As you cross the Clinch River into Wise County, Virginia, a rusted gray railroad bridge hangs low over the highway so that the cars of the occasional coal train can cross. The soft hills and valleys back toward Abingdon give way to more vertical, chiseled mountain faces. Geologists study this country for remarkable formations that display the upward thrust of rock and lava that formed the mountains. Generations of miners have worked in this country for the coal. The rail line across Route 58 carries coal down from the mountain. In 2004, the almost dying industry has revived as the United Stateslooks toward domestic energy sources, especially those that are not petroleum. Fossil fuel is important again.
At times, Route 58 winds through cliffs that have been carved into the mountains. At other times, layers of green vines cover the rock face so that the road seems like it winds through a jungle. At frequent intervals, Route 58 emerges onto scenic views of the countryside that can border on the spectacular: green hills dotted by even greener trees, or a valley that stretches through hills and mountains toward the horizon.
Leaving Route 58 at exit 1 in Coeburn falls short of one such spectacular view: the Powell Valley on the way to Big Stone Gap, where volunteer militia once rescued settlers taken captive by an Indian chief. Incidents such as this, and the story down in Abingdon that Daniel Boone climbed into a cave to kill the wolves that killed his dogs, are reminders that this was once the frontier. Life here has never been easy. Pioneer settlers gave way to settled farmers who in turn watched with a mixture of enthusiasm and alarm as the railroads came in to bring the workers who would carve out the coal. The enthusiasm was for the potential wealth created by this new industry. The alarm was for the way the coal companies chewed up the very mountains that protected the farms in the valleys below.
Just this month [August 2004], a coal company illegally widening an access road dislodged a boulder that rumbled down the mountain in the town of Appalachia and crashed through the wall of a house, killing a three-year-old boy as he slept. Such a death was only a matter of time, said the townspeople, given the coal operations going on above them. The company workers were upset by it, too. A friend of mine drove to Coeburn to be with her father and brother, who worked for the coal company. Speculation was that the bulldozer operator had dislodged the boulder sometime between two and three in the morning as mining operations continued around the clock.
Back along Route 58, a blue sign with white lettering points the way to Carfax. This is the town where Jim and Jesse McReynolds were born, who performed from the 1940s through the turn of the century as the duo Jim and Jesse, accompanied by the Virginia Boys. A somewhat inaccurate blue plaque on the brown sign welcoming visitors to nearby Coeburn identifies that town as the home of Jim and Jesse. Carfax is too small and out of the way to have such a sign. Strangely, the Coeburn sign does not mention a resident who is far more famous in the eyes– make that the ears – of the world than Jim and Jesse. His name is Ralph Stanley.
Southwestern Virginia takes its county allegiances seriously. Even though Ralph Stanley, the embodiment of old-time mountain music, lives on Sandy Ridge in Wise County and keeps his tour bus parked behind Long John Silver’s restaurant in Coeburn, he was born next door in Dickenson County. He is said to favor the route from Sandy Ridge to Clintwood in Dickenson County, rather than toward Coeburn in the opposite direction. His annual Memorial Day music festival takes place on Smith Ridge in Dickenson County. The Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain-Music Center has opened in Clintwood, the Dickenson County seat. Thus Dickenson County claims him, and the sign at the town line of Coeburn disdains him. That Jim and Jesse McReynolds rarely set foot in Coeburn makes little difference. They are on the sign, and Ralph Stanley is not.