The dependents live in McDowell County. The mines are closed. “I love coal,” said Trump, putting on his helmet – and was promptly elected.
What was a booming city in the middle of the 20th century. Now it is deserted Photo: imago / ZUMA Press
WELCH taz | When a truck drives by with black dust blowing from the back of the truck, people rejoice in the narrow valleys of McDowell County in the southernmost tip of West Virginia. The thunder of the locomotives, which pull more than 100 open coal wagons behind them, sounds like music to their ears.
“There will be more,” they want to believe. Then they talk about the 14 mines in the region that have been closed for years and are now preparing to open again. And from the job exchange at the beginning of January in the town of Welch, where 75 miners were looking for underground and surface mining.
“The coal is coming back,” says Lacy Workman. He is convinced that his county, which once produced more coal than any other in the USA and is now one of the most unemployed in the country, can recover thanks to the old raw material. He believes Donald Trump makes it possible. Lacy Workman calls him “smart” and is convinced that he has the business acumen that McDowell County needs.
In an election campaign, Trump said at a gig here: “I love coal”, put on a miner’s helmet and gestured next to his lectern as if he wanted to go away. Above all, however, he offered himself as an antithesis to Hillary Clinton. The company announced that it would give it more green energy and that many miners would lose their jobs. Then she declared it a carver.
But by then it was too late and the voters had sworn in on Trump. They relieve him of the fact that he will loosen the requirements for pollutant taxes in water and air and that he will lower taxes. Even though fracking has made the gas price so low in recent years that many power plants have switched their turbines to gas.
The contrast between the people of McDowell County, where more than a third live below the poverty line, and the New York multimillionaire could hardly be greater. But in the November elections, Trump in McDowell County got more than three times as many votes as Clinton. 75 percent against 23. It was one of the best results for Trump in the country.
He wasn’t the only multi-billionaire to win in the county. The second was the wealthiest man in West Virginia, Jim Justice, who was elected state governor that day.
Politically, Justice has taken the opposite path. While Trump gradually changed from Democrat to Republican in the years leading up to his election, Justice changed from the republican camp to the democratic one. But the two are similar in style. Justice had reopened several mines in McDowell County and the surrounding area shortly before the elections and created 200 new jobs.
What was a booming city called “Little New York” in the mid-20th century?
Lacy Workman worked in the mining industry, drove trucks and was a Democrat most of his life. Now he’s focused on his new party, the Republican, where he got to the local boss within a few years. It was the Barack Obama years when the Republican Party convinced people in the county that the Democratic President was the source of all the problems.
Celebrities gave themselves the handle
In McDowell County, most of the settlements have emerged as “camps” on the edge of mines, the workers of which should move on as soon as the coal has been mined. What, the largest of them, was a booming city in the mid-20th century called “Little New York”. It had three theaters, and there was heavy traffic in the city center.
Celebrities from show business and politics gave themselves the jack. Several presidents ate breakfast at Raymond’s restaurant on McDowell Street, including Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. Afterwards both speeches made from the steps of the parking garage on the opposite side of the street, from which the facades flake off today.
It is one of more than 5,000 buildings that either need to be renovated or demolished. After his visit, Kennedy came up with the idea of introducing food brands in order to compensate for the poverty, which at that time also repeatedly hit miners in McDowell County at the same time as the world coal markets.
It should be a temporary solution. But more than half a century later, 45 million people in the country still rely on the brands. In McDowell County, more than a third of the people purchase the brands, the survival of which is controversial among the Republicans in Washington.
New coal boom?
Restaurant owner Raymond Bean, now 90, continues to work in his restaurant, where customers rarely get lost. His neon sign has long crashed off the facade, and the shops on the right, left and opposite him are empty. A few houses away, a landlord has pinned a handwritten note on the shop window, on which he offers to remodel the restaurant according to a tenant’s wishes.
Raymond Bean also voted for Trump after decades as a democratic voter. He hopes that he will bring the new coal boom that will save the city and help him find someone who wants to take over his restaurant. The cook listens from the other side of the counter. When Raymond Bean leaves the room, Helen Althazer brushes aside her boss’s reverie.
“Trump won’t do anything for us,” says the 84-year-old categorically, “because he’s surrounded by people who have no interest in it.” She has spent her entire life in Welch, with a father, with uncles, and with brothers, who worked in coal mining. But she no longer believes in a future: “This will soon be a ghost town.”
The city and county have never considered anything other than coal. The only diversification is the expansion of off-road vehicle paths in the surrounding mountainous terrain and in the three prisons – one owned by the county, the second by the state of West Virginia, the third by the federal government.
The latter stands on a mountain peak on the edge of Welch, which was previously blown up and cleared for the purpose of coal extraction. When the federal prison opened in 2010, it was considered a potential new employer. But today most employees come from other counties.
The commissioner responsible for the development of the county has another plan for the region in mind. Cecil Patterson, also a Democrat who voted for Trump in the election and wants to give him a chance, hopes that the county highway that has been planned for more than 15 years will finally go ahead.
This “Coalfield Expressway” also has to do with coal. It is planned as a public-private partnership in which the mine owners blow up the mountain peaks, mine a few meters of coal and then hand over the site, which has been straightened in this way, to the public builders.
At the moment you can choose your neighbors in Welch, because at least every second house is empty. The county has shrunk from more than 100,000 to less than 20,000 in recent decades. After every new catastrophe – after the floods of 2001 and 2002 and the closings of the mines and most recently after Walmart also closed its large supermarket last year – people have migrated.
Depression and substance abuse increased among those who remained. In the stronghold of coal, the number of drug-related deaths is more than eight times the national average.
Jim Sly, who owns one of the county’s two funeral homes, is often involved with grieving families who speak of “heart failure” when there is evidence of overdoses of fentanyl, oxycotin or heroin in death certificates. The undertaker was a Democrat throughout his life, but this time he chose Trump because he hopes for a better deal from a businessman.
You don’t take drugs
Jackie Ratliff, superintendent in a coal washing facility on the southern edge of Welch, voted for Trump in November. In his everyday professional life, in the black dust on the mountain slope, he now experiences how the mood is slowly changing. Nothing works properly, but now he’s “cautiously optimistic”.
If the environmental agency EPA holds back more in the future and only makes “reasonable conditions” and if conditions such as the establishment of “underground shelters for $ 80,000 a piece”, he could imagine that coal in the county is going up again.
Lashawn Winfree doesn’t have that trust. She doesn’t believe in the president. She voted for Hillary Clinton in November – like almost every other African American and a few white women in the county. Her grandfather was a miner. Many of her classmates died of overdoses. When the 35-year-old meets peers who are affected by the drug epidemic, they sometimes wonder, “How? You don’t take anything? “
McDowell County has not let Lashawn Winfree escape so far. After high school, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia. But then her grandmother fell ill and she came back. Today she works in a video game salon, diagonally opposite the county prison, which is housed in the buildings of a former hospital.
Soft drinks are available free of charge in the game room. In the back room, two women and a man who do not talk to each other are sitting in front of brightly colored screens and hope for profits that they have not made in real life for a long time.
As a trained nurse, Lashawn Winfree could find work outside of the county. Instead, she stays on, watching others hope for improvements she doesn’t believe in, and reproaches herself for remaining in the narrow valley with no future.