These small, early-twentieth-century communities, strung out along U.S. 60 and the northern bank of the Kanawha River near its falls, all relate now to Elkem Metals, which operates the world's largest silicon metal plant at Alloy. Elkem's predecessor firm, EMCO (Electro Metallurgical Company), developed the communities.
The Wilson Aluminum Company began the large-scale industrial development of this stretch of the upper Kanawha Valley by damming the falls to provide power in 1899–1901. EMCO, a subsidiary of Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, purchased the Wilson company in 1907. To obtain a steadier supply of hydroelectric power than the falls could provide, EMCO obtained additional property upstream (and at a higher level) on the New River at Hawks Nest. There the company planned to build a dam and a three-mile tunnel under Gauley Mountain, allowing water to be transported to a hydroelectric plant near Gauley Bridge with a fall of 146 feet. From there electricity would be transferred to plants at Glen Ferris and Alloy, six miles distant, over power lines containing the largest conductors ever built.
After much delay, the tunnel project was begun in 1930 and completed in 1932. Although it was considered an engineering marvel at the time, the tunnel had been dug through sandstone containing a phenomenally high content of silica, and many of the workers eventually succumbed to silicosis. Because the disease often takes years to extract its full toll, Gauley Bridge, where many employees lived, was known in the 1930s as “the town of the living dead.”
During the 1930s the company erected a number of houses for its increased work forces at the plants. By January 1943, EMCO's various operations had 2,400 workers and was Fayette County's largest employer. In 1981 Elkem, a privately owned Norwegian industrial conglomerate, purchased EMCO.
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