This is Not a Beautiful Photograph...

Look carefully at this photograph, because it is not beautiful.

I know of only two places in the United States where you can find rocks that are that brilliantly orange surrounded by pools of baby blue, turquoise, and teal water. One of them is Havasu Falls, which is part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. The other is Douglas Falls outside the small town of Thomas, West Virginia. 

The vivid orange rocks and rainbow colored waters entice a swim.

Surely a landscape this beautiful carries some sort of mythical healing powers. Certainly this has to be one of the most tranquil places east of the Mississippi River?

There are few places on earth where these sorts of colors are "natural" -- I used a polarizing filter, some neutral density filters, and my Nikon D850 to capture the turquoise water and orange rocks. 

Certainly not.

Douglas falls is beautiful, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Unlike Havasu Falls, where the beauty is natural, the beauty of Douglas Falls is not... the brilliant colors and tranquil scene are the result of pollution from coal mining. 

In the late 1890s, Thomas, West Virginia was home to the Davis Coal & Coke Company. In those days, there were over 500 beehive coke ovens burning in the town, which was setup entirely to support the mining operations. By the turn of the 20th century, the coal mines in the surrounding area produced over 4,000 tons of coal daily. The explosion of mining in Thomas was short-lived; by the outbreak of the first World War, advancements in refining methods meant that coke production in the beehive ovens had ceased, and by the 1950s, underground mining in the area ceased all together. The population of Thomas diminished, and the city today is a shell of it's former mining glory. 

Douglas Falls, as seen from the side. The rocks radiated a yellowish-orange that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

 Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

Old beehive coke ovens line the roadway leading to Douglas Falls. At one time, there were over 500 of these ovens polluting the surrounding habitats.

In just a few decades, the landscape was permanently altered. The harsh acid from the coke ovens has turned the rocks orange. A hundred years after much of the mining ceased, the waters of the river are still plagued by harsh acid. In the 1990s, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection established a reclamation effort to clean up exposed mining waste. The project created new drainage systems, restored destroyed wetlands, reseeded grasses, and re-countoured the hillsides around the river.  They hope this project will eventually return this habitat to it's natural state... but nearly thirty years after the cleanup project, the acids continue to wreck havoc on the landscape. 

The contrast of the brilliant orange with the turquoise blue and green waters was a spectacular sight to behold...for all the wrong reasons.

Some ferns grow out of the ground around the falls, where acids from the coal mining that occurred nearly a century ago has stained these rocks. Acids continue to leech into the landscape, despite a cleanup project in the 1990s.

As much as I love photographing beautiful scenes like this one, I would much prefer to photograph a landscape for it's natural beauty. While I love these photographs, there will always be a cringe associated with seeing them because I know their beauty came at a great cost.