On December 2, 1875 Nathaniel H. Bishop launched a small boat into the Monongahela (Mon) River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After several hours the Mon joined the ice covered Allegheny and the two rivers below his “sneakbox” the Centennial Republic became a third, the Ohio. Three years later he published an account of his trip from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico. In it he describes the region around Pittsburgh:
“The use of the soft bituminous coal in the towns along the river, and also by the steamboats navigating it, filled the valley with clouds of smoke. These clouds rested upon everything. Your five senses were fully aware of the presence of the disagreeable, impalpable something surrounding you. Eyes, ears, taste, touch, and smell, each felt the presence. Smoky towns along the banks gave smoky views. Smoky chimneys rose high above the smoky foundries and forges, where smoke-begrimed men toiled day and night in the smoky atmosphere.”
And later in Wheeling, West Virginia he writes of smoke and soot that coated his small boat and of an oily shine that covered the river for miles downstream.
One hundred and thirty-six year later dark clouds no longer linger over Pittsburgh or blacken the fresh snow outside my apartment window. The scale and type of industry around the city have changed and many of the worst polluting practices have been stopped. Shifts in local and national policy, technological advancements, and public concern have cleaned up the city’s air and water. But things can get better. Communities are still sacrificed for cheap power and corporate profit. Last December the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on “‘clusters’ of death” in Western Pennsylvanian communities adjacent to industry and power production suggesting a link between public health and air pollution. Meanwhile mountains and lives throughout Appalachia are destroyed in the hunt for more coal, rivers and drinking water are contaminated with radioactive waste and chemicals from underground “fracking” for natural gas, and smoke stacks in the Ohio valley pump more and more carbon into our atmosphere.
When Bishop rowed into the Ohio’s ice flows he was setting out on a trip to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his country. His observations show us how much that country has changed. Cleaning our water, clearing our skies, and protecting our citizens bettered the country Bishop sailed to celebrate and continuing to do so today only strengthens its future.
This spring I am kayaking from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico to bear witness to industrial practices that still threaten lives and the environment. Amplifying the stories of those we are losing in clouds of smoke. Please follow along and spread the word.