Monday, September 1, 2008

The Company Town

Remember the old song "16 Tons", sung by Tennesee Ernie Ford? "You load 16 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt." The story of the company town has always fascinated me, ever since I first heard that song many decades ago.

I've had two experiences in the past few months that have given me pause to think about this old song. The reference in the song is to the company store, which was owned by the company that owned the mine where the songster was working. The company built the housing, the mercantile establishments, and deducted the expenses for rent and purchases from the coal miner's paycheck. This type of economic model was a reality in many businesses that flourished as our country developed. As the song suggests, you get another day older, and deeper in debt, because the company basically owned you and you were never free from their influences. As miners became family men, their offspring were often caught in this net of reality of living in an isolated, controlled community. Their girls married coal miners and their boys became miners themselves. To leave the community and go elsewhere was rare, indeed. We all know the perils of mining, and many of these miners died at a young age, or as they got older, became sickened by the dust and fumes from the mine that made them die horrible deaths.

My first recent encounter to bring this to my awareness came as I read the book "Rocket Boys" by Homer H.Hickam, Jr. this past May. This delightful story is of a man (who is very close to my age) who lived in the mining town of Coalwood, WV. His father was a miner, and his family lived in the company housing. Homer had great ideas for his life that did not include becoming a miner. He wanted to be a rocket scientist, and his buddies and he developed a rocket experiement from begged, borrowed or "somewhat stolen" materials to build their rockets. I won't spoil the ending of the story to tell you the conclusion, but you will enjoy this story immensely, especially if you are now near retirement age, as Homer Hickam is.

The Hickam family was truly owned by the mining company. They were in fear for their own existence as the mine became more and more dangerous, and the rich seams of coal were mined out. Henry's father had risen to the level of supervisor, which meant he didn't mine anymore, but had the responsibility of men's lives on his shoulders, as well as making sure that the mine continued to be profitable. When the mining company sold out, the company housing was converted to rental property, leaving many of the citizens in big trouble to pay the rent. This happens as the natural resources of these towns dwindle, and the people are left to their own devices to survive.

The picture I had in my mind from Homer's description fit another town I actually saw while I was in WV last month. TC loves railroads, and one of his destinations that he really wanted to experience on our trip east was to go to Cass, WV to ride the Cass Scenic Railroad. Well, the town of Cass was centered around another of WV's natural resources, logging. But the town was set up just as Coalwood was, with the company housing surrounding the company store, which was just down the road from the pulp mill. The scenic railroad line led up to the hills where the logging was happening. The rail cars brought down the logs to be made into lumber and pulp for paper. Of course, as the natural resource that led to this town becoming a thriving enterprise played out, the town lost citizens, and gradually moved toward extinction.

The state of West Virginia realized that they still had a resource that could be capitalized upon in this town of Cass. So they bought out the housing, the railroad and the remains of the busines to be preserved for folks who wanted to take part in a piece of railroad history, a coal-fired railroad, with some very unique equipment. They turned this into a state park, turned the housing into cottages for families to live in while they spent time in the area. They turned the company store into a nice huge souvenier stand, and restored the railroad for tourists' enjoyment.

I must admit, after driving through the mountain passes for hours to get to Cass, I couldn't imagine that there would be more than 2 people waiting for the train ride that day. Who would drive all that way to ride a train in West Virginia? Was I ever wrong! When we got there just prior to the noon train's departure, there was a huge parking lot full of cars, some who were already riding the train on the 4 hour trip, and others who just got off, and our group that was waiting for our turn to ride.

The technology of the steam engines on this line really shows that "necessity is the mother of invention". The rails have to negotiate big curves, high hills and carry heavy loads. So the engine is designed with articulating and directly powered drive wheels (called "trucks"--skateboarders, take note of that term, it wasn't invented by Tony Hawk). The engines are called "Shay", and Cass Scenic Railroad has quite a few beautifully restored and well taken-care-of engines. (See their website, Cass Scenic Railroad for more information.)

I've ridden quite a few scenic railroads with TC. Our father was a railroad man, and TC has loved trains since he was just a little guy. We've ridden the Durango, Silverton in Colorado, the Skagway in Alaska, and just last summer, the Hood River line in Oregon. Riding on a coal-fired line is so exciting because you get that soot in your eyes and hair as the train labors along the tracks! And these scenic railroads take you to see some very spectacular sights! And I just love to hear the trail whistles as the train gets ready to cross the back roads! On this route, the rail line has 2 switchbacks, the brakeman was 10 feet away from us as he did his work to switch the track. That really brings the technology of railroading right into your awareness. It's high tech now on modern railroads, but the old fashioned way works just fine on scenic lines such as the Cass.

These experiences, reading literature which is brought to reality by an actual visit to the site, have been so interesting to me, and very enjoyable also. My trip to the east coast, seeing Jamestown, experiencing Cass, and driving through other towns I have read about keeps my interest in history, geography and the love of literature alive. I'll share more when I get another chance to bore you!

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