Nothing is flat here. It’s all rolling hills, misty hollers, rhododendron thickets, and serpentine roads. It’s the rises and falls in the pavement that make my belly tense up as Amy Manko and her husband, Scooter, drive me around their slice of Appalachia in an early-fall rain.
Here in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, history matters. Most people can trace their local lineage back hundreds of years; they take pride in their role in the Whiskey Rebellion and in their Civil War soldiers. But it’s another history that’s really shaped this place: The geologic process that formed this steep terrain 300 million years ago left something valuable behind. We are in the heart of coal country.
For much of its recent history, this country has run on coal, lots of it produced here in Washington, Greene, and Fayette counties. Many of the small towns were founded by coal companies, and the region became a hub for manufacturing and industry. But as power plants have converted to using cheaper, somewhat more environmentally friendly natural gas, demand for coal has dipped drastically. Between 2005 and 2015, production fell by nearly 50 percent.
Greene County is still home to the Bailey Mine—the largest underground-mining complex in the country—but over the past decade, its two major competitors, dozens of smaller mines, and myriad businesses dependent on the coal economy have closed, taking thousands of jobs with them.
This economy hasn’t always centered on mining, though. Before the first shaft opened, another industry thrived in the rocky landscape.