The U.S. Coal and Oil Company, later named the Island Creek Coal Company, built Holden. The company, headquartered in Huntington, purchased a 30,000-acre tract in 1902 and decided to center its operations on a sparsely settled serpentine curve along Island Creek, some four miles from the county courthouse. Albert F. Holden, a wealthy Cleveland mining engineer and later company president, ensured that the town named for him would be a model coal company town, not a drab mining camp.
Ground was broken for the town in September 1902, and soon ox-drawn wagons were hauling machinery and hardware over a dirt road connecting with the railroad, twelve miles away. Bricks were fired from clay on the property, and the company had its own stone quarries and sawmills. By the time a C&O branch line reached the site in September 1904, mines one and two had been opened, and some twenty thousand tons of coal were ready to be shipped. At that time the town consisted of a stone office building, some ninety-seven houses for workmen, three boardinghouses, and the twenty-six-room Holden Inn, which housed superintendents, engineers, and clerks.
The July 20, 1905, issue of Manufacturers Record declared that Holden had “no equal in any coal-mining camp in the world.” The December 15, 1906, issue of The Engineering and Mining Journal agreed, declaring that “capital, genius and industry have combined to create what is probably the model coal-mining operation in the United States, if not in the world.”
Among other boasts, Holden could claim the largest and almost certainly the finest superintendent's house in the southern coalfields. Built in 1905–1906, the massive, twin-gabled house stood high on a hill overlooking the store. Its stucco covering, extensive half-timbering, and gables evoked the Tudor Revival, but there was much that bespoke the Arts and Crafts movement as well. The same issue of Manufacturers Record reported that the interiors were of “walnut, oak, maple, birch, ash and chestnut, with panels of curly woods of various kinds, all found in the forests this company owns.” Company employees crafted the original furnishings from native woods. The house, now greatly remodeled, manages to maintain something of the original English flavor with a perfunctory half-timbered gable.
With four mines open by 1907, the company invited French mining engineer Edward V. d'Invilliers to visit Holden. His favorable impressions were recorded in George Seldon Wallace's Huntington Through Seventy-Five Years (1947):
A more orderly, more attractive or more wisely planned and managed community does not exist in the State of West Virginia, and the wisdom and praiseworthy effort of the management to provide decent, sanitary surroundings has already made itself manifest in the abundance of labor drawn to this camp and the general improvement in its personnel.
William Glyde Wilkins, principal of his own engineering and architecture firm in Pittsburgh, was in charge of surveying and planning the orderly town, and according to Manufacturers Record“the architecture of the buildings [was] in accordance with [his] ideas.” The Engineering and Mining Journal of December 22, 1906, described the houses:
Instead of the usual miners' cabins, made of rough lumber, and set on stilts on the mountain side, the eye is delighted with streets of attractively designed frame cottages with porches, built on stone foundations and plastered throughout. With the exception of the two- and three-room cottages they are all double houses, containing four and five rooms to the side; all have running water and electric lights; open grates in all rooms except the kitchen.
The journal also commented that “the general color scheme is Indian red, with black trimmings, though this is broken in the case of special buildings, producing an effect of rare attractiveness in a mining camp.”
Other structures included a church, theater, clubhouse, and schools. In 1912 the company built thirty-eight more houses, a second church and rectory to serve the Roman Catholic population, and a hospital. Population statistics for 1915 clearly indicate why a Catholic church was desirable: while 30 percent of the miners were native-born whites and 15 percent were blacks, the remaining 55 percent were mostly from the heavily Catholic countries of Hungary, Italy, and Poland.
In addition to mining coal, the newly arrived
The company continued to build new towns, or camps, as other mines were developed on the extensive tract. In 1914 mines eleven and twelve were opened on Main Island Creek, with towns built alongside. When the U.S. Coal Commission published its 1925 report on housing in company towns, these two communities tied for third best in the nation, with scores of 89.7 out of a possible 100. Later that year, on December 10, 1925, Manufacturers Record reported that the Island Creek Coal Company had ordered 165 “miner's dwellings” from Huntington's Minter Homes Corporation, at a cost of $250,000.
The 1940s brought good and bad news to Holden. At the beginning of the decade, the WPA's West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State described the town in glowing terms. While it erred in saying all the houses were alike, the account noted that the former red and black color scheme had been superseded by green, gray, and yellow, and that the former superintendent's house was now a club: “Holden [is] … a model coal town with … recreational facilities including a theatre, tennis courts, Y.M.C.A. building, swimming pool, and a clubhouse in English half-timbered style, on a landscaped lawn overlooking the main street of the town. The streets are lined with trees, and the houses surrounded by lawns, flower beds, and shrubbery.” With World War II's demands for increased coal productivity, new mines were opened, and in 1943 fifty houses were under construction in Pine Creek, another of Holden's satellite towns. These fourto six-room “colonials” rented for about $3 per room per month. That same year an ominous note sounded when the company abandoned the plant at mine eleven because its coal reserves had been exhausted.
By war's end, automobiles allowed miners and their families to live farther from the mines and to be less dependent on company towns. In 1946 the Island Creek company began offering its employees first options to buy the houses they had been renting. Soon, Holden and its satellite communities were no longer company towns.
Until recently, Holden held its own—at least visually—though its population dropped more than 50 percent between 1970 and 2000, from 2,325 to 1,105. Holden is now virtually in the shadow of Appalachian Corridor G (U.S. 119), which is partially elevated and bridged over the town, unmercifully carving up its neighborhoods. Eventually, Holden might have been restored or at least rehabilitated, but the ruthless swipe of the new road has practically ruled out the possibility of a rebirth. Even so, it and the parent Island Creek Coal Company left an enduring legacy in redefining the minimum acceptable level of housing for miners throughout the southern coalfields of West Virginia.