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Erin Ann Thomas

Ghost Towns

The Weekly Snippet: Selection from Coal in Our Veins

I arrived in Scofield on a fall afternoon when the hills were sprinkled with rows of gold-leafed quaking aspens, set off by the green-black of pines. I got out of my vehicle and shivered. The air had a cold, moist edge. I hesitantly jiggled the door of the saloon, unsure about entering if it yielded. I pressed my face up against the window to peer inside. Above the bar a sign said No Checks and a clock stopped a 2:25. Stools stood vacant over a floor where the white tiles had begun to curl up like brittle sheets of paper. A cabinet was stocked with ancient bottles of Raid and Scope.

I stepped away from the windows and crossed back to my car to drive up to the graveyard. Scattered between the houses with colorful sheet-metal roofs, outhouses and boarded up shacks crouched that nobody had ever bothered to take down. A few feet from the end of the road stood a sign that read: Open Range. Once a booming mining town, Scofield had reverted back to its original purpose as a place to feed livestock. Half a mile at the other end of Commerce Street, a tall, lean dog stared me down. It was the only living creature I had seen that day, but was strangely immobile—not turning its gaze or moving its tail.

There is no lush patch of grass in the Scofield graveyard because there is no gardener to tend it. Tombstones poke irregularly out of mountain grasses—wild, tall, and dry. Even so, in the disarray there are signs of remembrance. A plaque was erected in 1987 with the names of all the miners who died in the Winter Quarters explosion. The bronze relief above the names portrays a sense of torque, clamor, and night in the faces of coal miners who seem to be craning into a thick haze, the oil-powered lamps on their caps failing to light the path to escape.

I walked to the back corner, where a marble obelisk engraved with THOMAS marked the resting place of Evan Jr. and Frederick. The stone stood six feet tall and was mounted on a two foot piece of concrete. Red lichen grew on the base, and the inscription listed only their names and their dates of birth, followed by “sons of E. S. and M. D. Thomas.” The first burial of a Thomas in the New World, it was executed under both the greatest poverty and the most pomp and ceremony. In the whole of Scofield cemetery, only one stone rose more imposing. Bearing the name of Edwin Street, the inscription had worn away, so that a couplet was barely legible: “To forget is vain endeavor. Love’s remembrance lasts forever.” An inscription similar to those on several other stones throughout the graveyard, this must have been a popular epitaph at the time.

My ancestors might have lived in Scofield or in Winter Quarters. In an area so small, it hardly seems worth making a distinction. In those days, however, it might have added a mile or so on to the morning and evening trudge to and from the shaft, where the miners would descend and walk another mile into the side of the mountain. Winter Quarters is private property now, and I unwittingly arrived in Scofield in the middle of hunting season. I drove to the edge of the town and parked in front of a gate. A stocky hunter in camouflage, with hard-cut Slavic features, was loading a four-wheeler into the back of a truck. According to an old farmer in a faded cap standing nearby, the hunter was the owner of Winter Quarters canyon. He ignored me for fifteen minutes while the farmer and his daughter warned me I might get shot. I insisted until the hunter turned and waved his hand. I walked up the road to Winter Quarters, convinced my pink and white striped shirt would set me off from the deer.

A farm snuggled into the mouth, but from there, the canyon thinned. A creek ran down the middle. Willows sunk their roots into the banks, and the woods climbed down the hill, covering where telephone poles used to carry electricity up to the mine. It was such a narrow canyon that I couldn’t imagine how so many small wooden huts could have clung to the sides of the hill, the cold wind inserting itself through the cracks between the boards where the gum had worked free. I followed the path that Zeph and his brothers would have walked every morning to the mine, trailing behind Evan. I know so little of this man, only that there was something in him that Margaret loved enough to spurn a rich man’s son, and that he was short and tempestuous. There are a few foundations of outhouses on the outskirts of town, and some other lines of stones visible through the plant growth. The town was dismantled when the mine closed, every bit of stone and wood hauled out for other enterprises. Only two walls of the company store remain, cutting a lonely silhouette against the deeper canyon where the Finns and Greeks thrived, set away from the families of the other coal workers.

This intimate, wooded canyon seemed fitting as the ghost town of my ancestors. A deer ran across my path, and then another, in hunting season worse luck than black cats. I shivered, thinking of the hunters in the woods and the shot that could echo at any moment from the trees. I was so sure of my pink and white stripes, but watching the deer dash out of the underbrush diminished my bravado. The cool air held the light, and a creek lined with willows trickled in the silence of the canyon. The colors of the forest deepened with the approaching dusk. I wasn’t insensitive to the beauty or the danger; my heart beat loudly and my breath fell short as I climbed the trail of my ancestors. Fear, wonder, and love—the latter quickening my pulse the most. It was a grasping love of ghosts, spirits I wished would appear so I could say, “Yes, this is Evan and Margaret, and they lived here and I long to know them still.”

In the photos of Winter Quarters taken just after the accident in 1900, it is early spring, and the quaking aspen are leafless. They make thin stick figures against the evergreens. At that time, the willows were cleared from the side of the river to make room for the railroad. In terms of trees, Aspens have short life spans, somewhere between seventy and a hundred years, but the pines live longer. The pines that seemed to crowd closer into the slender valley as dusk deepened could be more than a century old. These same pines might have lined Evan and Zeph’s early morning walks to the mine. These pines could have blocked the winter wind coming through the cracks in their cabin. It was possible that in this moment my life and the lives of Evan, Margaret, and Zephaniah were contemporary in the life of a tree.

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