Scattered across southeast Ohio are the remains of towns, mines and other structures that played a massive role in the state’s history. But many of those places are hidden or no longer exist.
When Elise Meyers Walker helped to write a book on coal mining in the region, she wanted to pull the history from those forgotten places.
“When people drive through (southeast Ohio), they see a boring farm area,” Walker said. “But there is so much more to it than that.”
The book Carrying Coal to Columbus: Mining in the Hocking Valley, which Walker, who is currently completing an online MBA at Ohio University, wrote with her father, David Meyers and Nyla Vollmer, a local resident. The book was released in February.
“I don’t think of it so much as a book about coal as a book about the region,” Walker said. “Coal was so big in building and founding the state.”
As the book notes, it was actually the iron industry that spurred the coal industry in Ohio. Early settlers would find iron ore in the woods, melt the ore in big clay ovens and send the pig iron to cities such as Columbus.
“At the time, they used charcoal to fuel these things,” Meyers, who previously served on the board at the Hocking Valley Museum of Theatrical History in Nelsonville, said. “So they decided to turn to coal. And these guys started creating canals to transport the coal, and then railroads, and one thing led to another.”
Beyond the macro level, the book also focuses on the day-to-day lives of the people who worked in the mines and lived in surrounding towns.
“We have a lot of information about the lives of miners, and especially the women,” Meyers said. “There was so much coal dust in the air that they would wake up with coal soot around their nostrils — the women would have to clean continually.”
Carrying Coal to Columbus is the eighth book that the father and daughter have collaborated on, and almost all of the books have focused on some aspect of Ohio’s history. Their book on coal mining in Ohio has been a work in progress for several years.
“Several years ago, I proposed this book to my publisher, but another someone had a similar idea so we backed away from it,” Meyers said. “At the time we were bummed … we waited a few years, and I’m glad I waited because it’s a better book for it.”
Vollmer became involved by accident. She works as a nurse and part-time historian of her hometown of Haydenville. When Meyers was driving through the town, he decided to stop at the local museum only to find it closed.
“Then this woman stopped and asked if I wanted to go inside, so she got the keys and showed me around,” Meyers said. “That was Nyla.”
Vollmer, who co-founded the Haydenville Preservation Society, has spent years chronicling the history of her small town that is just upriver from Nelsonville.
“Most people don’t realize the importance (coal) had on the environment and business and everything,” she said. “Ohio started as cow paths and has really grown, and a lot of that is coal.”
But coal’s integral role in the life of Ohioans seems to be slipping more each year. Promises to bring coal jobs back to Ohio have been around for a long time, Meyers said, because the state’s coal industry has really been in decline since the Great Depression.
“I would never say never,” he said of a coal comeback. “But the high point was the early part of the 20th century and it’s been a decline since then … maybe if it can be extracted more efficiently, or burnt cleaner, but I don’t think it will be back.”