The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.
His people had settled the Clintwood and George’s Fork area, along the Appalachian edge of southern Virginia, in the early 17th century. Around the turn of the 1900s, smooth-talking land agents from back east swept through the area, coaxing mountain people into selling the rights to the ground beneath them for cheap. One of Mullins’ ancestors received 12 rifles and 13 hogs—one apiece for each of his children, plus a hog for himself—in exchange for the rights to land that has since produced billions of dollars worth of coal.
“I probably ended up mining a lot of that coal,” says Mullins, a broad-shouldered, bearded 38-year-old with an easy smile.
There were other ironies to savor too. Mullins was a fifth-generation coal miner. But growing up in the 1990s, his father and uncles—all of them miners—begged him not to get into coal mining.
“No one wanted to see you in the mines,” he says. “And they were all union miners too—had it good for a long time.” Those protections were gone by the time Mullins was growing up. The US government’s ongoing assault on organized labor through the 1980s and 1990s meant that the mammoth energy conglomerates that dominated the coal industry were free to open non-union mines with increasing impunity. But mining was still just as rough—replete with injuries, accidents, and black lung deaths.
During the coal bust in the 1990s, Mullins’ dad was laid off from Bethlehem Steel’s mines. Mullins recalls living off the green beans his family had diligently canned during the good times, and watching his parents grow desperate. Go to college, they urged him. Mining offered no future.
Mullins planned on following their advice. But he, like so many of his friends, family, and neighbors, soon found that the industry that has wreaked havoc on the economy of central Appalachia—composed of southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky—was also nearly impossible to escape.
Read more at Quartz.