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Mashing Up McPhee

John McPhee is always interesting to read, no matter what he's writing about. It's partly a matter of the details that draw one into the story --the personalities whom he quotes, the vantage points one wouldn't have thought of, the glimpses into unexpected realities and perspectives-- and the artful pullback to grand scale.

In the New Yorker for Oct 3 and Oct 10 2005 I read his take on coal, seen (primarily, with digressions) through the lens of a coal train that runs between Black Thunder mine in Wyoming and the Scherer power plant south of Atlanta.

From mines near the center of America, the coal thing would revolutionize American railroads, slow the spread of creeping desuetude, reverse --to a large extent-- their antiquation. Before the end of the twentieth century, it would all but jam solid the busiest trackage. It was the direct economic result of the Clean Air Act of 1970... (Oct 3, 75-76)
The story of Wyoming coal is fascinating in itself, for its huge scale and its recent emergence.

I started my followup to McPhee's article with a Google search 'bill wy lat long' to get the coordinates of the railroad yard where McPhee climbed aboard CCTBT, a coal train bound for Black Thunder mine: 43.23N 105.28W

I used Google Earth to Fly To 'bill,wy', and then converted the Degrees/Minutes/Seconds of the coordinates to decimal degrees: 43.232050 -105.261581

I followed the rail line northwards into Campbell County, and located what must surely be Black Thunder --43 31 40.46N 105 16 04.13W at center of loop Black Thunder mine, converted to decimal degrees as 43.527906 -105.267814

Some searching found these sites:

Arch Coal Company's 'About Us' site for Black Thunder (" Largest U.S. coal mine, First coal mine in the world to ship 1 billion tons")
Coal: Dig It Up, Move It, Burn It Wyoming's Powder River Basin
Roberts and Schaefer, engineers of crushing and conveyor systems at Black Thunder
Phil Haulage Systems ("With reserves of 3.4 billion tons, shipping 30 miles of coal-filled rail cars every day, Arch Coal and the Black Thunder Mine recognize the value of quality performing equipment.")
Union Pacific picture of the loaders
Railway Track and Struuctures article, 2003 ("On average, Black Thunder produces more than two tons of coal per second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During the life of the mine, 61,347 trains, or 6.9 million cars, have been loaded with coal. If those trains were linked, they would circle the Earth at the Equator nearly three times.")
Antelope Roam ("The entire footprint of Arch Coal’s Black Thunder Mine – which produces nearly 7% of the nation’s total coal supply – comprises only 1/5,000th of Wyoming’s land area.")
A mountain of coal waits for a ride (USA Today 24 August 2005)
FTC Files Federal Complaint Challenging Arch Coal's Proposed Acquisition of Triton Coal Company ("... the acquisition may substantially lessen competition and/or tend to create a monopoly in coal mined from the Southern Powder River Basin (SPRB) and in 8800 British Thermal Unit (Btu) SPRB coal.")
The Scherer power plant was easily found: 33 03 38.35 83 48 07.89 scherer plant
33.060653 -83.802192

McPhee describes several points between Black Thunder and Scherer:

41 09 06.70 100 50 27.19 North Platte NE railyards
41.151861 -100.840886

Gibbon Junction, Gibbon North NE, 40.76, -98.82
40 45 17.54 98 49 26.33
40.754872 -98.823981
Sunrise/Sunset - A Day at Gibbon Junction (VHS video of "the world's busiest freight railroad")

Marysville KS 39 50 27.63 96 38 55.51

At one point McPhee provides this bit of geographical intelligence: "Your intelligence goes up ten points when you cross that line [the KS-NE border, going north]. Back there, you go barefoot, screw your cousin, and try to steal something." (Paul Fitzpatrick, North Platte Nebraska native --pg 72 of part 1)... so I had to find the point:
40 00 04.83 97 00 16.53
40.001342 -97.004592


one leftover bit:
43 57 37N 105 20 37.12W to a RR junction (north of Black Thunder)
43.960278 -105.343644