Once upon a time, coal miners took pride in the hard work they did. But these days the coal industry is sluggish and miners are feeling left behind—even disrespected—by the world. What they want most now is to just figure out how to hold on to the strong community that coal once gave them.
On a bitter cold, winter evening two years ago, I drove into Gillette for the first time. As the new energy reporter, it felt like driving into Mecca, the coal capital of the U.S.A.
Growing up in the Northeast, the town immediately felt foreign to me. For one, everything was just bigger. The town was sprawling. Nearly every vehicle was a truck, every road a highway. Trains stacked with coal snaked into the horizon.
Other than maybe Newark, New Jersey, I’m not sure I’d been to real working town. And when I came here, I wasn’t sure what to expect: people that probably knew a lot about trucks, probably hadn’t met a Jewish guy before, and they really loved coal. Maybe full of people convinced this resource was not in decline.
Two years later, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about this industry and I realized that the whole time, I was missing something.
I drive through a suburb of Gillette and pull up to a house with a metallic Airstream parked in the driveway. Stacey Moeller opens the door to her trendy-looking trailer, smiling and wearing a floral shirt. She sports tattoos on both arms, one of a girl holding a blowing dandelion. Stacey looks relaxed, like she just got back from vacation. The inside of the airstream feels straight out of a magazine, with blue tile walls, a red antique table and an embroidered hoop reading, “I’ve got adventure in my soul.”
Stacey has spent more than 30 years of her life working in mines around Gillette. I asked what led her to coal.
“I was probably 25, 23 [years old], I don’t even remember,” she tells me. “I took a couple years off when my daughter was born and was out of mining for a couple years, and then went back. And then as a single parent, it’s hard to walk away from that paycheck. So, I stayed. And then about six and a half years later, I had my son and, and that’s it just became my career. And I was blessed. But, as a single parent, I didn’t have to have child support, and my kids always had a home and the things they needed. It was it was a good career for me. I didn’t finish college. So, it was a really good career for me,” Stacey says with a smile.
She worked as a shovel operator, a sort of massive tractor. So big, she needs two flights of stairs to get into the cab. The problem for me as an energy reporter not living in coal country is that I miss details like that. I also miss details about the nuances of this job, common knowledge about what makes people join and stick with this career. From an outside perspective, it might seem like it’s just the money, but I figured there’s more to it.
“It was it was an amazing experience to be a coal miner. The years that I was when I you know, there’s still very, very few women in mining but I was able to do it for so many years and thrived and was blessed by every bit of it wasn’t always easy, but it was always worth it,” Stacey says.
“I mean physically it does take a toll on you,” Stacey admits. “I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to work another night shift. And I wouldn’t have to be out in the middle of the night when it’s 20 below fueling equipment or, you know, it was that part was a huge relief that I never could see myself working a night shift again, and that was pretty great. You think you get used to it after 30 some years, but it never got any easier.”
Some things did change though over her time in coal. From when she started in her career until now, the coal industry has dramatically changed, falling to, arguably, its lowest point in modern coal history with five companies filing for reorganization around here in just the past few years.
“The attitude in the last 10 years, the public perspective has really changed. Where we were once highly respected. We’re now seen as undereducated, overpaid. That has been the hardest part for me,” Stacey tells me. “When you get out of Wyoming you don’t really want to say what you do that you know, there’s a lot of people that raised their eyebrows at people here doing an honest job and doing something that we felt, I have always felt, and the people that I worked with felt, like was a pretty honorable job.”
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