If you are ever traveling through Pennsylvania, on your way to New York or Canada, you might find yourself passing through a town called Shenandoah. The town is small, perhaps fifteen blocks long and six blocks wide. It has four traffic lights, two gas stations, a bank, a drug store, a few movie theaters-turned restaurants, and at least a dozen bars. But what “catches” your eye most about this town is how dirty it is. It is populated by only 15,000 people, but the buildings are covered with graffiti, the streets are littered with broken glass and trash, and everything is coated with a layer of black soot.
The source of the soot can be found by walking out of town in any direction. Shenandoah is surrounded by strip mines, the last remnant of the industry that made this town. In its heyday, this town’s heart was made of coal. Coal was the center of everybody’s life in this little city; everyone was in some way connected with the coal companies that mined in this area. Coal brought the railroad in, and coal companies paid most people’s wages. Men worked fourteen hour days, mining with pick axes. Some literally gave their lives to the coal companies, dying of “black lung” disease, a painful illness that was caused by the dirt and soot of the coal mines. While men worked all day for wages that could barely support a husband and his wife, let alone any children, women were forced to shop in “company” stores. The prices in these stores were, by design, ridiculous. This forced many families into the lamentable situation of working for the coal company and owing them money at the same time.
Gradually, things started to get better. Groups like the Molly Maguires had begun to win better working conditions for coal company employees, and everybody had a large family. The area was poor, but there was hope. Around the turn-of-the-century, Shenandoah was a dynamic place.
Then, suddenly, oil and natural gas heating burst onto the scene. They burned cleaner and more efficiently, providing heat for the house and for cooking at a fraction of the cost of burning coal. And so, the demand for coal lessened, until it was almost nonexistent. Coal companies went belly-up, leaving thousands without jobs. People who could fled the area in search of work --- people who couldn’t stayed behind. For awhile, some of the people left behind were able to keep their jobs working for surviving coal companies, because there was still some demand. But then, technology stepped in and landed a knock-out punch: strip mining. Now, companies didn’t need people to mine; machines could do it. Shenandoah never recovered from that.
In a way, time has stood still for this town. The world outside has changed, but the town itself has not adapted. The railroad, once the central means of transportation, vanished years ago. Now all that remains is a flat, grassy strip that runs along the outside of the town and trails off into the horizon, like a plot with no headstone. Signs of the once prosperous coal industry, however, are everywhere; every house still has a coal chute on the outside, many places of business still burn coal in their furnaces, and if you walk on the outskirts of town, you will literally see pebbles of coal e everywhere, littering the street. The town courthouse, once the emblem of the proud, hard-working people of this town, is wilting. The windows are cracked; the clock on the tower no longer works. The front of the courthouse is dirty and vandalized. “SCHOOL IS FOR LOSERS” is tattooed in red letters on the side of the building.
Perhaps the most telling detail about this town can be found about one thousand feet above it --- a place that is called Shenandoah Heights. Shenandoah Heights is home to an incredible seven cemeteries, all with thousands of plots, and most with room for many more. There’s no question that the population of these cemeteries is far greater than that of the town they serve. All the people buried here are part of a bygone era, a time when Shenandoah was still poor, but hopeful. Here, there is still pride. Every plot has a beautiful arrangement of flowers to adorn it, and in the summer, the grass is groomed by expert gardeners and landscapers. There is a warm friendliness about this place, and a sense of community and friendship. It’s sort of like a high school class reunion; everyone is glad to see each other, and the more that return here, the merrier. But the joy and love here is confined by the walls surrounding it.
As you stand in the cemetery, I recommend that you turn your attention away from the headstones for a moment and look at your surroundings, because they are very scenic. I imagine that the view here has changed little in the past hundred years. You can see Shenandoah, obscured by shadows, quietly resting below you. Rising above the town, directly ahead of you, are what look like mountains, but, if you look closer, you will notice that they are nothing more that the byproduct of the strip mines in the area. They are made up of discarded coal and rock. Still, it is these “mountains” that forever shadow Shenandoah below.
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