If there is one sure curse in this world, it’s mineral wealth. Is there gold or diamonds or oil beneath the surface of your land? Then count on poverty, gross inequality and autocracy above. Of all the possibilities, coal is the worst, dirty in every way. When it’s burned, it fills the air with carbon, powering the global warming now unhinging the planet. But before that silent tragedy can take place, there’s a noisy horror—the kaboom of exploding mountains across the southern Appalachians.
In the summers of 1920 and 1921 southern West Virginia was the scene of some of the most historically significant unrest in U.S. history. Yet today this history has been largely forgotten. Although I was raised in West Virginia, I first learned about these events as a nearly grown man when I saw the movie Matewan, John Sayles’s cinematic vision of the seminal events of the mine wars.