Records of the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) are housed in Ohio University Libraries’ Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections. Formed by mine workers of Athens and Perry Counties, the UMWA became the most powerful union in the country.

Photographer: Patrick Traylor

Bill Kimok

Bill Kimok is the archivist for Ohio University Libraries’ Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections.

Photographer: Patrick Traylor

Mining town

Sandy Creek Coal Company, Mine No. 2

Photo courtesy of: Frank Buhla Photo Collection, Mahn Center for Archives & Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries

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Library archives helps local group to revitalize region

Deep underground in Southeastern Ohio there's a fire burning, both literally and figuratively.

During the coal miner's strike of 1884-1885, a coal cart doused in oil was set ablaze and rolled into the caverns, igniting the mine. The mines are still smoldering today, more than 100 years later.

The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council (LCBDC) is fired up to bring a new industry into an area that most people feel died a long time ago. They are dedicated to spreading the importance of the area's rich past. But where did this spark come from?

Bernhard S. Debatin, Ohio University professor of journalism and director of tutorial studies for journalism, became involved in the project through his interest in environmental issues.

"Whenever I live in a place, I try to understand the area … the culture, the nature, how it got to be where it is," said Debatin.

Through his work with watershed groups and searches of the coal-related archives in Ohio University Libraries' Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections with archivist Bill Kimok, Debatin became familiar with the area's history. He studied the Libraries' large collection of the Athens Messenger from 1885-1989 and became especially interested in the way mining accidents were covered.  

Soon Debatin joined forces with long-time friend John Winnenberg and fellow OHIO professors Frans Doppen and Lorraine McCosker to create the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Project.  

Its goal is to promote the story of southern Perry County, northern Athens County, and eastern Hocking County, where the extractive industries of coal, oil, clay and iron ore have significantly impacted the way of life since the late 1800s.

Through the development of an audio tour and the restoration of historical sites in the area, LCBDC hopes to revitalize the interest in the region and in this crucial part of history. The tour covers six of the most historically significant coal mining communities: Eclipse, Nelsonville, Haydenville, New Straitsville, Shawnee, Rendville, as well as parts of the Wayne National Forest.

Specific sites include Robinson's Cave, the birthplace of the United Mine Workers; Rendville, a home to many African American firsts during the coal boom era; the Eclipse Coal Company Town, the best standing example of a company-owned town in Ohio; and the Knights of Labor Opera House in Shawnee, believed to be one of the first labor union halls – if not the first – built in America in 1881.

Through a planning grant from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), an independent grant-making agency of the U.S. government, the LCBDC has been able to put their efforts into motion.

The NEH grant was awarded to the committee in hopes that they would promote a story of national significance. Yet the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council has not one significant story to tell, but three.

The story of America's labor history begins right here in Southeastern Ohio with the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA). The UMWA was formed in Columbus, Ohio, by mine workers of Athens and Perry Counties, and it became the most powerful union in the country for 50 years.

Second, during the coal mining era, this region was at the forefront of racial acceptance. Years before segregation was outlawed, there were integrated schools in Rendville, Ohio. Blacks and whites worked side by side in the coal mines and in all local businesses and the government, which was headed by a black mayor.  

The environment's destruction, resilience and restoration in the area comprise a complicated story on their own. The effects of industrialization and the extreme deforestation during the time of the New Deal are still being felt today, as environmentalists work to alleviate acid run-off from the mines which continues to pollute many of the area's water sources.

In order to give these stories the attention they deserve, LCBDC members spent hours in the Ohio University Libraries researching special collections. They pulled "tons and tons" of papers from local legends, like union organizer Chris Evans, and the Postons, a wealthy coal baron family, as well as accident reports and other historical documents, such as papers from the United Mine Workers of America. One collection from local magician, Frank Buhla, had not only magic tricks, but many photographs and information about the coal industry and life in Athens at the time.  

The group's enthusiasm even got the Libraries staff involved.

"They dragged me into it," said archivist Bill Kimok. "I didn't see how this was going to work. It took me about an hour to see how passionately involved they were and how committed they were to make it work. That kind of infected me. How could I not want to be a part of it?"

"Ohio University Libraries has been an incredibly valuable resource for the project and for the historical part, in particular," said Debatin.

LCBDC is well on their way to realizing their plan. Three audio podcasts have been recorded as prototypes, and a website and an online archive are being developed. If their recent application for an NEH implementation grant is successful, nine additional podcasts will be produced and available on CD, USB, mp3, iPhone apps, and QR codes, in order to reach people of all ages and walks of life. The web page will then also include an interactive map and a slide show along with audio and a document viewer so visitors can get a closer look at some of the artifacts from the era.

"There's a lot going on that really needs to be told," said Debatin.  

Through their passionate efforts and research from the Libraries, the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council may be able to achieve their goal "to move the image of our region away from one of poverty and decay, toward an image of quality small town and rural living," as Debatin puts it, "where historical and cultural exploration are common-place and where community and environmental regeneration are a way of life."