My work took me to Crown, West Virginia yesterday, a place you'll never see; a place that doesn't even get enough respect to be on any maps. It is just down the road (if you have the intestinal fortitude to drive it) from Man and a little further away from the largest metropolis in the area, Logan, where they even have a Wal-Mart, thank you very much. Crown is wedged into the mountainous region of southern West Virginia, just a few ridges east of South Williamson, Kentucky. In the heart of coal country.
This part of West Virginia has never been conquered. For two centuries, people have tried but failed. When you work your way into the area, you are overwhelmed by the steep, towering, forested, mountains rising on either side of the road that somehow allow just enough space in between for (almost) two lanes of traffic. There is very little level ground.
What homes there are in the area are plastered to the sides of the hills and mounted atop the jagged ridges that dominate the landscape. As I was driving through the backstreets of Crown (the backstreet anyway), I was forced to slow to a crawl to allow time for the chickens to scurry out of the way.
And there is just enough space in Crown for a customer of mine to operate a hardware, building supply, architectural products, plumbing, heating, agricultural, summer/winter/work clothing, and etcetera store. A place where you can purchase most anything imaginable and obtain, free of charge, the latest news and gossip. It is a place where the locals meet in passing, exchange pleasantries, and move on.
Recent times have been particularly hard on the area. West Virginia has been losing population, a problem that is most prevalent in the south of the state. What brought people to this area in large numbers (after all the population of Man is 770) are the mines. This area is blessed - and at the same time cursed - by having vast deposits of bituminous coal.
Cursed these days because of its perceived environmental baggage. Though it is clean burning, West Virginia coal, unlike that found out west, is higher in sulfur, a bugaboo for the environmentalist crowd. The save-the-earth bunch exert great influence in far-off Washington D.C. and have done great damage to the economy in this area, though nobody from "60 Minutes" has ever been sent here to explore the subject. So people here have, for years now, been packing up their worldly belongings and moving "up north." Robert Byrd, the legendary United States Senator from West Virginia, has done his best to pump federal dollars into the area to help stimulate growth. His efforts are reflected in the marvelous highway system that has been carved out of this rugged region. But the local humorists around here will tell you that Byrd only had the roads built so that West Virginians could get the hell out of the state more quickly. The only state in the United States, by the way, that lost population in the last census.
But I learned something yesterday. Red hats are hard to come by at the supply store. Local folk know what that means, though I'm sure none of you do. Part of the standard uniform worn by miners is the hard hat. Rookie miners, in training if you will, wear red colored hard hats to signify the fact that they are untrained and need to be looked after. And there has been a run on red hats of late. Why? Coal is selling again. The mines are hiring. I'm told that coal has sold recently for as much as $125 a ton. That may not sound like much to you but that's a whole lot better than the $25 the mine operaters were getting a few years ago.
The reason that the red hats are in such short supply is because it has been a long, long time since any of the mines have brought in new workers. For many years the available work force has consisted of experienced miners that have been thrown out of work as a result of the closing of other mines. But most of them are gone now - or are dead. So new blood is being sent down into the mines. Times are about to be...better.