04/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland

I was raised in the suburbs and for my family our legacy has always been something that happened somewhere else in a far away land.

I did not grow up in a house built from scratch by my forefathers. My dad got a mortgage from a bank and chose his house on specs from a housing developer.

If someone came along and destroyed the house I grew up in and poisoned the land, I would be ticked, but it would not tear anything out of my soul.

In his book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: the Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, author Jeff Biggers tells a story very different from my own -- one, that at least I think, is very different than the story most of our generation has of growing up. Biggers tells a two-century old tale of Eagle Creek in Southern Illinois where he was raised on the land his family had owned for most of that time.

Southern Illinois and much of the surrounding area has a long, proud and very colorful history. Beautiful stories of philosophers, poets, woodsmen and preachers weave in and around the central figure of Southern Illinois history: the coal mine.

While this is a story about coal and the people, it is also a very conflicted one. On one hand, coal was the provider for so many people, putting food on the table and sending home a steady pay check. But on the other hand, it caused no end of pain and hardship. Black lung, cave-ins, criminals and environmental devastation are also part of this history.

On these points Biggers pulls no punches.

He tells us how strip mining has ripped apart Eagle Creek and with it, his home and his family's history. Where a mustering oak tree once stood, there is a pit where nothing grows, and most likely never will. To me, the most heinous story is of century-old cemeteries being dug up by the coal companies -- literally tearing history from the ground.

Proud men who toiled underground their entire lives for the coal company now living breath-to-breath, their black lungs full of chemicals. Chemicals that medical experts deemed as dangerous by-products of the coal mining process more than hundred year ago, but was brushed off as a non-issue by the profiteering coal barons.

There are places like Eagle Creek all over coal country that have met similar fates and the devastation continues, with coal companies becoming more and more mechanized so they can rip apart the land faster and faster in the name of productivity and the all mighty bottom line.

Many people have told me (sometimes in quite nasty terms) that I don't understand the history of coal and all the good it has done for so many people over the years. I have never disagreed with them, coal has its place in history. But Biggers shows us that coal's history is not as glorious as many would have you believe and that maybe its time to move on before we tear up and destroy everything that is a reminder of that history.

This is a well written and important piece of work and if you want to know the true story of coal, pick up a copy today.

Here's a quick video of Jeff talking about his book: