For nearly a century, Harlan County, Ky., has occupied an outsized place in the American consciousness. Coal is the lifeblood of Harlan, where miners’ fierce battles against deadly working conditions remain a symbol of union grit and militance. But Harlan is also an emblem of the hard times that have fallen on coal country.
Coal mining once provided a middle-class living. Mine workers in Harlan won living wages and benefits following a series of strikes and violent clashes with scabs and mine owners in the 1930s that earned the county the nickname “Bloody Harlan.”
Miners charted a risky path to economic security. Collapses, explosions and other accidents killed tens of thousands during the 20th century. Many who survived were still killed by coal, albeit more slowly