Reviewed 6/23/2011

Reckoning at Eagle Creek, by Jeff Biggers

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland
Jeff Biggers
New York: Nation Books, 2010




ISBN-13 978-1-56858-421-8
ISBN-10 1-56858-421-0 300pp. HC/BWI $26.95

In the heartland — Illinois — the taking of coal from the earth leaves the same scars on heath and heart as it does in the Appalachian country of Kentucky or West Virginia. A boy growing up when the land was green, coming back after the strip mines have gone in, will feel that loss, suffer those heart-scars. If he has the gift of words, as Jeff Biggers does, he can communicate his sense of loss to us. That's vital, for the burning of coal in a very real sense scars the whole world.

Most writers telling this story would focus exclusively on the big picture: the tons of coal consumed, acres of land denuded, number of people displaced. Biggers approaches the tale of coal in a different way. He interweaves it with his family's history in the Eagle Creek area of southern Illinois — a history that he, wayward and isolated as a young man, had ignored. There is thus a double dose of pain in the discoveries he unfolds in this book: along with the general harm done by burning coal, the pain of returning to reclaim a lost legacy, only to find it has been strip-mined out of existence.

"Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking;
Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."1

That family's long history touches the Shawnee who lived there before whites barged in to plunder the rich seams of anthracite under their land — in the process making the land useless to everyone. It is a history that implicates many of our country's leaders, from Jefferson on down to a former Illinois politician named Barack Obama. It is to Obama, golfing with other state legislators in the Illinois coalfields in 1997, pledging subsidies for clean coal in 2009 as president, that Biggers addresses the opening chapter of his book.

"No one on that golf course would have paused for a moment, pointed to a landmark a few miles away to the south, and recalled an explosion on the last working day before Christmas in 1951, when mining safety violations were ignored and a buildup of methane gas ripped through the nearby New Orient No. 2 mine and took the lives of 119 miners."

Here in the heartland of the nation's first labor battleground that created the earliest mining unions, every mining safety law had been assembled from the fractured bones and lost lives of the coal miners and their families. In the Saudi Arabia of coal, miners had been as expendable as the tree lines that stood in the way of the bulldozer. In their haste to extract the coal at the cheapest price, coal companies had resisted every piece of legislation for operating safety in a state of permanent violation.

– Page 5

Jeff Biggers's writing throughout the book is richly detailed, his outrage is genuine (and genuinely affecting), and there is much merit in the positions he takes. But he sometimes provides too much detail, and his narrative is also distractingly disjointed in places. For example, on page 110 he informs us that "Over 8,000 bushels of coal were mined at a single shaft near one salt well in 1824." It's hard for me to see how that matters to the larger picture. Now, consider this passage from pages 113-114:


Though often disparaged as "backwoodsmen", the people of southern Illinois had much to admire about them. For one thing, Biggers notes that the folk of Eagle Creek resisted the Klan, which was able to recruit in other parts of the state. Also, before the strip mines came, almost every man of Eagle Creek brewed up moonshine on his property. Their product sold well throughout the area. At one point, he says, census takers counted smoke plumes from the home-built stills instead of houses (pp. 194-6.) I expected him to quote from "Copper Kettle" here, but he didn't. Perhaps he felt its advice:

Build you a fire with hick'ry —
Hick'ry and ash and oak.
Don't use no green or rotten wood;
They'll get you by the smoke...

is contradictory.

"The founder of the First Baptist Church in Elizabethtown, where I was pastor," Ron spoke up, "was Stephen Stilley. It was originally called the Big Creek Baptist Church. It was founded in 1806."

Although by 1806 the exploits of river pirates and a criminal syndicate along Elizabethtown's shores carried currency in the earliest chronicles, an Irish travel writer had a different experience near the infamous Cave-in-Rock haunt on the Ohio River. Sauntering along the current in his boat, Thomas Ashe heard an anthem swell to a great pitch and then waft across the river. He paddled closer to the mouth of another cave, where choral music "melted like the notes of an Eolian harp," and there he saw forty people on their knees. They were worshipping in the riverside cavern. There was a transport in the mysterious and simple music that stunned the Irishman, and "without wasting time of frigid speculation of so sublime a spectacle," he raced in and threw himself to the dust "in an effusion of praise to God."

Stephen Stilley's congregation watched in silence at the spectacle, though they must have been delighted at its fervor.

"Watch your step," Ron said, hopping out of the truck..."

The reason Ron wants Jeff to watch his step is that they are entering an overgrown cemetery atop Eagle Mountain. The cemetery once adjoined the church, and is one of the few small plots left unplundered by the coal companies. So all these things tie together; but for myself I find it very hard to make the connections. Others may not find it so. Indeed, many do not find it so, for the book has won multiple awards and praise from notables including Jeff Goodell (author of Big Coal), James Hansen, and Bill McKibben.

Taken all in all, this is a very enjoyable read, full of tales of Biggers' family (which I skipped over), coal-mining history including its early ties to slavery, and modern heroes and villains like Rory McIlmoil and Bob Murray.2 It has a bibliography that spans 15 pages. It has an excellent index. It has a few photographs. And it has a list of Coalfield and Climate Change Resources and Organizations. Though it is not the most accessible, this book is a must read for everybody, and I also rate it a keeper.

1 This is a portion of John Prine's "Paradise," quoted on page 15. Also quoted are portions of Pete Seeger's "The Bells of Rhymney" and Jean Ritchie's "Black Water," along with various poets.
2 Though Massey Energy is well covered, there is no mention of Don Blankenship. I wonder if this is by design.
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