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Gary

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WV 103, 5 miles south of U.S. 52

In 1902 the U.S. Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corporation, established operations on a huge 77,500-acre property that commenced two miles south of Welch, then extended some thirteen miles along the upper reaches of Tug Fork River and its tributaries. Operations began at Wilcoe, closest to Welch of the many towns and camps that soon developed. Wilcoe still contains several originally identical miners' houses on each side of a straight road leading up to an imposing superintendent's house—a good display of typical architectural hierarchy in coal country towns.

The company's headquarters were soon established half a mile farther south at Gary, or “Main Gary.” The town was named for Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of U.S. Steel, who also gave his name to Gary, Indiana. The mines at Gary were operated as “captive” mines, meaning that all of the output was produced for the parent company. By 1918 U.S. Coal and Coke had become the state's largest coal producer and at the height of production operated more than a dozen mines, each with its attendant company town or camp. Over the years, the generic name Gary has come to stand for most of them.

U.S. Coal and Coke guided the development of Gary over the years and, after the initial construction period, nearly always used its own draftsmen and construction crews to design and build its company towns. The company provided numerous types of houses, depending on family size, the site, the size of a particular mining operation, and, most important, the position of the head of the household in the company's operations. One standard design, a six-room double house, was an attractive twostory, I-form frame house with chimneys at each gable end and one-story shed-roofed wings beyond. William Clyde Wilkins, an architect and engineer from Pittsburgh, drew the first known example of the type, which was labeled “sixroom miners house at Tug River Mine,” in February 1902. The design was revised several times, and was available with various floor plans. The easily identifiable silhouette of the house is seen often in Gary and its related towns.

Except for a few buildings such as the Orthodox church, with its onion dome, structures designed and built under the company's aegis were usually straightforward and unadorned. A design for “School House (colored)” dating from December 1917 shows a plain but well-lit, well- arranged two-story building that was far ahead of its time and place in providing adequate educational facilities for blacks. Nearly all the Gary drawings were stamped with the company's motto, “Safety the first consideration.” The motto was also prominently displayed on a safety record board that stood at the main intersection in Main Gary.

The company's main office building, a sturdy stone structure, still stands at the center of Gary. Two stories of broad, paired windows provided light for drafting rooms, where engineers produced the myriad drawings needed to construct the operation's various components. Unmarried engineers were accommodated in attic dormitories lit by broad, hip-roofed dormers, also with paired fenestration. Donald R. Beeson produced the drawings for this building, dated October 9, 1903, and a brief notation indicates that Andrew J. Swift, chief draftsman, “ok'd” them. Draftsman W. P. Schrinner proudly signed a drawing for a meticulously detailed baseball bat, with instructions to the lathe operator for its fabrication. Also surviving is a May 1927 drawing of a baseball diamond and bleachers, titled “Grand Stand at Ball Grounds No. 10 works.” Here, obviously in a moment of leisure, the draftsman ornamented his drawing with stick figures depicting a marching band. The year before, Schrinner joined forces with a draftsman named Ketter to design the Georgian Revival facade of the Gary Theatre. One of them—perhaps both—could hardly wait for the theater to open so that they could see Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks. The company's engineers also provided country clubs for both white and black miners who paid an annual $15 family membership. The nine-hole golf course at the club for whites was not only an accomplishment in the hilly terrain but also a challenge, since a railroad bridge separated the last two holes and required a drive with an almost impossible curve. The club for blacks, who made up 35 percent of the workforce at U.S. Coal and Coke, had a swimming pool, recreation hall, and picnic areas, but no golf course.

The staff, of course, provided drawings and specifications for more utilitarian structures than club facilities and movie theaters. When the U.S. Coal Commission studied the coalfields in the early 1920s, it almost begrudgingly concluded that most of Gary's “houses were surrounded with fences, freshly painted and provided with approved sanitary facilities.” While most sanitary facilities were inside, those that were not were also constructed from carefully drawn plans.

In 1943 The West Virginia Review described Gary in glowing terms, even though the Orthodox church was unused:

Main Gary is as pretty a town as you will find anywhere in the State.… On the hillsides stretch rows of attractive homes, tree-shaded, wideporched, with attractively planted yards. Overlooking the town is the gray stone, ivy-covered office building, the colonial-pillared clubhouse, the Catholic Church, and an abandoned Greek Catholic Church.

Focusing on the houses not only in “Main Gary” but also in the other settlements, the article continued:

all are equipped with electricity and running water. Newer ones have baths and hot air central heating.… All are well painted and each has its own small plot of ground while additional ground for gardening purposes can be obtained from the Company upon request.… At every fourth house is a fire plug and emergency hose houses are scattered throughout the towns at frequent intervals.

Forty years later an entirely different picture of Gary had emerged. In 1984 the Washington Post described the town:

This mountain coal town is slowly dying, literally disappearing under the advancing hillside vegetation that has reclaimed most of what was once a bustling city of nearly 15,000 coal miners and their families. Only 2,300 remain. And nearly two-thirds of the homes have been torn down. Bulldozers and underbrush have erased not only company-built housing, but also the company stores, theater, pool hall, restaurant, bar and several churches.

In the article, Gary's mayor predicted that “we may be the last generation.” Two years later, in 1986, the mines closed, the same year the company donated all its accumulated drawings to the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield.

The bleak picture of 1984 still describes Gary, but the surprise is that the town seems to have changed little in the ensuing years. Admittedly, Gary, with a 2000 population of only 917, is now an even paler shadow of its onceprosperous self, and some of its subsidiary towns, eastward along Tug Fork and southward along Sandlick Creek, have all but disappeared. On the other hand, much remains, including the golf course, now the McDowell Country Club. Fortunately, the mayor's prediction has yet to come true, and for those interested in the history and architecture of coal mining and company towns, Gary is hard to beat.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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