Driving west through the hills to Lucas last evening as a storm rolled in, I was thinking about the 25 miners (perhaps 29 since four still are unaccounted for) dead in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia.
Accelerating down Whitebreast hill into the creek valley as lightning flashed and clouds rolled, wondering if there was restlessness, a wind of empathy blowing east perhaps, atop Fry Hill, which rises to the northwest.
Most of the dead from the Lucas and Cleveland mines (and we have no idea how many) a century and more ago and many of their loved ones rest there.
They would understand the economic necessity and the lure of mining coal, the hazards then as now, the ever-present undercurrent of fear, the frequent grief --- and know that mine owners get rich while miners get by, and occasionally die.
The coal trains don’t stop at Lucas any more. Coal is no longer mined in Lucas County (the last mine, Big Ben, closed years ago). But a dozen or more coal trains, hundreds of cars each, roll along front street in Lucas daily on the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe, carrying Wyoming east gradually to fuel the Midwest’s power grid. A few minutes later, the trains pass a block and a half east of my house in Chariton, each saluting with whistles, train after train, day after day and night, endlessly rolling.
Lucas, like Russell to the east, was platted along the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad line as it was pushed west from Ottumwa to the Missouri River after the Civil War. Russell’s birth year is 1866; Lucas’s 1868.
As Lucas County’s vast coal reserves began to be exploited in the 1870s, Lucas boomed and a twin named Cleveland, now truly a ghost town, was platted and developed just to the east.
Miners from Wales and Scotland, France and Italy, freed slaves from the South, poured in to push its population above 3,500. I’ve heard there were as many as 29 saloons (not necessarily operating consecutively) and 14 churches.
Today about 200 people live in Lucas in houses clinging in many cases now as then to the hillsides rimming the north side of the Whitebreast valley. Only front street, paralleling the railroad tracks at the base of the hills, neatly kept and relatively intact, is truly flat.
There is one saloon now and soaring above it, like a great white bird preparing to take flight from its hillside perch, the only surviving church, Presbyterian, supremely elegant in its simplicity, hardly touched by time.
There were many other mines in Lucas County and other coal towns. Olmitz and Tipperary near my mother’s childhood home northeast of Chariton in Pleasant Township, Zero, east of Russell --- all vanished entirely. Williamson hangs on.
But Lucas was the jewel. Lucas/Cleveland gave birth in 1880 to John Llewellyn Lewis, son of a Welsh coal mining family and a miner himself, who went on to lead the United Mine Workers as it forged some parity between mine owners and the miners who did the work, and died, and became one of the great labor organizers of the 20th century. He is honored in Lucas at the John L. Lewis Museum of Mining and Labor.
Most of it’s gone now. The mining industry faded as deposits of cleaner-burning coal were exploited elsewhere, including West Virginia and Wyoming. Lucas County was spared the strip mining that left deep scars in adjoining Marion and Monroe counties and so our landscape is mostly intact.
I can take you to the locations of most of the old mines in my mother’s childhood neighborhood, but not to the sites of the Lucas-area mines. Although underground chambers and tunnels remain and occasionally collapse, shafts have been sealed and above-ground traces obliterated.
We sat around tables in the Presbyterian Church basement last evening talking of Interchurch Council business --- possible camp scholarships for county young people, the Ministry Center (where food is collected and distributed to those who need it), a council-sponsored baccalaureate service for graduating seniors May 5, an ecumenical worship service July 4th on the courthouse lawn.
What we did not do is what we should have done, considering life in general and the specific place where we were gathered --- pray for those West Virginia miners and their families, for all who still go down into the mines daily to ensure that we can turn on the lights at night. I wish we had and I’m sorry we didn’t. I could have suggested it.
Note: This YouTube version of Dwight Yoakam's classic ends clumsily, but it's a moving presentation none-the-less.