THE STRIP MINER
Long before mountains existed in West Virginia, the Mountain State was a tropical forest of primitive trees in steadily- subsiding stagnant swamps -- conditions ideal for the accumulation of thick peat deposits-- the first phase of coal formation.
Approximately 308 million years ago what is now Nicholas County, West Virginia was a tangled tropical quagmire, lying under a 30- foot thick peat deposit which had been quietly accumulating for about 30,000 years. Eventually a meandering river channel from nearby overflowed it's banks and brought an end to peat deposition as successive layers of sand and mud buried the peat deposits. In the process, a set of cones of a primitive tree called Sigillaria fell into the muddy currents and were quickly buried.
In the millions of years that followed, the accumulation of many hundreds of feet of additional sediments produced sufficient heat and pressure to transform the thick peat bed into coal. This particular coal bed, one of more than 60 in West Virginia, is today known as the "Peerless Seam." The related process of "lithofication," transformed the silty mud into rock, preserving the detail of these Sigillaria cones as a fossil.
The intentions of Mother Nature were not to preserve this fossil (Sigillariostrobus) for this web page or a museum somewhere, but instead through the process of erosion eventually scatter it indiscriminately as grains of sand across the Gulf of Mexico. Tectonic uplift raised the region gradually, creating the Allegheny Plateau. Subsequent erosion along systematic vertical fractures in the rock strata over millions of years eventually wore the Allegheny Plateau down into a network of twisting mountains and dendritic drainages which comprise the ridges and hollows of the Appalachian Coalfields.
Coal seams are today exposed in continuous "outcrops" around the sides of these mountains. It is here that the Strip Miner practices his craft, removing soil and rock to get at this coal exposed near the surface. In 1985 this fossil was about 60 feet away from erosion and eternal oblivion.
In 1985 a private entrepreneur named Carl rescued this fossil. Carl worked to remove the last 60 feet of rock over it, to get at the coal beneath it. His investment to do this in 1985 was $7 million of heavy equipment (992-C loader/ 777 haulers, D-8 class dozers, etc.). He hired 35 people at $45,000+/ year, many of whom had previously known perpetual welfare and food stamps. Carl made the land owners wealthy by paying them generous coal royalties for the privilege of mining.
Carl spent a fortune on operating supplies and taxes, which gave many more people good jobs and paid for building good roads to get them there. Carl gave the State of West Virginia $1 million as collateral to ensure he would totally reclaim the site. Carl did totally restore the land after mining, so the fossil collecting there is now over.
Like most of the independent strip miners, Carl didn't do much more than make a living for himself over the long haul, eventually rolling the dice once too often in this high stakes game where weather, steep terrain, coal markets, environmental zealots, and the ever-changing geologic conditions eventually took their toll. Most of the small independent coal operators have now, for the most part, disappeared-- casualties of a tangled labyrinth of government regulation, the uncertainties of the coal market, and the laws of Monte Carlo. Only a handful-- all professionals-- remain. Their culture and their perseverence will one day, hopefully, be told in a way that adequately portrays the daily heroics of their endeavors against many odds, and gives due credit to the Strip Miner for having provided many families in Appalachia the means to lift themselves out of poverty and participate in the American dream.
Although demonized by the Press and American educators, The Strip Miner has in the past 20 years learned to restore the land-- often to a state of greater value to man and wildlife than it was before. Today's reclaimed mined lands are an oasis to wildlife of all kinds. As a result, a broad-spectrum of wildlife has returned to Appalachia, surpassing all numbers since records have been kept.
When I walk beneath the lush green slopes worked and reclaimed by the Strip Miner, along cattail-studded wetlands created intentionally by the miners, among the deer and wild turkey that now thrive here, I hear echoes and see the apparitions of dinosaurs that shaped them. Not the flesh and blood ones, but metal ones, each piloted by a human soul, with a name like Duck or Jughead. Who, practicing their craft with ANFO and Iron, opened a chapter of Earth History page by page, to reveal her treasures and secrets, then gently closed the book again.
Photo of Turkeys on Regrade by Jim McClanahan, 1988.