Coal means everything to John Jarrell. He worked underground for three years following in his father’s footsteps. Everyday he would descend 900 feet down and come up with a face covered in ash. Coal mining paid the bills, sustained his hobbies and supported his family. John longs to go back underground, but those days are over. He has been laid off from three different mines and has had trouble finding secure work since.
“If it wasn’t for the coal mines we wouldn’t be where we’re at today,” said John.
In Southern West Virginia coal was king. Now, it exists somewhere between a boom region of the past and a ghost town of the future. Once known as the billion-dollar coalfield, it is now home to a fading industry. Culturally and geographically in the heart of Appalachia, West Virginia prospered because of its profusion of coal. Unfortunately for many, it is the market that determines the success of industry. When prices fall and coal is no longer in demand, it is the people of Southern West Virginia who suffer.
The Jarrell’s are from Van, an unincorporated rural town located in Boone County, with a population of just over 200. It sits between the mountains and beside a windy road frequently passed by coal trucks and trains. A gas station, bank, pharmacy, flower store, pizza shop and two schools sit amongst the hills and hollows. Here, coal is more than a resource and a job; it is woven into the cultural fiber of the community.
John is from a coal mining family. “My dad Vic Jarrell, he’s a coalminer; he’s been a coal miner for the last sixteen years. My Paw Paw, his name is Conway Jarrell; he’s been a coal miner pretty much all of his life… My Paw Paw Melvin Holstein, … he was a coal miner pretty much all of his life,” and the list goes on.
John, his wife Crystal and their two kids, Rylan and JayCee lived in an old Y & O coal camp. Their house was situated where coal bosses once resided. Located across the street from John’s parents, they paid $350/mo. for a three-bedroom house. After being laid off, “I went from making $6,000 a month to making $1,500 a month [on unemployment]… You just can’t do nothing, especially if you got car payments, house payments, your insurance, utilities…” John said.
They had to give up their home.
“They just had to finally accept it and give up their house… it’s kinda like giving up your pride, cause when you lived on your own and you made it on your own for so many years and then to have to say you’re defeated…” said Angie Jarrell, John’s mother. Angie quit her job as a school secretary to help raise “the grandbabies,” Rylan and JayCee.
Then John and Crystal and the kids moved away.
The lack of jobs in Boone County gave them no choice. They moved in with Crystal’s parents, in Morgantown which is four hours from Van.
Vic Jarrell, John’s father has been a coal miner for seventeen years. When he graduated from high school, coal wasn’t booming either. He went to Alabama to work in their coalfields. This is a common situation; coal has always been unpredictable. “Two years ago coal was booming…there was jobs, different companies opening up, just different opportunities, and now there’s nothing. They are actually laying off,” he said. This time, though, something feels different. “With so many renewable energy sources and so many people pushing for it, it’s hard to really tell where it will be in 10 years,” said John.
John started working for Next Gen, a contracting company in Pennsylvania. He drives an hour and a half each way. Currently he is working the night shift: 5 pm to 5 am. While John is at work Crystal takes care of the kids. They don’t have enough money to hire a babysitter. According to Crystal the kids haven’t been affected by the move, yet. “Once we stay here longer, they will start to realize this is where we live for right now and they’ll realize that they’re not able to see the people they love everyday.”
The next step is making money, so they can afford a place to call home. “[Moving] has definitely put a strain on us…. Once you’re used to living by yourself so long, its kind of hard to live anywhere else,” Crystal said. To begin this process they sold two cars. John sold some guns. And they are deciding whether or not to declare bankruptcy.
According to a New York Times article titled The Declining Source of Energy, “While coal still remains the primary source of electricity in the U.S., its share has fallen.”  Back in Van, the gas station is open fewer hours, the beauty salon has closed, and FOR RENT signs are popping up all over the place. “It feels like a retirement community,” John recalls.
“Anything and everything to do with the coal industry is just disappearing, slowly, little by little.”
After dealing with financial instability for over a year, the situation put a strain on their marriage. It all culminated when John and Crystal had a divorce scare. After taking a few weeks to work everything out they decided to move back to Boone County. Still not able to get a job in the coalfields John decided to join the Air National Guard. Although John will have to leave his family for six months, they are hoping that this will give them back the autonomy that has been absent since John’s first layoff. But deep down, he is hoping coal will boom again. “…If I had the chance I would go back underground in a heartbeat,” John said. “If I had the chance to go back underground, I think I would do it in a heartbeat” he repeated.