In the early 1880s, engineer Jedidiah Hotchkiss convinced E. W. Clark and Company, the Philadelphia owners of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, to extend their line into Southwest Virginia. The purpose was to transport coal from the massive Flat Top seam that ran from northern Tazewell County into West Virginia. Through a series of financial maneuvers, E. W. Clark formed the Southwest Virginia Improvement Company to mine the Flat Top coal seam and to construct the mining town that became Pocahontas. With the help of Northern and English financial backers, Clark acquired more than ten thousand acres of land in northern Tazewell County and vast acreage in West Virginia, which amounted to most of the Flat Top region. Land purchased from locals for $1.50 to $2.00 an acre skyrocketed in five years to $100 an acre for its absentee owners. From 1883 when the Norfolk and Western Rail-road arrived in Tazewell County until the mines closed in 1955, millions of tons of coal were extracted from this rich seam.
The company hired mining engineer William A. Lathrop and architect Charles W. Bolton in 1881 to lay out Pocahontas, the first and most prominent of Virginia's company mining towns. They designed houses, a store, a company office, a boardinghouse for the workmen, and other necessary town buildings, as well as a mine opening with a coal tipple and fan house and the coke ovens. Around 1884, Bolton established a practice in Philadelphia, where he became known as an accomplished ecclesiastical architect. As in most mining towns, the company controlled almost all aspects of the lives of the workers. They lived in company houses, went to company doctors, and sent their children to company schools. Pocahontas began as a wide-open boomtown with as many as twenty-seven saloons. Saturday night after payday was for many a riot of drinking, gambling, and fighting. In time, as more women and their children moved in, the town quieted down, but Pocahontas, in spite of its feminine name, remained a masculine domain, far less orderly than the typical family-oriented textile town.
Mining disasters were inevitable, especially in the ramshackle early days. In 1884, one hundred and fourteen Pocahontas workers died in one of the nation's worst mining disasters. Despite the dangers, mining still provided a better living, certainly in the short run, than was otherwise available to many who worked here, though African Americans were paid less than white workers. As well as drawing workers from the region, Pocahontas attracted immigrants from many countries as testified by the names on the grave markers in the cemetery (TZ18), which has some of Virginia's most interesting funerary art.
The town began in the bottomlands of Laurel Creek Valley and gradually wound up the hillsides. Most of the residential area runs from Water Street south to VA 644, with a preponderance of the larger houses lying east of the intersection of Water Street and Centre Street, the main commercial thoroughfare. Houses were almost uniformly of wood with either weatherboarding or board-and-batten sheathing. Most of the houses, some with their original picket fences, are two-story duplexes with a one-story shed-roof porch. A number of dwellings have small two-unit brick coal sheds that neighbors shared. These sheds, many still standing in the alley behind E. Water Street, were filled by company coal wagons and then emptied from a lower door in the home owner's yard. In its heyday, Pocahontas was a company town with a vibrant civic, fraternal, and religious life. The mine closed in 1955 after the coal seam was worked out. In 1900, the population of Pocahontas was around 3,200 and in the 2010 census that had dropped to 389. Inevitably, the commercial district has suffered, and the town has lost many of its company buildings. Until about fifteen years ago, Pocahontas was still a complete, if delapidated, well-designed mining town. In recent years, however, many of its buildings have fallen down and the once-thriving Pocahontas is coming close to being a ghost town.
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