Little Cities of Black Diamonds

Little Cities
of Black Diamonds
By Robert Carpenter 

Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler

Have you ever wanted to go down into a coal mine—not to work—just for the adventure?  The lives of the hard-working men who slog like moles hundreds of feet beneath, and sometimes miles back under the earth’s surface have always seemed intriguing as well as personifying the American spirit.

So, you would think that a material equated to gemstones would be applauded for its key role in the industrialization that made this the greatest nation on the planet. Instead, coal and mining, which currently gain news prominence only after a disaster, are almost viewed as antisocial.

Although more than half of the power consumed in our country is still generated by coal, the “greenies” would like to eliminate its use altogether. And due to nearly complete removal from home use, knowledge by later generations of the fossil fuel known as “black diamonds” is limited to its extraction by hazardous, gritty labor, far removed from, and seemingly unrelated to the sanitized information age.

But there is an organization that does not want you to forget the vital function that coal has played in one of the most inventive and ingenious chapters of our history.

The nonprofit organization labeled “Little Cities of Black Diamonds” refers to the old “played out” coal mining communities in Hocking, Perry, and Athens counties of southeast Ohio. “Cities” denotes that during the boom years when coal was king (approximately 1850 to 1925) these communities, although small—were indeed city-like, providing every amenity that society had to offer.

And it wasn’t just coal that created prosperity in the region. There was oil, clay and iron ore, but the production and use of those resources was only possible due to energy from coal and its derivative coke that created power and fired the kilns and furnaces.

The Black Diamonds’ organization feels that the story of coal and its influence should not be forgotten because it so accurately defines an era and the character of this part of the country.

One of my warmest memories of childhood is of those winter mornings hearing my father rattle the grate in the furnace and bank the fire. The expanding cast-iron jacket would soon begin to crackle and pop, echoing up through the ducts, and heat from the coal flames boiling through the registers would transform a cold house to comfort within minutes.

When snow and ice turned our inclined driveway into a sled run, my father would spread the ashes and clinkers (incompletely burned impurities) in the tire tracks, and then drive up the hill like it was summer.

But coal furnaces, like steam locomotives, were not destined for the modern age.  Although, even with the glory days gone, coal heat extended its popularity into the ‘70’s, and current industrial use persists because compared to alternatives, it is cheap, plentiful and reliable.

Of course coal has its drawbacks, as anyone old enough to remember hosing the soot off a porch floor would know.  Then we became aware of black lung disease, and acid rain due to the high sulfur content of coal found in the Appalachian basin. It was the latter that put a kink in the pipeline of southeastern Ohio coal production that it has never recovered from, even following the implementation of scrubbers on smoke stacks that clean up most of the pollution.

Considering coal’s demise, there is still much to be celebrated in the southern tri-county region and more history than you may be able to absorb in one trip.  There are literally dozens of worked-out mines and related hamlets in the “black diamonds” area—some with little reason for existing other than displaying remnants of a vaunted past. But the organization has plotted thirteen specific destinations with enough varied interests to satisfy most anyone.

There are group tours for organized parties of 12-15 people. For $50 per person per day, one or two-day excursions are available that include transportation by van, lunch and a professional guide. But most people will probably prefer to tour at their own pace and curiosity since there is enough interest at single sites to hold you for an entire day.

The best starting point is at the Wayne Forest Visitors Center located on Rt. 33 between Nelsonville and Athens. The coal tipple-style building is headquarters for Ohio’s only national forest and they provide a driving tour map and brochure of the little cities and other novelties of the region.  Some examples are:

Robinson’s Cave (mine) in New Straitsville is the unofficial birthplace of United Mine Workers Union, and the nearby museum relates the history of the town and mining in general.

Shawnee is the best original example of boomtowns still standing in Ohio, and some say in the eastern U. S.  Its Victorian architecture presents shopping, restaurants, museums and two opera houses. It’s one of the places where you’ll want a camera.

Haydenville is billed as Ohio’s last company-owned town. Industrialist Peter Hayden who dealt in iron, clay and coal, built the town using houses, stores and churches to display his products. One of the houses is now a museum.

Nelsonville was at one time the gateway to the “little cities” area due to its location on both the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad and the Hocking Canal. It was, and remains the most prosperous of the rollicking cities that sprung up in the mining period, cresting at more than 8,000 residents. It’s also the present boarding point for the Hocking Valley Scenic Railroad that runs passenger cars up and down the valley during summer and fall. Call them at 800-967-7834 for more details.

Rendville stands out because it was a social experiment. Founder William P. Rend recruited blacks to work his mines, but with his blessings they also held the leadership positions of the town such as mayor, postmaster, physician, ministers, and labor union bosses. The original Baptist Church is now The Rendville Art Works, which is open every day but Sunday.

In addition to the historical sites, the area offers hiking trails, swimming, boating and fishing. Burr Oak State Park is said to be Ohio’s most remote and picturesque state park. Another bonus is the drive up SR 78 East from Bishopville. It’s known as the “Rim of The World.” The views are spectacular—especially at this time of the year.

But whatever you’re viewing, you’ll be aware that it was coal that developed this area, and its decline, perhaps, that has let it down—a useful cue that nothing is forever—that change is inevitable, and hopefully for the best.

The house I grew up in was eventually converted to electric, but regardless of the cleanliness, convenience and thermometer reading, we all agreed that it was somehow never as comfortable as coal-fired heat.

In recent times there are mornings when in that semi-conscious state, I hear that old coal furnace crackling and popping. At first the ghostly quality was frightening. There is nothing in my present house that can possible make that noise, yet I clearly hear it even when I’m awake enough to know I’m not dreaming. But I’ve learned to welcome the sound because when it ceases I get up; I’m warm, I’m comforted, and all seems to be right with the world.

Go to LittleCitiesofBlackDiamonds.org or call 800-394-3011 or (local) 740-394-3011 for more information.

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