Why We Consent to the Wholesale Destruction of Good Land

cadiz strip mining

Harrison County, Ohio.

After I first moved to Harrison County, my smaller children used to beg that we drive home after excursions via a little-used road that passes through a contour mine. They liked to be scared by abandoned equipment there, and, indeed, there were sights on that route that could frighten, particularly if it was night.  One minute you are in a leafy surround listening to owls, and the next minute, while the car’s tires randomly kick up a few stray pebbles, you find yourself dwarfed by a hulking shovel with a 50’ boom, a bucket the size of your car, and not a few resident ghosts. One of them (via graffiti) even says: got milk?  But that was nothing compared to what I saw five years later while exploring the land Confederate General John Hunt Morgan rode through in 1863, while trying to incite a Butternut rebellion. I was about ten miles southwest of Cadiz, swinging east on a kind of arc, traveling along a ridge after climbing 200’ out of a valley floor. I say “ridge” and “valley,” but I simply refer to the tops of spoil banks and benches left over from mining.

The important thing is that I was, for the moment, on high ground—thinking about how raw the earth looked—just rock, ice on the “valley” floors, and signs telling me that if I heard a whistle an explosion would follow.  Then I came around a corner and saw what appeared to be the top of—what? A Jurassic bird of prey from the land of nightmares? Whatever I was looking at, it was big, for though the riveted steel-plate trusses holding rigging aloft were clearly end points and therefore small, relative to their base, those trusses were also massive.  Following a newly bulldozed track that swung left to get around the promontory that was blocking the structure from view, I found myself looking up at an earthmover that was as big as the gantries that unload container ships. The only difference was that this device had an engine house as big as a three-story barn and a 150-yard bucket at the end of is slings rather than a railcar-sized container. The machine was a dragline. Its owner was Consolidated Coal, its name was “The Silver Spade,” and its sole purpose was to systematically plow up rugged topography south of Cadiz and then neatly turn the whole region over, furrow by furrow by furrow.

There used to be two of these devices working south of Cadiz. While the Silver Spade worked Mahoning Valley mine “No. 36” during the 1970s and 1980s, a sister dragline called “The Gem of Egypt” worked mine “No. 33”, and though the Gem had a slightly smaller bucket (130 cubic yards rather than 150) and stood a little less tall (200’,  as opposed to 220’), it accomplished similar feats. If either of these machines showed up today on the Conotton Creek flood plain below my house, and then lumbered south on its “crawlers,” it would take out my ridge-nestled home and nearby trees with a single scoop of a bucket swinging from the end of a 200’ boom, and we would be looking up at the machine’s masthead when it happened. The Silver Spade and the Gem, each of them powered by 12-cylinder Cummins engines, weighed 7000 tons each.  Once overburden was loosened by Air-Mite charges in regularly drilled 8.5” holes, the machines could pick up a 250-ton load of earth like it was matchsticks and, with a single swing, carry it the length of a football field before depositing it and going back for more. Bulldozer crews kept the working pad wide and level as a runway, and as long as the equipment stayed oiled, the digging operation went on (via a battery of constantly moving klieg lights) night and day.  The machines implacably exposed and kept on exposing a flat, 200’ wide ribbon of coal, and everything on top—watersheds that supported woolly mammoths, 19th century farmsteads, artisanal centers that functioned as cultural microclimates, stands of old growth hickory, one-room schoolhouses, customary picnic spots, drift mines—all that just got wiped off like clay shapes on an artist’s table, or a conglomeration of driftwood, seaweed, and foam on a hard, flat beach.  Hence the appearance of the land south of Cadiz today: some of it smoothed out and fitted with oddly-placed but picturesque lakes with pre-assembled cabins from Lowe’s, some of it jumbled and gray, all of it void of trees, grain-rich farms, rain-carved outcroppings, meanders, and livestock.

Clearly, something went wrong in Cadiz.

It’s not just that Harrison County now features silt-clogged lowlands, Tang-colored streams, a fractured water table, and poor soils. Bad as that ecological toll is—and the cumulative damage here makes the establishment of business parks difficult, let alone farms—I am not referring simply to the degradation of soil and water.  Nor am I referring to the loss of tax base and the consequent lack of funding for schools, law enforcement, libraries, historical preservation projects, and civic amenities like parks.  Indeed, I am not even referring to the despoliation of de-facto town commons that preserve the memory of the dead and hope for the young people to come. In Cadiz, that “common” was the 289-acre Morgan-Liggett farm on the south edge of town, and when that land got stripped, people here knew that a violation of community trust had occurred. Owing to its proximity to the courthouse, Custer Hotel, corner grill, bank, and post office, that farm had been known for years as the “town” farm, and when everybody woke up one morning in 1968 to discover that the dairy’s pasture had been “relocated” (temporarily!) to harvest black gold 20 feet down, it was like hearing the town had died.  Newspaper reports were quick to assure readers that topsoil had been carefully replaced and that the farm’s original appearance was restored, but—everyone knew better.  In fact, a collective moral compromise had been struck, and the very tone of the article proved it.  What, then, am I referring to if, when I say something went seriously awry in Cadiz?  It is this: topography itself became the target in the mid-sixties.  Until 1965, Harrison County was, by definition, a patchwork quilt of varied uses. It supported mining, dairy, wool, ceramic, and timber interests.  Naturally, some of these uses were harder on the fabric than others and therefore the fabric weakened as certain sections got “mined out” or went up in smoke.  But the fabric remained recognizable as a fabric. Between 1965 and 1985, however, the mixed-use quilt itself came under principled attack. The Gem and the Silver Spade had begun to remove terrain rather than just hillsides, and to that very extent Harrison County started to look, from the air, like one big moonscape.

How does one explain the acceptance of these kinds of machines in settled Ohio hill country? How did it happen that the inhabitants of the original Seven Ranges allowed their land to be stripped so aggressively?

One possible answer to this question is that residents here were blindsided by a ruthless coal company that got the upper hand and then used that advantage to build itself up at the expense of everyone else. Hanna Coal, after all, was founded by shipping magnate Mark Hanna, the “Lord of the Great Lakes” who became nationally famous for securing disproportionately large amounts of campaign funds for McKinley in 1896, thereby deep-sixing William Jennings Bryan’s populist aspirations.  “No man in public life owes the public anything,” Hanna once explained, refreshingly, to an attorney general. (In addition to expounding on the ethical dimension to public life Hanna also offered maxims. “There are two things that are important in politics,” one of them went. “The first is money, and I don’t remember what the second one is.”)  Hence it is relatively easy to cast Hanna Coal as a villainous force that happily, even gleefully, used propaganda to convince Harrison County residents to overlook the environmental and cultural costs being passed on to them, and, indeed, to enthusiastically support the very same people who were busy robbing them. “Reclaiming Ohio’s Hills” ran the banner-like heading on one 1940s-era Hanna Coal publicity poster, and that tiding was obviously joyous, for supporting pictures and captions everywhere communicated most people’s idea of a very good life. One picture depicted canoeists paddling across a lake that looks rather like the one that the Allagash River pours out of, in Maine, and another picture depicted two men enjoying the rigors of outdoor life by harvesting a stout-looking tree.  (“Timber operations will outlast the coal,” the caption proudly proclaimed.) Other pictures showed frisky rabbits, fishermen, woodchucks, legumes, and “Boy Scouts and high school athletes” in the process of planting seedlings. But that was nothing next to a 1972 (Silver Spade era) article about Hanna Coal restoration efforts in “Coal News.” There, beneath pictures of peach orchards, children riding on bikes, and clear ponds with canoes floating on them, readers learned that an Oklahoma-trained manager had arrived in Cadiz to set up (at company expense) a 6000-acre beef ranch on land that the company planned to bequeath.

All told, this particular company’s willingness to traffic in falsehood was impressive, and therefore it is not out of bounds to argue that Harrison County residents consented to stripping on a massive scale because they were tricked. By the same token, however, it is also possible to argue that the landowners understood propaganda for the lie that it was and welcomed it as a means of hoodwinking legislators in Columbus who might otherwise push for restrictions, thereby causing Harrison County residents to lose jobs. People here had been mining coal long before Hanna Coal became the dominant player. They liked working above ground, they took pride in their ability to expeditiously shoot and load coal, and they were comfortable with spoil banks.  More to the point, they valued the 100% recovery rate offered by surface mining every bit as much as Hanna Coal did, for a lot of the residents here had stakes—either in Hanna Coal (owing to buy-outs), or in local companies (R&F Coal, the Hopedale-based Puskarich brothers, Valley Mining) that continued to do business alongside Hanna. This was not West Virginia where mountain people inadvertently lost their mineral rights when they sold timber to companies interested in making turpentine, lumber, and ship masts. Thanks in large part to section-and-range technology, Ohioans had full, conscious possession of those rights, and they sold or leased those rights deliberately because they wanted their property to be mined.  Hence many Harrison County residents probably would have peddled stories about reclamation efforts themselves, if Hanna Coal hadn’t already done it for them.

Another reason people accepted draglines is that they were participants in a generally extractive economy, one that predisposed them to devalue the obvious long-term benefits of activities like sustainable farming.  Thanks to railroads and the accompanying steel industry, the need for coal accelerated, (railroads were invented as a means for transporting large amounts of coal), and then, thanks to the intensified mining of this fuel, an opportunity arose to sell “under-clay” (the lake bed that coal formed on).   At that point—1933, the year Lew Reese founded Scio Pottery six miles north of Cadiz—a new eastern Ohio ceramics industry came onto the scene that buttressed and to some extent even fanned the growth of surface mining.  And then, right as the steel industry turned away from local coals toward imported (West Virginia) ones that “coked” better, electrical generating plants came on line that needed 100 railroad cars of coal per day just to keep the kettle boiling. (The FirstEnergy-owned “Sammis” plant, just upriver from Steubenville, goes through 130 cars per day.)  Hence the upper Ohio valley was locked into a positive feedback loop that continually reinforced extractive logic. People here thought more and more in terms of taking resources (using them up) rather than generating them, and therefore it makes sense that eastern Ohio residents would value fertile soil less and less. Yet even this relatively strong explanation for the acceptance of draglines in Harrison County has a serious limitation, for it doesn’t explain the almost complete absence of a counter-movement.

Given that the county was at one time an agricultural capital (currant jelly, husking and quilting bees, herb beds with mint, thyme, sage and mustard, draft horses, sliding barn doors, county fairs, stewed peaches, the use of clover as a cover crop, sleighs, flour mills, chicken pot pie, shipping terminals for livestock, dried apples, McCormick reapers, tubs full of cucumber brine, fields sown to flax for linseed oil and linen), ought there not to have been at least a few local people who objected to the presence of draglines? Cadiz Republican editor L. Milton Ronsheim mounted a strong campaign to rouse objectors and curtail stripping operations in Harrison County.  Starting in 1941, Ronsheim ran an aggressive series of editorials (and cartoons) in which he carefully itemized costs, proposed moratoriums, angrily called bluffs, invited discussion, and in general lobbied for reclamation laws that had teeth. Yet, besides a schoolteacher and two farmers who helped him debate representatives of Hanna Coal during public hearings at American Legion Post 34, Ronsheim was almost uniformly dismissed as a “romantic agriculturalist” doomed to fail.  How do we explain that lack of support? Why did Ronsheim’s arguments not get the respect they deserved?

I submit that it was because landowners here (like the rest of us) had no word for what they were losing.

Six miles south of Cadiz there is a building called Dickerson Church (Methodist) on the south side of impounded slurry (“black water”). It’s a remarkable sight. The building itself is modest: it features a small wooden steeple with bird nests, a set of stained glass windows, a lawn with a picnic bench, and a cypress windbreak. The prospect commanded by the building, though, is stunning, for this edifice stands all by itself on a hill that offers a 360-degree view.  No doubt the view was impressive when the church was first built in 1888, but it is especially impressive now owing to the complete absence of trees on surrounding land. Though the land directly under this particular church never got stripped, land belonging to neighboring properties most certainly did, and therefore when you look out from Dickerson Church windows today you see wasteland, in every direction, for about as far as the eye can see. Six miles to the north you see the county courthouse, of course, for that building stands on its own prominent hill, but at all other points of the compass you see only rock, poverty grass, black water, and—this being winter—snow. The building functions now as a tombstone.  Owing to the fact that nobody holds services there any more, the church itself is lifeless, and the setting, needless to say, is a graveyard.  Yet by its very existence the building also commemorates the community life it once embodied.  Hence when you visit the site it is doubly appropriate to discover, on the east side of its grounds, a plaque commemorating camp meetings that used to occur at the site before the present church was built—in particular, the meeting that resulted in the 1828 conversion of Cadiz native Matthew Simpson who went on to become a Methodist Episcopal bishop. This is the same Simpson who was asked to deliver the eulogy at Lincoln’s burial, in Springfield, and, seeing as how that assignment was a great honor, the plaque quotes from the text of Simpson’s Illinois remarks. “Hushed is thy voice,” the brass letters read, “but its echoes of liberty are ringing throughout the world and the sons of bondage listen with joy.” Obviously, the people who made and installed this plaque didn’t intend for a reader to look up, after absorbing Simpson’s thought, and see a desert.  Rather, they expected that such a reader would look up and see what Joseph Holmes’ grandson saw in 1888 upon dedicating the church—namely, “many streams which shall make glad the city of our God.” Well, those streams are gone, and therefore the commemorative power of the plaque is in one respect severely compromised. In another respect, though, its power is heightened, for thanks to the wasteland that now exists on all four sides of the church, the plaque on its lawn now signals to future generations the inadequacy of bipolar rhetoric as a means of protecting topography and the kind of freedom it ought to underwrite.

The south Cadiz Methodist circuit, like most other institutions in Harrison County, had strong roots in abolitionist sentiment by the end of the 19th century.  It stood at the exact center of a triangle defined by “Radical Republican” John Bingham’s alma mater Franklin College to the southwest, Genius of Universal Emancipation editor Benjamin Lundy’s Mt. Pleasant offices to the southeast, and conductor-producing Underground Railway terminal Cadiz to the north.  In addition, the families who comprised the circuit sent relatively high numbers of men (38 from Dickerson Church alone) to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The notion of freedom as broken shackles and “no constraints” was strong in Cadiz. Pre-modern notions of freedom as membership in a community of mutually dependent persons didn’t even get a hearing. With that kind of “middle” excluded, it became difficult, if not impossible, to visualize other middles—such as understanding land as the condition and eventual outward sign of communitarian life. You might think that when the Catholic Church arrived in 1920, with an influx of Italians and particularly Poles who were skilled at mining coal underground, new ways of understanding the worth of land might have arrived with them, for thanks to its commitment to the principle of Incarnation, the Catholic Church has steadfastly refused to discount the importance of embodiment. In fact, however, Poles were as modern in their mental habits as Methodists, and therefore robust definitions of land continued to remain beyond reach in Harrison County.  When it came to assessing the worth of land about to be devoured by draglines, one was either a utilitarian or a romantic.  There was no middle way, and, as a result, the idea that land might be a condition of political freedom was completely lost to view.


Will Hoyt is a carpenter in eastern Ohio. His recent book, The Seven Ranges, is a history of cultural tendencies that appeared west of the Ohio River after land there was imprinted with a rectilinear grid in 1785, and then designed by Jefferson to function as a constellation of “ward republics.”

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