© Jerry F. Couch
THE KING COAL ERA — As Dickens might have said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was the best of times because coal had brought unprecedented prosperity to Southwest Virginia. For the first time in their lives, many people were enjoying economic security and all that went with it: Good healthcare, money to educate the next generation, the opportunity to remain in SWVA instead of migrating to Detroit, Dayton, Newport News, or other industrialized areas.
It was also the worst of times because there were coal operators who would have forfeited Southwest Virginia’s future for the sake of their own profits. Surface mining had left deep scars on the land, some of which are still visible today. The results were watershed destruction and its attendant flooding; massive soil erosion; and contamination of water supplies.
Most people were caught somewhere in the middle of all this, including the independent truckers who relied upon coal production for their living.
In those days, buying a coal truck wasn’t easy. Even if you qualified for a loan, interest rates were high and loan terms were of shorter duration – meaning high monthly payments. Being successful in the trucking business meant hauling as many loads per day as possible. Overloading was a potentially expensive and dangerous risk assumed by many truckers in order to stay in business. This was particularly true if they were trying to make up for lost income due to traffic accidents, illness, or mechanical problems. Truckers were on the road all week, then spent their weekends repairing and maintaining their trucks. It was a hard life and a huge gamble that either paid well or didn’t pay at all.
On a frosty April morning in 1975, truckers from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee joined together to form a truck convoy to Washington to protest government tightening of strip-mining regulations. The convoy was BIG news across Virginia. Here is a transcription of an Associated Press article that appeared in “The Bee” of Danville, Virginia on April 4, 1975. It explains what was taking place:
BUSINESSMEN AID MINE PROTEST
NORTON, Va. (AP) — Businessmen and bankers in Southwest Virginia are helping coal mine operators and coal truck drivers in their plans to invade Washington next week to protest federal strip mine legislation that is making them fear for their jobs.
The caravan, which organizers hope will include as many as 3,000 protestors, has support from a wide range of business interests and the active backing of the Wise County Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber said Thursday it already has registered 700 coal trucks – 500 from Virginia, 100 each from Kentucky and Tennessee – for the 400-mile trip from Wise County to Washington next Monday.
Other miners will ride at least 30 buses already chartered for the convoy.
The Wise County National Bank in Norton has been receiving donations toward offsetting the cost of the motorcade.
“The response to this thing is fantastic,” said Ralph Keith, a bank official. “There’s a real unity throughout this area.”
And some trip mine operators have agreed to pay expenses for their own miners to make the trip.
Protest organizers say 700 rooms have been booked for the protestors at Washington hotels, but “even that may not be enough to put all our people up,” said strip mine operator Wall Maggard, a member of the organizing committee.
The caravan plans to go into Washington Tuesday, with the long lines of trucks going down Independence Avenue to the Capitol and along Constitution Avenue to the White House, then retracing its route back into Virginia.
The protestors then plan to split into committees of five to buttonhole members of Congress in an effort to change the minds of those who favor the legislation to tighten controls on strip mining, which has passed both the House and Senate and is in conference committee.
They contend the legislation would put the strip mines out of business and leave many miners jobless by requiring costly reclamation of strip-mined land.
Wildcat strikes in protest of the legislation spread throughout Southwest Virginia’s coalfields beginning last week, at times idling thousands of both union and non-union miners.
Court injunctions and pleas from United Mine Workers officials resulted in nearly all of the state’s 8,700 UMW members returning to work Wednesday, but one union official predicted that many will leave their jobs next Monday to join the caravan to Washington.
The UMW supports the strip mining legislation, but its members in the strip mines do not.
Pictured above are some of the St. Paul stores that were closed for business as a show of solidarity with SWVA coal truckers. All of these stores have long since gone out of business. How many of them do you recognize?
Here’s how things looked at the Wise County Fairgrounds where truckers from Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia staged their portion of the convoy.
Pictured above are local residents who gathered at the Fourth Avenue underpass to watch history passing by. Were you among them?
Pictured above, chartered buses carrying supporters of the coal truck convoy roll down Fourth Avenue in St. Paul.
JUST LOOK AT ALL THOSE TRUCKS!
[Click on any photo to enlarge]
Messages on the trucks’ sides make clear the objections of their owners and operators to strip-mining legislation.
St. Paul Police Chief, Glenn “Red” Lucas kept traffic moving at the Riverside Drive – Fourth Avenue intersection and St. Paul Mayor Dr. George Cain was also on hand.