Chapter 1

The Damnedest Cesspool of Human Misery

Oh, the pity of it.

—Mary Behner, missionary, Scotts Run, West Virginia (1932)1

It was 1933. After nearly a decade, the fighting within Scotts Run had finally petered out. A reporter from the Christian Century, Charles R. Joy, had been sent to observe conditions in the area. He watched as a coal train rumbled slowly past a row of derelict cabins, abandoned and silent, like many of the coal mines spread in the hills around and above. The train, its cars piled high with coal, screeched to a halt.

A sudden burst of ragged families rushed out of the cabins and pounced on the immobile train. After climbing up the sides of the cars, they tossed coal out onto the ground as fast as they could. By the time the train left six minutes later (per Mr. Joy’s timepiece), the coal in the railcars were no longer piled high, but concave.

“I suppose it is awful for us to be doing this, but if we didn’t do it, we’d freeze,” explained one woman to the incredulous reporter.2 What he witnessed must have seemed straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, but by the early 1930s, it was a scene repeated from one end of the hollow to the other. Sidney D. Lee, who grew up in Scotts Run, recalled that “in 1926, purchased coal cost at least $3 a ton” from the local stores,3 far out of many families’ reach. For them, scrounging for coal was a necessary part of surviving West Virginia’s harsh winters, and children throughout the Run ran to whatever lumps fell off ...

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