Salena Zito

VAN METER, Pa. -- Unless you happen upon the chunk of coal marking where 239 men died in the old Darr Mine, now along the Great Allegheny Passageway trail, you’d never know you passed over one of the worst U.S. coal-mining disasters.

A little more than 100 years later, coal still has a complicated relationship with Pennsylvania’s people, land and politicians.

Even the dead can’t let go.

Joe (he wouldn’t give his last name) stood with his wife along the Youghiogheny River, walking the ruins of the Pittsburgh Coal Co., a half-mile from Darr, hunting for the mine’s remains.

“I’m a coal miner,” he said. “I’ve spent 30 years in the mines.”

He wanted to find the exact spot of the disaster because a buddy told him that ghosts wander there at night. “I guess I just want to understand this bond we have with the ‘widow-maker,’ ” he said. “It feeds us, gives us a good life, then can take it away in an instant.”

As he and his wife walked down the trail, 30-foot coal hills to their left served as a makeshift motocross; a dozen young men soared with abandon along the steep piles of black rock, kicking up smoky dust and yelling with each mid-air twist of their motorcycles.

Coal is many things to many people. It once powered the mighty U.S. Navy, the steam locomotives carrying commerce cross-country, and most American homes and businesses.

At the start of the 20th century, mining companies faced such difficulty finding enough labor to meet the demand that they crisscrossed Eastern Europe, promising company housing and good wages to young men who emigrated to America.

It was the golden age of “King Coal.”

Today, Pennsylvania coal still generates more than half of the state’s electrical power, according to Edward Yankovich, United Mine Workers District II vice president. “In Ohio, 80 percent,” he added.

Yet it is the one energy resource about which President Obama dares not speak. In fact, Obama has not mentioned it since last year – and then, only in passing at a news conference.

Last Thursday, in what the White House touted as his “big American-made energy” speech, the president never mentioned coal.

“That’s – that is just disappointing,” said T. J. Rooney, former state chairman of Pennsylvania’s Democrats, who oversaw several very successful cycles for his party.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.