Coal in Our Veins: A Personal Journey

Coal in Our Veins: A Personal Journey

Coal in Our Veins: A Personal Journey

Coal in Our Veins: A Personal Journey


In Coal in Our Veins, Erin Thomas employs historical research, autobiography, and journalism to intertwine the history of coal, her ancestors' lives mining coal, and the societal and environmental impacts of the United States' dependency on coal as an energy source. In the first part of her book, she visits Wales, native ground of British coal mining and of her emigrant ancestors. The Thomases' move to the coal region of Utah--where they witnessed the Winter Quarters and Castle Gate mine explosions, two of the worst mining disasters in American history--and the history of coal development in Utah form the second part.

Then Thomas investigates coal mining and communities in West Virginia, near her East Coast home, looking at the Sago Mine collapse and more widespread impacts of mining, including population displacement, mountain top removal, coal dust dispersal, and stream pollution, flooding, and decimation. The book's final part moves from Washington D.C.--and an examination of coal, CO2, and national energy policy--back to Utah, for a tour of a coal mine, and a consideration of the Crandall Canyon mine cave-in, back to Wales and the closing of the oldest operating deep mine in the world and then to a look at energy alternatives, especially wind power, in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.


A carbide lamp, no longer used as a functional object, sits on my bookshelf in the living room next to other mementos, relics, and souvenirs from around the world. These objects remind me of the experiences I had in the cities where I purchased them, but displayed in my living room, they bring more attention to me than they do to the location of their origin. For my living room visitors, the carbide miner’s lamp is a visual affirmation of my physical and literary journey into coal. Sometime between the years 1900 and 1930, a miner used this lamp to illuminate his way through the tunnels of a mine.

Carbide lamps were developed after candles and oil lamps, each an attempt to provide light for mining by a more efficient and safer means. My carbide lamp is about four inches tall and cylindrical—approximately two inches in diameter. It has two chambers: one that can be filled from the top with water and a lower chamber for carbide. This lamp is designed so that water from the upper chamber drips down into the lower, creating acetylene gas when it comes into contact with the whitish carbon “salt.” These two chambers screw together like a light bulb into a socket.

When I unscrew my carbide lamp it squeaks slightly; in the chamber below a few crumbs of carbide remain—ashes left by somebody who passed on long ago. After placing the carbide in the lamp and screwing it shut, this miner would have opened a small spout in the middle of a metal disk-reflector in the front. This released the acetylene, which he would have ignited by sparking flint. He would then have turned the spout until the flame was about an inch tall, the reflector casting the light of the flame forward ten feet in a thick beam. This model, made by one of the most popular suppliers of the day, Justrite, has a rubber grip at the bottom of the brass body. the miner might have held it in his hand or hooked it to the top of his cloth hat. But the crumbs of carbide left in my lamp give . . .

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