Strip-mining destroyed the landscape of central Ohio–and the lungs of many workers. What will it take to build a healthier future?
By Sarah Hume
On a typical day, Jerry Few woke up at five in the morning, drank a pot of coffee, and smoked five Pall Mall cigarettes. He drove thirty miles to the Big Muskie, a strip mining machine about six stories tall, which scraped dirt away from underground coal. By the time he got there, the weather would be evident for the day: a rising sun, rain, or snow. Weathering took its toll, and for every day the Muskie could not be operated, the Central Ohio Coal Company lost profit, so either way, Few was going to be repairing the machine.
Few pulled on his steel-toed boots, a welding cap, and a hard hat. If it was wet, he had five-buckle rubber boots. And he watched Big Muskie walk. It didn’t roll like other machines. It didn’t tread. It lifted one rusted foot and took a slow step across the moonscape. And it was massive, the biggest single bucket digger ever built. Its bucket could hold two greyhound buses and moved more than forty-four thousand gallons of dirt with every bite. Sometimes as high as two hundred feet in the air, working on the boom or the operator’s cab, he would weld the worn-down machine back together.
The Big Muskie was created in 1969 when the nearby Muskingum River Power Plant expanded and needed more fuel. Instead of going underground, miners cleared the top layer of land in order to see the coal veins underneath. In that way, strip mining is safer for workers, Dr. Ahmed Soliman, a professor of Environmental Studies at Denison University, told me. There are fewer mine collapses and mine fires. But strip mining also changes the entire habitat. An ecosystem that had existed for millions of years is gone in a day. Even when the land is put back into place, it has still been uprooted.
As of 2019, roughly thirty percent of all energy in the United States comes from burning coal. These power plants produce more than one hundred million tons of ash every year, some of which ends up in ponds, lakes, and landfills, and eventually into drinking water if not properly handled. The EPA suggests that companies instead bind coal ash to make concrete, roofing shingles, and bricks. Still, the ash sites of eleven regulated coal-fired power plants in Ohio are leaking chemicals at unsafe levels. Burning coal releases mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide into the air. It’s the single largest source of global temperature rise.
For a long time, people have been talking about weaning the world off coal. When the Clean Air Act of 1990 passed, and perhaps even before then, the demand for high-sulfur coal from the Big Muskie started decreasing as reports of Eastern coal burning dirtier became more prevalent. The digger was put out of commission. Some people called for it to be made into a museum or a restaurant. In the comments of Big Muskie YouTube videos, people still say they wish it would’ve happened.
After eight years of sitting, the Muskie was scrapped in 1999—the year I was born—and melted down into car parts. Only the bucket survives now, sitting at the top of a hill at the Miners Memorial Park in McConnelsville, Ohio. In the past thirty years, more than ten thousand acres mined by Big Muskie were reclaimed. Some of it has been made into a wildlife conservation center called The Wilds, a non-profit which works in tandem with the Columbus Zoo. It’s home to more than twenty-six different species, including giraffes, rhinos, and camels. Many of the animals there are endangered, with fewer than 2,500 mature individuals left worldwide.
Much of the remaining reclaimed land was made into a public park, complete with camping, fishing, and the Miners Memorial. I drive out one day to see it. The road twists through tall, thin trees that are turning brown and red. Just when I think that Ohio hardly has any bodies of water, I crest a hill that proves me wrong: the Muskingum River is below me, wide and glinting. I pass a sign that says: American Electric Power Welcomes you to ReCreation Land.
The first time Few reached out to me was over email. He wrote about his twenty years working on the Muskie and thousands of hours on the machine. At the very end, he wrote, “Should you want to talk to me, please text. Due to complications from Black Lung, my voice box was removed and I can’t speak.”
Few’s first time working on the Muskie was in 1975 as a welder for Dig Inc., a company contracted to do a major rebuild on the machine. After a couple of months, he became friends with supervision and proved that he knew the work. They asked him to become the welding Quality Control technician. In that position, he would “pass” or “fail” welding jobs. That position ended in October. Dig Inc. offered him a job in Kentucky, but he chose to stay local. He asked Central Ohio Coal for a full-time job at the mine, and he was hired a year and a half later.
Each day, Few would go to what his co-workers called the bucket shop: the storage of various spare buckets for any machines being rebuilt. If the Muskie was running well, Few fixed up these buckets, which wore down from continually scraping rocks and dirt. When the Muskie needed repairs, Few grabbed a five gallon bucket with his welding tools inside and started on the problem.
Thick, sticky grease covered the machine because of its gigantic moving parts. Soap and water couldn’t wash it out. Few and his crew brought ringer washers with them—portable washing machines with two rollers and a crank to wring out the clothes—and washed them with paint solvent. The grease permeated their skin and clogged their pores. At the end of the day, he peeled off his greasy Carhartt coveralls and drove home. Overtime was normal, with eight hour days sometimes turning into twenty. The Big Muskie worked every day a year except for Christmas. Then, it would be decorated with twinkling lights.
If he had time when he got home, Few would go out into his garden. He would go to his kids’ school activities or take the family fishing and hunting. His father was born on a farm six miles from where the Muskie later worked. It was Few’s favorite place to deer hunt, before it became the land he ended up mining.
In the weeks and months after Few first makes contact, we email and write over Facebook messaging, back and forth at odd hours. When it comes up that I love Bluegrass music, he offers to introduce me to Gary Schwartz, his best friend who was the stage manager of Tommy Cash, the brother of Johnny Cash. He recommends to me his favorite old gospel music (The Isaacs, Del McCoury, and The Lewis Family, to name some).
Sixteen years after he began, in 1991, Few worked on the Muskie bucket for the last time. He sends me a video of a ceremony where he’s being thanked for his service in the mines. In it, he wears wire-framed glasses and a brown button-up over a black shirt. Gray hair slicked back. Phone tucked into his front shirt pocket.
“My health is waning,” he writes, “so I hope you get everything that you want from me.”
I drove to see Big Muskie’s bucket from my small college near Columbus, Ohio, which uses a mixture of solar power and natural gas. If I had been a student here seven years earlier, I’d be using coal. This part of Ohio belongs to the Appalachian mining story. In 2019, 30,254 people worked in the coal sector of Appalachia, with two-thirds of them still working underground. According to Few, for every person who worked on the Big Muskie, approximately nine of them were directly or indirectly dependent on the mine.
Central Ohio is still home to former and current mining towns. You’ll drive through them if you go along back roads. The town of Shawnee, for example, is about an hour from where the Big Muskie walked, and it feels similar to others. When it boomed in the early 1900s due to the coal industry, there were four thousand residents, three opera houses, and a large Labor Day parade.
Now, 655 people live in Shawnee. Most of the mined land has been reclaimed and made into forest. Still open downtown are a general store, a gift shop, and a few restaurants. The buildings are tall and flat, and close together, like a stereotypical old Western town. I stop to eat lunch in their park gazebo, attached to a veterans’ memorial. A mom takes pictures of her high school daughter who wears a fluffy pink and black homecoming dress. She stands in front of an abandoned white building, perfectly silhouetted against the cracked paint.
In the late 1970s, fifty miles northeast of Shawnee, the initial concept for The Wilds was developed by local leaders and zoo professionals. Their hope was to find scientific solutions for environmental concerns. Ironically, the non-profit didn’t have a place to house endangered animals until 1984, when it received almost ten thousand acres of strip-mined land from AEP. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation act of 1977 required mining companies like AEP to “reclaim” land, including restoring its natural contour as closely as possible, stabilizing the soil and redistributing topsoil, and bringing plant life back to the site. Newly reclaimed mines like this are typically planted with quick-growing grasses, which, oddly enough, produce large patches of grassland habitat that mirror the natural environment of giraffes and rhinos.
The relationship between local land usage and animals doesn’t stop there. The Wilds is now home to the Eastern Hellbender as well, one of the largest salamanders in North America. At the Wilds, the Hellbenders exist in their white fluorescent room. The smallest salamanders, still babies, stay in tanks on the shelves. The larger salamanders drift in larger pools on the floor. The goal is to raise these Hellbenders so that they can be re-released into their original creeks. Many of those creeks, though, are now polluted from chemical runoff and untreated sewage. Dams eliminate free-flowing sections of rivers and decrease oxygen levels at the river bottom. Silt piles up due to logging and erosion from farms and housing developments. Some Eastern Hellbenders can’t go home.
The Big Muskie bucket is rust-brown, shining, and massive. Standing inside of it feels the same as being in my apartment common room and kitchen combined. I can hardly wrap my hand around a link of its chain. I find myself touching bolts the size of my face and trying to turn them, though I know it’s impossible. Scratched into the bucket walls are small notes, mostly at average-height level. Anthony was here, one says. Another reads, Chelsea & Noah 09-6-21, Noah’s first time here!
All over the bucket are huge rifts in the metal, so big I can fit my fingers into the grooves. Other spots are smoothed over, clearly welded. A tiny green plant grows through a small crack in the metal. A honeycomb wasp nest hangs in the top corner. The plaque overlooking the forested hills reads: Tree planting, by hand, was done on the spoil banks using a three-stage planting method. This method allowed for the substitution of timber, a renewable resource, for depleting coal resources.
In some ways, trees are more renewable than coal. Coal formation requires millions of years of carbon being pressurized underground. Still, most trees need at least thirty years to grow to their full size. In cooler climates, and depending on the species, some trees need hundreds of years. By the time those trees developed, I would be fifty-two years old at the very youngest. Instead of living in a university apartment like I do now, I might have kids who have already moved out of the house.
My friend Lillian asked me this summer if it’s ethical to have kids anymore. She doesn’t want to be a mother who knowingly brings her children into a possible apocalypse. I’ve had this conversation a few more times since. I sometimes feel selfish for wanting a family when I know what could happen. I often wonder if my kids and grandkids will be able to swim in Lake Michigan like I did. It’s a much smaller fear than total apocalypse, of course. But when I’m there, it’s the closest I ever feel to God.
The United Nations predicts that we have less than twelve years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change. Resources will run low, possibly causing war over water or energy. We could see more hurricanes, fires, and flooding. Parts of Florida and California’s coastlines are projected to be completely overtaken with water by the year 2100. Anyone could become a climate refugee, with fewer and fewer safe places to go as the entire world feels the effects of the change.
I still drive my car, though. I use my lights and heating and make food on my stove. I type this on a computer plugged into the wall. A lot of us do. We have to get that energy from somewhere.
Under a small shelter at ReCreation Land, thousands of miners’ names sit behind plexiglass. Pulled away are six names written on a small rock with gold lettering, donated by the United Mine Workers of America and the Central Ohio Coal Co.: Malcolm Carter. James Cooper. Charles Mitchell. Michael Malenda. Raymond Banks. Myron Stoneburner.
Charles Mitchell, also known as Sonny, was twenty-six when he died in 1973. He was a former basketball star at Maysville High School, and a father to a new baby. He was supposed to be off duty the night he died. Instead, he got a call to work overtime, and with a new house, a new car, and a fuller family, he went. He died when a thirty-five hundred pound pinion gear collapsed on his upper body while he was repairing the Big Muskie.
Myron Stoneburner was the last miner to die on site. Jeff Hall, a retired mechanic who fought for the memorial to be made, knew Stoneburner in school. Now, Hall lives in a small house about an hour from the Miner’s Memorial Park with his Rottweiler Daisy and pictures of his daughters on the table. He has the same soft Ohio accent as my dad and grandfather. Hall began working on the Muskie because he was in the wrong time, wrong place. A back injury sent him home from Vietnam in 1970, and the Central Ohio Coal Company offered a place to work.
Hall turns somber when he talks about the Miners Memorial Park. He goes quiet for a few minutes, spreads his hands on the table, and then tells Daisy the Rottweiler to sit. He was the vice president of the local United Mine Workers of America. And he made the Miner’s Memorial Park happen. Most of the miners wanted a memorial for former employees and the six men who died while working on the machine. But they worried that if it was in the middle of nowhere, nobody would go to see it. So Hall suggested a park. It took two and a half years and a four-hundred-page book about state regulations to make the Miners Memorial Park into a reality. He was there for it all.
On an October Sunday in 2001, he finally gathered with more than two hundred people— including family members of his late friend Myron Stoneburner— to honor the dead. The ceremony began and ended with a prayer. Hall spoke. The bucket sat just like it does now. And Charles Mitchell’s aunt noticed how the park’s hill looked like the one where Mitchell was buried.
The Miners Memorial Park was born. ReCreation Land itself was one of AEP’s reclamation projects, proposed to re-create the land, so to speak, by opening it recreationally to the public. About sixty-three million trees were planted, some by hand, and 350 lakes and ponds were stocked with fish. The Muskie bucket and the names of the fallen miners are flanked by campsites. Time passes, but the land stays. And some things can’t be brought back to be the same as they once were: not past ecosystems, not the land’s natural shape, and not lives.
Few has started to build his own coffin. After being diagnosed with Black Lung, he’s been thinking about his death. He wants something simplistic but unique. “I will not be cremated because I got burnt thousands of times during my fifty years of welding,” he writes to me. On the plaque, carved into wood, reads: Jerry Robert Few, Husband of Patricia D. Few, Father of Adam, Sheila, Dawn, Jason. Surrounding the names are wooden crosses.
In an all-white room with a desk and keyboard attached to the wall, Few learned that he had Black Lung. It was the cleanest, most perfect place he’d ever seen. The doctor and nurse pointed to things on a screen, telling Few how it would affect him. He was confused. His wife and one of his sons were there with him, helping to hear the information as Few realized what was happening. When he got home, he went online to read more, as he always does.
Black Lung is also known as Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis. It causes a loss of blood vessels and air sacs in the lungs, and scarring, which makes it harder for oxygen to pass through into the body. The air passages and lung tissue becomes stiff and thick. Black Lung progresses slowly—you’d barely notice it in the early stages.
By 2016, Few had a total respiratory failure. He flatlined three times. Three paddles and a hole in his throat brought him back to life. Two years later, his voice box was removed, but the voice valve which would allow Few to talk leaked, bringing about pneumonia. He can’t speak, smell, or taste. He can’t breathe through his nose or mouth. A large machine with a fifty foot hose allows Few to breathe when he’s at home. “I am like a dog on a chain,” Few tells me. “Only if a dog breaks its chain, it runs away. If I break my hose, I eventually die.”
More than two hundred thousand miners have died from Black Lung since 1900.
It took him more than two years to get health benefits from Central Ohio Coal, which in the experience of most miners, is a relatively short amount of time. With a few shortcuts that he learned from other miners and the help of Chicago attorney Tom Johnson, who hardly ever charged Few or other miners fighting for their benefits, he was able to prove to the courts that he had Black Lung. This meant that the company was held responsible, and would pay $1040.40 per month plus all medication costs, all doctor and medical costs, and all transportation costs to hospitals.
With ten percent of miners having Black Lung, coal companies should theoretically be paying millions of dollars in benefits. But that’s not necessarily the case. Many coal companies do pay millions of dollars to medical institutions, however, like Johns Hopkins and its head doctor Paul Wheeler. Coal companies have been paying Wheeler $750 for each Black Lung scan he reads, which is ten times the amount that coal miners can usually pay.
Whether or not a miner receives Black Lung benefits rides on testimonies like Wheeler’s. And there are concerns that something more insidious is happening. Wheeler claims he has not found a case of Black Lung in the fifteen hundred X-rays he’s seen since 2000. A joint investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity found that Wheeler has been wrong or mistaken in more than one hundred cases in which autopsies or biopsies later found Black Lung.
Even with Black Lung, Few tells me, he wouldn’t trade his time on the Muskie for anything. He loved it. He loved the people. They were family.
Hall, too, speaks of the camaraderie. And when he tells stories, he acts them out with big hand movements and voice changes. Most are about friends and scuffles with supervisors. He revels in showing me a picture he took of a foreman’s newly-bought Jeep, smashed by the Muskie’s foot after the foreman parked it in the wrong place. He once pushed another foreman into a pond, he admits, because supervision made him and his coworkers fix an impossible underwater pipe. He’s stayed friends with JD, the mechanic who politely asked the dripping foreman as he stepped out of the pond, What happened to you? Hall’s eyes still light up at that.
On the Facebook page for workers of the Central Ohio Coal Company, retired miners post information about pensions, request prayers for people in the hospital, and more often than not, post obituaries. The Big Muskie generation is fading. Few often cries when he sees that another person has passed away.
Every few months, retired Central Ohio Coal Company miners who are still alive and able gather in the local Eagles Lodge for a coal miners’ breakfast. If you look at their page, you can find a picture of a man named Charlie Greer on his ninetieth birthday. He sits in a room with checkered linoleum floors and plastic chairs. The cake— white with blue trim— says his name. Husband, Dad, it lists below. Pop, Great Pawpaw.
To the side, in a smaller font to make it fit: Coal Miner.
The day after Thanksgiving, Few tells me that he’s back in the hospital. While there, he received a text at 4:29 a.m. from the wife of a friend and former co-worker. She said that her husband had just passed away from Black Lung.
For the past three years, Few and this friend would visit each other. The friend had a quaint back porch where they would eat dinner and talk. They hadn’t met up since the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so Few started to plan a seafood dinner for their reunion: shrimp, oysters, scallops, crab legs. But his friend got worse. “As he started stabilizing, I went into the hospital, and he passed before I got out,” Few writes. “No seafood meal.”
He tells me to please not be concerned with his recent hospital stays. It’s something he expects with a progressive and incurable disease like Black Lung. He even accepts it. But at heart, I’m a person who prays, and so I pray. Not necessarily for miracle health—and not necessarily to God. I suppose I don’t know exactly what I pray about. But I keep doing it.
I realize that when I visited the bucket at the Miner’s Memorial Park, I stood on Jerry Few’s work. The smooth, silver welded spots show where he made repairs. He offered to meet me at the bucket later this year, to show me which areas he worked on. We decided to go in the spring.
Now, I sit in my living room with a YouTube video of a fireplace on my TV, just so I can feel some kind of warmth during a winter snow. It reminds me of home, and when you’re away from home, those precious things are hard to give up. I think about the energy I’m using. I think about what kind of fuel I might be burning to do it.
Re-creation is a tricky subject, but it’s essential in combating the climate crisis. Ensuring a livable future requires re-creating our culture with a different relationship to energy and land, and to their users and occupants. Hunger—the way we ate land via the Big Muskie and other mines—begets hunger, and it’s especially dangerous when we see the environment as a resource and ourselves as different from the plants and animals that call it home.
Efforts to address climate change are often accompanied by a sense of loss— of particular identities and ways of life. It can be hard to let go. But we navigate this grief to combat a larger grief, like the possibility of losing humanity slowly, our children and their children watching trees and water and mountains fall away. We navigate this grief to protect each other. We navigate this grief to try and make re-creation possible, and even if it’s not possible, our grief becomes an act of service to the future.
When I drove through ReCreation Land, with its forests and the Muskingum River, I couldn’t tell it had ever been strip-mined. But I’m not the land, which bears a record of this history across its surface. It tells a story, and when we act, we become part of that story. The land whispers our names back into memory. ■
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly captioned a photo of Jeff Hall speaking in front of the Muskie bucket. The photo was from an event recognizing miners, and not the formal dedication of the bucket. We regret the error.
Sarah Hume is an author and journalist from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who writes about local histories, a sense of place, and environmental justice. Her work has appeared in The Reporting Project and Cultural Survival Quarterly.
Cover image: side view of Big Muskie, circa 1990s. Photo by Brian Powell (creative commons).
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