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Coal in our Veins

A Personal Journey

Erin Ann Thomas

Publication Year: 2012

In Coal in Our Veins, Erin Thomas employs historical research, autobiography, and journalism to intertwine the history of coal, her ancestors' lives mining coal, and the societal and environmental impacts of the United States' dependency on coal as an energy source. In the first part of her book, she visits Wales, native ground of British coal mining and of her emigrant ancestors. The Thomases' move to the coal region of Utah—where they witnessed the Winter Quarters and Castle Gate mine explosions, two of the worst mining disasters in American history—and the history of coal development in Utah form the second part. Then Thomas investigates coal mining and communities in West Virginia, near her East Coast home, looking at the Sago Mine collapse and more widespread impacts of mining, including population displacement, mountain top removal, coal dust dispersal, and stream pollution, flooding, and decimation. The book's final part moves from Washington D.C.—and an examination of coal, CO2, and national energy policy—back to Utah, for a tour of a coal mine, and a consideration of the Crandall Canyon mine cave-in, back to Wales and the closing of the oldest operating deep mine in the world and then to a look at energy alternatives, especially wind power, in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Published by: Utah State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-9

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1. A Miner’s Lamp

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pp. 1-9

A carbide lamp, no longer used as a functional object, sits on my bookshelf in the living room next to other mementos, relics, and souvenirs from around the world. These objects remind me of the experiences I had in the cities where I purchased...


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pp. 11-52

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2. A Welsh Coal Miner

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pp. 13-20

Coal mining, in my mind, has always gone hand in hand with Welshness, because throughout my childhood I was told that I descended from Welsh miners—never just miners nor just the Welsh, but both integral, as if to say a particular sort of coal miner...

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3. The First Loco to Run on Rails

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pp. 21-35

According to legend, a Christian princess named Tudful wandered from the northern town of Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil in the fifth century A.D. She was of the house of Prince Brychan of Brycheinoig, a half-Welsh, half-Irish king with a bounteous...

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4. Two Miners’ Sons

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pp. 36-41

Although Emylyn Davis was short and wide, he sat thinly, a passive presence in the middle of a sofa in a small, tidy living room with lace curtains and broken-in furniture. His wife, Edna Davis, an entirely practical and talkative person...

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5. The Paths of Blind Horses

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pp. 42-52

After days of cloud cover and brooding, Merthyr Tydfil opened its eyes, blinking at the warm rays of the morning. I stepped out to the road, walking past the rows of houses with brick, stone, and gravel facades. In the backyards, laundry lines...

Carbon County

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pp. 53-115

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6. The Rattle of Dead Men’s Skin

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pp. 55-68

I grew up under the shadow of a great mountain. The slopes that rose above my cul-de-sac in Orem, Utah, conjure up deep familial love, but also reverence. No matter how intimately you get to know the pink light that kisses the snow on the peaks during...

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7. Zeph and Maud

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pp. 69-73

According to family lore, Zeph bought his first pair of Levi’s at age seventeen from a clerk named James Cash Penney at the Golden Rule store in Evanston, Wyoming. (Two years later, Penney opened what would become the flagship...

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8. The Castle Gate

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pp. 74-80

The section of US Route 6 that passes through Price Canyon is one of the most dangerous highways in America. Semi drivers on their way east lumber along this highway that curves through the mountains, and at night only stars and headlights...

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9. The Striking Years

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pp. 81-88

Zeph and Maud had moved into the mining camp of Castle Gate in search of opportunity. In Sunnyside, Zeph had proved his supervisory skills as a boss driver, the man responsible for all the movement of the coal along the tracks within the mines...

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10. Get the Men Out

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pp. 89-97

Before Zeph had applied for the job of foreman at the Castle Gate mine, he was required to pass the state licensing exam, a written test that would have been a significant challenge for a man with a sixth-grade education. The job meant a significant...

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11. Leaving Carbon

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pp. 98-104

Six months after the explosion in Castle Gate, the unity that had been developed by the collective tragedy was ripped apart. Strangers drove into the neighboring town of Helper and erected a cross on the hill. This was the first of the burning...

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12. Ghost Towns

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pp. 105-115

After burying Zeph in St. George, Bob returned to the shipyards in Oregon. He supported himself through a bachelor’s degree at Reed College, graduating in 1947. Although grateful for the opportunity to study, Bob must have felt very alone...


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pp. 117-129

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13. A Historical Gap

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pp. 119-129

Since Zephaniah’s death in 1943, no Thomas has spent a day’s labor underground, but after moving back to Utah to work at BYU, Robert Thomas maintained his relationship with coal mining by taking weekend trips out to Sunnyside...

West Virginia

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pp. 131-184

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14. The Little White Chapel

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pp. 133-142

Living in the East, you get used to a consuming green—one that reminds you of what it must have been like for the first colonists who beat cities out of the tangled woods. I get the feeling when I drive around the D.C. beltway, where vines climb...

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15. One Who Escaped

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pp. 143-146

Typically the back windows of trucks in rural America bear items of erotica or patriotica, but on the back of Paul Avington’s window was the decal of a miner crawling on his hands and knees with a headlamp lighting the way before...

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16. A Memorial

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pp. 147-155

The woods were wet and splotched with a pale green fungus. Rust and yellow colored leaves clung limply to the ends of branches; there had been no snow, and remnants of fall still littered the forest. A mist hung low over Buckhannon...

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17. Mountains Made Low

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pp. 156-163

The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world and one of the few, other than the Nile, that moves from south to north on the globe. It curves through mountains covered with thick greenery that slants up on either side, and in the spring...

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18. String-Town Appalachia

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pp. 164-176

String-town Appalachia was a barrage of small white signposts that popped up on the left side of the road before I was conscious of crossing a town line. I was on my way to Sylvester, the first stop in my journey to the sites that had made headlines...

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19. Squatter on a Gold Mine

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pp. 177-184

At a fork in the mountain road up Kayford, I took a right and realized I’d gone wrong somewhere when the road ended at a fence and a guard post. I drove up and rolled down my window. “I’m looking for Larry Gibson and a folk festival.” I noticed the company name...

Washington, D.C.

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pp. 185-219

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20. The Energy Future of America

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pp. 187-200

As I begin to write this chapter, I become aware that I am leaning against the wall, with my back to the window, trying to make the most of the last bit of daylight. In a state like Virginia that uses mostly coal, in country that remains the world’s per capita...

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21. A Drop in the Bucket

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pp. 201-206

The red brick exterior of the Potomac River Generating Station squats on the banks of its namesake, a body of water that has provided an easy outlet for heat and toxic chemical disposal over the sixty years of its operation. Perhaps most significant about its appearance...

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22. Yes to Electric Reliability

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pp. 207-219

Mr. Ralph M. Hunt writes: “I support the call for reasonable solutions to provide reliable, affordable energy while also protecting our air quality, so I finally decided to get involved.” Alice Bertele writes...


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23. In the Bowels of the Earth

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pp. 223-236

The Wheat Cap Lamp looks very similar to the cap lamp designed in 1912 by Thomas Alva Edison. A wide-faced light clips onto a hardhat, and the wire is fed over the hat to where the battery is held on a belt. The lamp can provide twelve...

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24. The Last Deep Coal Mine in Wales

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pp. 237-244

Early in January 2008, the Tower Colliery, the last deep mine in Wales, ceased operations. Until then, it was the oldest operating deep mine in the world. After eighteen years, the seams were exhausted, and the colliers who had fought...

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25. The Winds of Change

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pp. 245-253

At the turn of the century—we still refer to it as this (even though we have witnessed the turn of another) because this turn signified so much—humankind was for the first time experiencing mechanization. America was seized...

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pp. 255-261

One Saturday in November, I looked up from an ultimate frisbee game in Anacostia Park to spot a bald eagle. The park lies upstream from Old Town Alexandria, where the Potomac River splits and straddles the downtown area of the nation’s...

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pp. 262

This book would never have been if it weren’t for Cornel and Gretchen Thomas, who lovingly compiled a binder of our Thomas family history. Special thanks go to family members Ryan and Ann Thomas, Patrick Thomas, Megan...


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pp. 263-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780874218657
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874218633

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Thomas, Erin Ann -- Family.
  • Coal miners -- Utah -- Biography.
  • Coal miners -- Wales -- Biography.
  • Welsh Americans -- Utah -- Biography.
  • Thomas, Erin Ann -- Travel.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Utah -- History.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Wales -- History.
  • Coal -- Environmental aspects -- United States.
  • Coal -- Social aspects -- United States.
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