in Wyoming. Coal struggles to compete with natural gas as a cheap fuel source.

Yet unlike whaling a century ago, coal mining has become a major campaign issue in 2016. Given coal mining’s history of human suffering and environmental destruction, given the tiny number of people the industry now employs, there is something almost bizarre about the coal mining nostalgia that has popped up this election season.

Coal is experiencing its whale-oil moment, and there’s no avoiding it. It is already being replaced by better, cleaner forms of energy. Yet despite the handwriting on the walls of America’s coal mines, Donald Trump promises to bring it all back, like Ahab railing against his white whale. That story, you’ll remember, didn’t end well.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Email: steven.conn1@gmail.com. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.