ANDEighty-five years ago, Bobbie Gullett was born in the heart of coal country. She grew up in Dante, Virginia, a bustling municipality of 6,000 with a hospital, a hotel, schools, a movie theater, a taxicab stand, a train line. She remembers living in a worker house owned by the Clinchfield Coal Company: Back then, Gullett recalls, while the supervisors lived up on the ridges, coalminers and their families lived in the hollows of the nearby mountain range.
Their squat houses spread along the winding streets of town, which sat in a bowl created by the bumpy, tree-crested hills. In spring and summer, mountain laurel bloomed in the forest and kudzu spread in patches, and in the winter, snow blanketed the town.
“You wouldn’t believe how pretty Dante used to be,” said Gullett, reminiscing at the Dante Coal Miners museum on a late January day.
Dante’s economy was largely built around coal, and the gains from extraction allowed families in town to prosper. “We lived in a bubble where coal was king, life was good, everybody had money,” added her friend Lou Wallace, whose family worked in railroading.
Now all of that is gone. As coal jobs have disappeared from Dante, other industries have not yet taken root. But Gullett and Wallace want to change that – by harnessing new sources of funding to transform Dante into a hub of ecotourism as well as a place where information economy workers can live and work remotely.
“Coal is not renewable,” said Wallace. “It’s come to the end of its way. We’ve come to a new generation, and we need to start thinking. We have to be OK with a building becoming something else, with change and renewal.”
Gullett and Wallace are part of a group called the Dante Community Association, which is working with other regional and national groups to remediate the town’s abandoned coalmines. The work isn’t just about revitalizing their local economy; it’s also about nurturing the environment around them, and bringing some of the natural beauty Gullett remembers so fondly back to the community.
“We feel like we’re doing all this as a pilot program,” said Wallace. “This can encourage other communities to say, wow, we can be forward thinking.”
Coal’s retreat from Dante (rhymes with “paint”) started in 1972, when Clinchfield shuttered operations. Today, 600 people live in town, with 40% in poverty. Dante is far from exceptional in Appalachian coal country, which stretches from Ohio down through eastern Kentucky and West Virginia and into this strip of Virginia. While poverty rates have fallen in Appalachia, the average rate for the region is almost two percentage points higher than the rest of the nation.
Dante is a “good example” of a community “where there’s a long history and tradition of economies tied closely to a single industry”, said Brad Kreps, a director at the Nature Conservancy, which is helping the town with its plans.
Similarly, other towns across the region have experienced with jumpstarting their economies through solar panel fields, recycling centers, tubing, hiking, ATV trails, and more. In 2019, Kreps’ organization bought much of the forested land around Dante for preservation.
As Dante and other towns like it contend with the question of how to move on from coal, abandoned coalmines pose some immediate environmental problems: these sites can lead to unstable mountainsides and underground fires, and for years, their byproducts turned nearby rivers bright orange.
There are federal programs to help communities that have been blighted by coal clean up these sites – such as the Abandoned Mineland Reclamation Program, which appropriates funds from coal companies to lead remediation. And President Biden’s infrastructure bill will provide $11.3bn for mine remediation. But these programs don’t provide a roadmap for how communities should reorient themselves after the mineland is cleaned up. You can hire workers to clean up those mines – for example, in Clinchco, Virginia, farther north into the mountains from Dante, ex-miners found jobs shoveling out coal-mining waste. But what happens once the land is clear?
In Dante, community members want to see their mineland transformed into hiking, ATV, and mountain bike trails that they hope will attract nature-lovers and thrill-seekers to the area. In 2018, Dante received a grant that will allow the town to close two mineshafts in the hills and build a series of hiking and ATV trails that will connect with the Spearhead Trails system leading down into St Paul, a bigger town on the Clinch River. The town is now applying for an additional grant for mountain biking trails and an office space and work training center in town.
Some of the grant money has been tied up in bureaucracy thanks to Covid, says Matt Helper, central Appalachian environmental scientist with the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, which is helping the Dante residents with their plans. The trails aren’t built yet, but the money is there, said Hepler. The town has the go-ahead to start building this spring, and they hope to be open by May, when the mountain laurels are blooming in the forests. According to Kreps, these southern Appalachian forests are some of the most biodiverse in the world, and his organization is pleased to have Dante build trails on Nature Conservancy land.
For Wallace, an important part of the plan involves highlighting that biodiversity and reframing the way people value the nature in her part of the world. Ella she’s a traveler, she said ella, but ella she loves the mountains and hollows (pronounced “hollers”) of Appalachian coal country more than any other landscape. She says she wants “to bring other people here, to see what coal country was like, and to see that it’s not a moonscape, it’s a beautiful forest that we can recreate in.”
She also hopes to repopulate the town with a 21st-century workforce. Dante lies in a series of hollows spread out in what Indigenous people called a turkey foot pattern, nestled at the bottom of a ridge of hills. Once, coalminers and their families lived in small houses in those hollows, a tight-knit community centered on work and surrounded by nature. Students at Virginia Tech are now design prototypes for smart houses that can be built in these hollows, and broadband internet is coming to town this spring. Wallace wants these houses to attract a cadre of newly remote information economy workers.
“You’d be able to walk right out of your home and get on a hiking trail,” said Wallace, describing the ideal nature-loving millennial worker whom she hopes would come live in this former coal camp some day.
Wallace believes this kind of transformation is possible, because she’s seen a similar change take place in nearby St Paul, the town just eight miles south of Dante, where she grew up and still lives. Twenty years ago, when she opened a marketing firm downtown, “everything was wretched,” she said. But she worked with other community members to start a farmers market. She learned how to write grants from the Nature Conservancy. She got into politics – she now sits as the elected supervisor of Russell county – and made friends. Now, St Paul is home to Virginia’s newest state park, kayak rentals, a brewery, and a hotel. And Wallace believes they can replicate the process in Dante much faster.
Some in town are skeptical. The only shop in Dante is a general store, selling canned food, clothes, and prepared foods, on the edge of downtown. The owner, Dennis Porter, said he thinks Dante residents are good people, but that the town doesn’t have a future.
“I could tell you that Jesus walks down that street over there every day. But you want the truth? I would n’t spend another nickel here, ”said Porter, adding that in his view of him, Dante is“ the slum of the county at the end of the world ”.
Getting buy-in from residents, said Dana Kuhline of Appalachian Voices, is tough in a region that’s been subject to so much scrutiny and hardship. “If you try to paint too rosy a picture, folks aren’t going to buy it – you have to be realistic,” she said. “I think most Appalachian former coal communities have learned to be skeptical of most things, for good reason.”
Much work must be done, perhaps, before the community association’s vision comes to fruition. But Gullett pointed out that before Covid, the coal mining museum saw a couple thousand visitors every spring, from places as far away as Australia. People were curious to come down into the hollows and learn what it had all been about. And now, said Gullett, a new industry had to follow. “We need something!” she said. “Something needs to come in.” Outside, a sign stuck in the snow called for more volunteers for the association. It bore the slogan: “Dante will rise!”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism