Coal and America: Coal Communities in Transition (2019-2020)


No fossil fuel permeates the history of the United States like coal. During the 19th century, it became the first mineral to provide the majority of the nation’s energy and fueled the steam engines, railroads, factories and foundries that drove the Industrial Revolution. Between 1885 and 1951, coal constituted as much as three-quarters of the nation’s energy budget – a level yet untouched by any other single fuel source. As crucial as its contribution has been to the nation as a whole, coal has been even more important to the communities where it is mined.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project aims to analyze coal’s rise and subsequent fall through the lenses of history and economics, with a special emphasis on how coal entwined energy, the environment and community over the course of the past 200 years.

Previous teams have conducted oral history interviews, archival research and data-driven economic and policy analysis related to coal in America, focusing on the Central Appalachian region. The 2019-2020 Bass Connections team will work on establishing contacts and conducting interviews in new areas, including the Pennsylvania Anthracite, great Central Basin and Alabama regions.

The goals of this project are to:

  • Expand data collection, visualization and analysis to include all major coal producing regions beyond the Central Appalachian region
  • Integrate first-person oral histories collected in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to complement the team’s quantitative analysis of economic data and research in historical archives
  • Compare and contrast findings with those made by the 2018-2019 project team
  • Continue archival research, with an emphasis on records relevant to coal mining communities
  • Launch phase two of the team’s public history website,

The project will be divided into three stages: 1) an instructional period (boot camp) to brief students on the necessary background and research methodologies; 2) a research stage during which students will explore the data and oral histories in discrete but interlinked subteams; and 3) an analysis/writing phase during which students will prepare the team’s final report and launch phase two of the public history website.

Anticipated Outputs

Foundation for future research and grant applications; monograph surveying the economic history of the U.S. coal industry during the late 20th century; public website on the history of coal in America


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Boot camp to brief students on the study background and research methodologies; subteams begin to explore and analyze data and oral histories
  • Spring 2020: Development of final report and research outputs; launch phase two of the public history website

This Team in the News

How to Be Your Own Successful Project Manager

See earlier related team, Coal in America: Chronicling and Analyzing its Economic and Social History (2018-2019), and Story+ project, Coal & America: Stories from the Central Appalachian Coalfields (2018).


Image: Coal train, by Chris Collins, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Coal train, by Chris Collins, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Team Leaders

  • Lori Bennear, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Jonathon Free, Energy Initiative

/graduate Team Members

  • Shengxi Hao, Economics-AM
  • Alyssa Russell, History-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ryan Hastings
  • Jonas Meksem, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Abigail Naughton
  • Olivia Reneau
  • Mona Tong

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Brian Murray, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • William Niver, Energy Initiative