Last week I visited the Hocking Hills in southeast Ohio, hoping to photograph some ice formations and other winter scenes. Unfortunately, the icicle displays at Cedar Falls and Old Man’s Cave were mediocre and although there was snow on the ground there wasn’t much on the trees, rendering the area unattractive for scenic photography. After a 4-hour drive from home, I wasn’t about to give up on the day, so I decided to look for other photographic opportunities. I found them a short drive northeast of the Hocking Hills, in some old coal mining towns known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
From 1969 to 1991, when coal was king in the hills of Morgan, Muskingum and Noble Counties in southeast Ohio, a 13,000-ton behemoth known as Big Muskie walked the earth. Built by Bucyrus-Erie and operated by the Central Ohio Coal Company, Big Muskie was a walking dragline, 500 feet long and 22 stories tall, equipped with a bucket big enough to hold two Greyhound buses placed side by side. During its 22 years of operation in Ohio, Big Muskie removed more than 600 million cubic yards of topsoil, uncovering 20 million tons of coal. Big Muskie was scrapped in 1991, but its huge bucket, weighing 460,000 pounds, was preserved and is the centerpiece of a Miner’s Museum near the junction of State Routes 78 and 83 in Morgan County, 8.5 miles east of McConnelsville.
I don’t have any photographs of Big Muskie, but in 1989, just before it was scrapped, I visited Harrison County in eastern Ohio to photograph the Gem of Egypt coal shovel, which operated in eastern Ohio from 1967 to the late 1980s. You can judge the size of the monster machine from the yellow bulldozer, about the size of a large car, shown on the left side of the photograph.
Take away the power lines and the 1973 Ford pickup truck in the photo above, and you might think you were looking at a scene in Dodge City or another town in the American West. Shawnee is one of Ohio’s most unusual towns, a remnant of a thriving coal mining industry in Perry, Athens, and Hocking Counties during the 1800s. Today it is almost a ghost town. Many of the distinctive, two-story frame buildings along Main Street, built by prosperous merchants in the 1870s and 1880s. are abandoned and boarded up. Shawnee’s population, around 600 people in 2000, is only 15 percent of the 4,000 who lived here in 1907 during Shawnee’s boom period.
The surreal mural that decorates two walls of the Shawnee Restaurant, shown above, was painted by muralist Geoff Schenkel, Kim Bosser, and local schoolchildren. The mural is part of a Rural Action program to create an Appalachian corridor of murals in rural southern Ohio.
In 1884, miners at New Straitsville, about two miles from Shawnee, pushed burning coal cars, like the one shown in the photo above, into a mine operated by the New Straitsville Mining Company, causing a fire which shut down the mine and continues to burn today, 127 years after it began. An estimated two hundred square miles of coal has burned during this period. The coal mining mural shown above is on Main Street in New Straitsville, on the wall of the former Ward Confectionary building, which now serves as a local history museum.
Places like Shawnee and New Straitsville aren’t mentioned very often in glossy Ohio tourist brochures, but if you have an interest in Ohio’s industrial history and architecture they are fascinating places to visit.