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Coal Country

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Coal deposits have been found in at least forty-nine of West Virginia's fifty-five counties and have been mined commercially in as many as thirty-nine. With statistics like that, identifying any particular region of the state as “coal country” is obviously subjective. Even so, the seven southwestern counties of Boone, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Raleigh, and Wyoming may be regarded as the epicenter of West Virginia's coal industry. That industry brought about a profound transformation of the area, and during the halfcentury from 1880 to about 1930, the black diamond dominated every aspect of life in this remote, mountainous region. Coal's influence on architecture was as profound as it was in every other aspect of life.

All seven counties developed similarly, though not simultaneously. Six were antebellum creations of the Virginia legislature—beginning with Logan in 1824 and ending with McDowell in 1858—evidence of a modicum of settlement and development before coal emerged as the region's economic mainstay. Mingo, West Virginia's youngest county, was formed from Logan in 1895, soon after the Williamson field, the state's westernmost coal deposit, was opened.

In 1880 only 35,383 people lived in coal country, and if a single word could be used (as it often was) to classify them, it was “mountaineer.” Southern West Virginia was the heart of Appalachia, land of hillbillies and moonshine, home of the Hatfields—but not the McCoys. Although well within shooting range, the McCoys lived on the Kentucky side of the Tug Fork River, which forms the boundary between the two states in this area. Outsiders appraised Appalachia, especially this remote part of it, as a strange land inhabited by a peculiar people—people so peculiar that anthropologists dubbed them “our contemporary ancestors.” They were a tribe apart, mired in the frontier stage of development, living in dilapidated log cabins and speaking Elizabethan English.

So the familiar story goes. Now discredited, it contains at least a shred of truth in its assessment of the area's traditional housing stock. Log cabins—log houses they were in fact, but log cabins they became in fiction—were the very symbol of Appalachia. They represented sturdy, upstanding, traditional values on the one hand, but on the other they served equally well as symbols of all that was considered backward and old-fashioned about the region.

Indeed, log was the prevalent building material, and not only for houses. Moreover, log structures were not always the simplistic buildings that the term “log cabin” usually connotes. Many were built according to detailed, written specifications. Joseph Friedl, in A History of Education in McDowell County, West Virginia, 1958–1976, described the court-ordered instructions for building four log schools in McDowell County in 1866: “18 ft. square one story high [with] a good flat Rock Chimney … the Roof 3 foot Bords well naled a good Punshion floor a good Plank Shutter to the door … cracks well chinked & dobed & the corners sawed down.” Six years later, in 1872, the same county's commissioners specified a two-story log building for their new courthouse. Log was a natural choice of materials, since as late as 1880 more than 75 percent of West Virginia's coal country was covered with forests, mostly virgin timber.

Ironically, the image of the hillbilly in his log cabin was in full flower just when the region was beginning to change the most. In 1873 the Philadelphia owners of a huge tract of land—originally a Revolutionary War grant that Wilson Cary Nicholas, governor of Virginia from 1814 to 1816, had acquired—commissioned Major Jedediah Hotchkiss of Staunton, Virginia, to appraise their holdings. Hotchkiss, an engineer and cartographer, in turn hired Isaiah Arnold Welch, a geologist and fellow former Confederate officer, to explore the region west of the Bluestone River, in the area around the Flat Top Mountain. The tract straddled West Virginia and Virginia, and Welch first realized its potential when a blacksmith in the latter's Tazewell County showed him a 13-foot coal seam that he had been “mining” for fuel. Welch traced the seam northward into West Virginia and found that it continued to outcrop in Mercer, McDowell, and Wyoming counties. He had discovered what would later be named the Pocahontas field, one of the world's largest and richest deposits of low volatile, “smokeless” bituminous coal.

Despite Welch's discovery, events during the 1870s conspired to prevent the immediate development of the field. For one thing, the country had plunged into a severe national depression. In addition, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway had just completed its line through the New River Gorge, opening the New River and Kanawha coalfields but bypassing the area Welch investigated. Nevertheless, Hotchkiss promoted the area in his monthly journal, The Virginias: A Mining, Industrial and Scientific Journal Devoted to the Development of Virginia and West Virginia. His efforts began to bear fruit in 1881 when the Norfolk & Western Railroad started its New River Division from Radford to the new town of Pocahontas, Virginia. The railroad went through Mercer County in 1883 and shipped its first carload of coal shortly thereafter.

In 1888 the N&W tunneled under Flat Top Mountain, extending its tracks westward through McDowell County, and by 1892 had completed the line to Kenova, on the Ohio River in Wayne County. This line opened the Williamson field and provided a direct link between southern coalfields and midwestern markets. Throughout the early twentieth century, feeder lines of the N&W, the C&O, and the newly organized Virginian Railway stretched farther up creeks and hollows, extending their iron tentacles deeper into the mountains to open and serve new mines.

Fueled by knowledge of coal reserves and the hope of quick profit, out-of-state investors, mainly Philadelphians associated with the railroads, sent agents into the mountains to acquire property. The agents usually arrived before the iron horse and, if possible, before landowners even knew that the railroad was on its way. Confused land titles and unscrupulous lawyers played on the mountaineers' poignant lack of understanding about the riches they were signing away. If a buyer could not convince an owner to sell outright, he cajoled him into selling mineral rights via a “broadform” deed, with little explanation of what it meant or its long-term consequences. Changes in land ownership patterns in the late nineteenth century were staggering in their rapidity and extent. By 1900 outside capitalists owned 90 percent of the coal in Mingo and Logan counties. The area was poised to grow, but its development, fueled by absentee capitalists, would not be a natural process. Coal country would become a classic example of the ill effects of sudden growth without natural, evolutionary development.

Problems ensuing from this unnatural situation would haunt the region in time, but for the moment euphoria reigned supreme. In November 1907 the editor of The Raleigh Register, a Beckley newspaper, rhapsodized about the effect of coal on the area:

Towns and cities springing up where before stood dense forests or waving fields of grain; thousands of coke ovens gleaming along the pathway of the iron horse and clouding the noon-day sun with their endless streams of smoke; armies of men collected together from every quarter of the globe to dig his vast treasures from the mines; heavily loaded freight trains plunging through mountain fastnesses fording great rivers and spanning wide canyons to carry to the world its precious supplies of fuel—these are some of the accomplishments of old king coal, who is working out the miracle daily before our eyes.

The Registerwas correct in declaring that “armies of men” had emigrated from “every quarter of the globe.” By 1910 the population of the seven-county region had surged to 166,490, and that same year the West Virginia Department of Mines counted a workforce of 40,362 in the southern coalfields. “American white” made up the largest group, with 15,789 miners, followed by 10,844 African Americans (35 percent of the workforce in the Pocahontas–Flat Top fields), 3,775 Italians, and 3,210 Hungarians. Smaller numbers of miners came from Austria, England, Greece, Poland, and Romania. Nineteen were from Japan.

With all the ethnic diversity, coal country might seem a likely place to search for ethnic architecture. Such is not the case, though there are just enough examples to make the search worthwhile. Instead, just as the log cabin typified the region's housing stock in earlier times, another “form” of housing, the company town, soon became even more closely identified with the region. Estimates vary as to how many miners and families lived in company towns at the height of the coal boom. Some suggest a figure as high as 98 percent by the 1920s, some as low as 78 percent. Even the lower estimate represents a higher percentage than any other coal-producing region in America. As can be imagined, only the most altruistic companies had time or interest to provide architectural touchstones that might make the recent transplants from every quarter of the globe a little less homesick. Over the years, the reputation of company towns has ranged from merely unfortunate to outright criminal. Some were, in fact, well-planned model communities that provided higher standards of living than their new inhabitants had previously enjoyed.

All company-controlled mining towns shared certain characteristics. Location was chief among these, and it was determined by a single factor. As the West Virginia Coal Association, a state group that represented management's interests, rather tersely put it: “Where the coal is, there the town must be built.” The association noted that some coal towns “are situated along rivers where the valleys are wide and the nearby hills suitable for home building and gardening” but admitted that “others are in narrow valleys, cramped between steep mountains and limited to one long road or street.” It failed to mention that some coal company towns had no street at all—only a path or railroad track for miners to trudge along between home and mine. It was understood by all that houses in company towns had to be within walking, or trudging, distance of the mine. While many studies have examined the physical layout and plans of company towns, it is clear that topography, more than any other factor, was responsible for the overall form each took.

Company towns and their smaller siblings, company camps, were not simply convenient but also a necessity. In The Smokeless Coal Fields of West Virginia (W. P. Tams Jr., 1983), Major W. P. Tams, owner and operator of the Raleigh County coal town named for him, succinctly stated the case for their existence:

[T]he operators built towns because they had no alternative. The mining of coal requires miners; miners require houses. Since most mines were opened in virtually unsettled areas, there was no existing housing. Thus new houses had to be built, and the operators were the only ones with the capital and organization to do the job. Since the almost complete absence of all-weather roads made it necessary for the miner to live close to his work, small villages (often called “camps”) were built close to each mine.

The simple fact that the coal would eventually give out meant that the life span of company towns and camps was finite. When the coal was gone, the company would abandon both the mine and the town. Companies could, and did, use this inevitable consequence to justify minimal expenditures in housing their workforces.

Energy demands caused by World War I created a huge increase in coal production. By then, many company towns, especially those initially constructed in the shoddiest manner, were already in disrepair and decay. These conditions were temporarily disregarded, as coal country gave its all to winning the war. On the other hand, it was during this pivotal decade, 1910–1919, that a number of companies, enjoying large profits, provided model company towns for their workers. They were no doubt motivated less by altruism than by profit; management realized that better living and working conditions could help forestall strikes and ensure a steady stream of employees as companies competed for the best workmen.

Coal country helped win the war not only by furnishing fuel. A phenomenal number of its men enlisted in the armed forces, and at war's end towns, cities, and counties throughout the region erected memorials in the form of “liberty buildings.” The magazine American City, which introduced the idea in September 1918, shortly before hostilities ceased, envisioned such buildings not only as memorials but also as “facilities for recreation, culture, fellowship and public service.” In short, they were intended to “help the living while commemorating the dead.” American Citydid not provide architectural direction, other than general suggestions that the structures be “architecturally beautiful, featuring the best building material of the particular locality, the style to be impressive but not over-ornate.” In the decades following the war, handsome liberty buildings, generally fronted with Greek-inspired porticoes, rose in Beckley, Kimball, Princeton, and Welch, among other coal country communities. Kimball's memorial ( MD7) was the first in the nation to specifically honor black troops.

World War I was won, but it was followed by another conflict in coal country. As union-organized strikes sought better living and working conditions for the miners, a series of mine wars broke out. Disputes that had simmered for years boiled over with the May 19, 1920, Matewan Massacre, an event that propelled a small Mingo County town onto the pages of history and earned the county the sobriquet “Bloody Mingo.” Subsequent events precipitated the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, then the largest armed insurrection in the nation's history since the Civil War. Most of the treason charges brought against miners and union officials were ultimately dismissed, but, in a case of winning the battle but losing the war, the United Mine Workers abandoned its strike in the southern coalfields in October 1922. Three years later, in 1925, 176 million tons of coal were extracted from the West Virginia hills. This was the highest tonnage ever obtained, and most of it came from the southern fields.

Also in 1925 the U.S. Coal Commission, appointed by President Warren G. Harding in 1922 to investigate the coal industry, issued its report, somewhat ominously titled What the Coal Commission Found. One of the problems the Coal Commission pondered was the company town. Of the 713 company-controlled communities investigated and graded throughout the nation's bituminous coalfields, more than half were in West Virginia. No town achieved a perfect score of 100, and only sixtysix, or 9 percent, received a passing grade of 75 or better. On the positive side, the commission ascertained that two-thirds of the approximately 71,000 houses in the 713 company towns had electric or gas lights, rentals were generally cheaper than in independent towns, water was often free, and medical costs were reasonable.

On the other hand, although almost 61 percent of the towns had waterworks systems, fewer than 14 percent of the houses had inside running water, only 3 percent had indoor flush toilets, and even fewer had tubs or showers. The commission found that 95 percent of the 71,000 houses it counted were built of wood. While that was not necessarily a negative finding, the commission added that two-thirds “were finished on the outside with weather board, usually nailed directly to the frame with no sheathing other than paper, and sometimes not even that.” More than 25 percent were finished in what the commission regarded as the “cheapest type of construction,” board and batten, and 93 percent of those were in West Virginia's southern fields.

Owners and operators of the coal companies quickly challenged the findings. Even before the commission issued its report, the West Virginia Coal Association began sponsoring full-page damage-control advertisements in the West Virginia Review. In the November 1924 issue, the association noted that “many so-called investigators have come to West Virginia for the sole purpose of finding horrible conditions in our mining towns.” Several months later, in May 1925, the association claimed that miners could live in any kind of house they chose, ranging from a “plain board, unpainted ‘bachelor’s shanty' to a neat stained shingle, or an attractively clapboarded and painted bungalow; and in certain towns brick bungalows are available.” This last assertion may have been true, but barely so: the commission found that “brick bungalows” accounted for only 5 percent of company-owned houses throughout the nation.

Many board-and-batten houses that the commission condemned were known as Jenny Lind houses, a regional term whose exact meaning has been somewhat obscured over the years. Major Tams defined a Jenny Lind house as one “consisting of boards and battens outside, and ceiling boards inside,” as opposed to houses that were “weather-boarded outside and plastered inside.” Tams also recalled that in the early days, a three-room Jenny Lind house could be built for $50. Battened boards were often not merely the sheathing but the entire vertical structure. The most basic shanties were built of single-width boards without battens and then covered with tar paper. Wind could, and did, whistle through these flimsy fabrications and, when conditions were particularly blustery, produced sounds resembling the soprano notes sung by Miss Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale.”

More often than is generally realized, housing in company towns in southern West Virginia was prefabricated. The same railcars that carried coal from the mines could easily return with packages of prefabricated materials. At Itmann in Wyoming County, the Pocahontas Fuel Company obtained 120 houses from Huntington's Ritter Lumber Company in 1918. When mining operations were expanded the next year, Ritter supplied an additional 100 houses. For Ritter's own town of Red Jacket, the company built 500 prefabricated houses. Huntington's well-known Minter Homes Corporation, the state's preeminent manufacturer of prefabricated houses, supplied buildings for at least two Raleigh County coal towns, Glen White and Stotesbury.

On occasion, operators ordered prefabricated houses and other buildings from out of state. In 1920 the Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, bragged that it had provided more than 200 corporate customers, several in West Virginia, with “mail order” houses. The huge Consolidation Coal Company is known to have bought Aladdin buildings for its McDowell County model town of Coalwood ( MD20).

Other companies constructed their own towns. In The Smokeless Coal Fields of West Virginia, Major Tams described building his town with his own crews:

Starting construction of the town in May 1909, we completed 125 houses within one year. The frame lumber for the houses and the lumber for the tipple was sawed from the timber growing on the town site. These houses consisted of three and four rooms, plastered inside and weatherboarded outside, and painted. The town was divided into three sections. The houses above the tipple were occupied by the Negroes, the section below the tipple by white Americans, and still further down a section for the foreign miners. All the houses were exactly alike, with no facilities in any one section that were not available in the other sections.

Although the United States Coal and Coke Company occasionally hired outside contractors to build its facilities, the firm's general practice was to do the work entirely in house. On July 17, 1913, Manufacturers Recordreported: “Gary—U.S. Coke and Coal … to spend $100,000 on 5 four room, 19 three room, 14 double four room, 3 double five room, 3 single six room, and 2 single three room dwellings, two boarding houses, addition to clubhouse & assembly hall. Furnaces in six buildings. Plans and construction by company.” Fortunately, those plans still exist as part of a remarkable collection of architectural drawings now at the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield. These include virtually everything that U.S. Coal and Coke ever built, or contracted for, at its extensive Gary operations.

In nearly every company town, the operator's house was set high on a hill overlooking the miners' houses. Even though a typical operator's house was far grander than the miners' houses, it was seldom an architectural pacesetter. Usually two stories tall, such houses were characterized by facades of several planes, lots of gables, and complex rooflines. If the houses pledged allegiance to any particular style, it was to Queen Anne, probably because most of them were built early in the days of company town development, when that style was in vogue.

Each company town also had a company store, an institution that has assumed almost mythic proportions in American annals of greed and exploitation. In its 1925 report, the U.S. Coal Commission found that prices in company stores were “uniformly higher than in independent stores in the same districts.” Of course, the West Virginia Coal Association told it differently. Believing that the best defense is a good offense, the association declared that one reason company store prices mightbe higher was because “people who live in mining towns … simply demand high class articles and the best grades.” The association chose not to discuss the subject of scrip, in which so many miners were paid. Whether of paper, as the term implies, or metal tokens, as eventually became more common, scrip was generally redeemable only in a company store, effectively forcing miners and their families to shop there regardless of the prices. More than one miner lamented with good reason that he owed “his soul to the company store.”

Architecturally, company stores were the most important and permanent buildings in company towns. In addition to the store, they often housed the company's offices, post office, doctor's office, and infirmary. They were close to the center of town and adjacent to the railroad tracks, where large wholesale shipments of stock could be transferred to a loading platform. Bluefield architect Alex B. Mahood designed a number of them in the 1920s and 1930s, providing the southern coalfields with handsome structures that were among the most modern buildings in the area. Hassel T. Hicks designed one of the last company stores in the region, the streamlined Moderne building erected in 1948 at Algoma in McDowell County ( MD6). Nearly all of the region's company stores are vacant and in disrepair today. Company stores, as a building type and institution, have yet to engender any positive nostalgia.

Churches were an important part of life in company towns, but from an architectural point of view, all that can be said about most of them is that they look like churches. Except for a requisite steeple or cupola, few have any distinctive features. The exceptions are the Orthodox churches in Elkhorn ( MD5) and Gary ( MD19). The Gary church is one of several that U.S. Coal and Coke engineers planned for various denominations at its operations.

Company store and office surrounded by houses in the coal company town of Itmann (Wyoming County), c. 1920s

In addition to churches, company towns had schools. In their educational endeavors, coal companies generally received high grades from most observers, and on occasion even assisted counties in school building efforts. In 1885 McDowell County had nine log schools, each valued at less than $100, and the annual school “year” lasted three months. In 1904, thanks mostly to coal companies, McDowell had seventy-eight schools (none of them log), worth from $300 to $600 each, and the school year had increased to eight months. During the years when West Virginia's educational system was segregated, the coal companies provided schools for both races, generally on an equal footing. Few schools remain from the period, as counties have long since consolidated their educational facilities, but countless historic photographs show proud graduating classes in front of standard-issue, onestory frame buildings lined with rows of identical classroom windows. The influence that company-sponsored education had in coal country is well illustrated by the fact that “Devil” Anse Hatfield, head of the Hatfield clan, became a Mingo County school trustee once he stopped feuding.

The mines and their subsidiary structures were obviously important elements in the region's landscape. Coal seams in southern West Virginia generally outcrop along hillsides, allowing mines that can be entered with horizontal, or lateral, tunnels. Such mines are called drift mines. A 1918 federal classification of bituminous coal mines showed that drift mines far outnumbered other types in the southern fields. Slope mines, in which tunnels incline downward at an angle, were also found, but shaft mines, requiring a vertical tunnel, were unusual. As drift mines spread deeper into the hillside, a room-and-pillar plan evolved. Miners blasted the face, or wall, of coal in a room, taking care to leave pillars to support the ceiling. After the blast, miners broke the coal into smaller pieces and loaded them into small mine cars, which carried the coal to the tipple. Every car was tagged and weighed, since wages were determined on the tonnage mined. As the song mournfully told it, “fifteen tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt.”

Every mine had a tipple, often appearing more like a giant Rube Goldberg construction than the efficient coal separating and loading machine it actually was. A typical tipple was a tall, skeletal structure covered with wood frame or metal that rose several stories over a railroad track. Mining cars, running on steel tracks, “tipped” their loads into some, while conveyor belts carried the coal to the top in others. Within the tipple, pickers removed impure stones, and conveyor belts, aided by gravity, took the coal to be crushed and washed, then weighed and sized through screens. The finished product was then dropped into railroad cars below. The tipple at Coalwood, equipped to separate five different sizes of coal over a battery of oscillating screens, was one of the most impressive in the region.

Coke ovens were also part and parcel of mining operations in the early days, before the transformation of coal into fixed carbon, or coke, was generally undertaken elsewhere. In the late nineteenth century, for example, the owners of the Nicholas grant leased their holdings to mining companies, generally in 1,000-acre tracts, and required the lessees “to build one bee-hive coke oven for each ten acres of lease.” By the end of World War I almost 90 percent of America's iron and steel production was fueled by coke, and most of it was produced from coal. The ovens were gradually abandoned when it proved more efficient to produce coke at the plants where it was used than at the mines.

Although mine operators represented the highest social echelon of those living within sight of the mines, larger-scale investors to whom operators reported usually chose to live far outside coal country and West Virginia. The major exception was the Mercer county town of Bramwell, where a number of nabobs from the Pocahontas–Flat Top fields decided to put down roots. Bramwell's buildings, still intact for the most part, matched the elevated status of its company presidents, bankers, lawyers, and board chairmen. Later, a second generation of managers selected nearby Bluefield as their residence of choice, helping spur its development as the metropolis of the southern fields. In Bluefield's southern suburbs, architect Alex Mahood designed period revival houses whose scale and architectural subtleties rival similar houses in cities twice the size.

Although 1925 was West Virginia's peak year of coal production, by then there were already ominous signs of problems ahead. Strikes and the mine wars had taken their toll, but new technology that led to cheaper production of other energy sources, notably oil and gas, would ultimately prove more devastating. Even in the coal industry itself, mining by machinery rather than by men was beginning to have its effects. As production and prices plummeted, and as fewer workers were needed, many left the region, often for northern industrial centers. Those who left with little regret were the most recent arrivals, who had no ties to Appalachia. By 1930 native-born whites accounted for 87 percent of West Virginia's population, a figure then exceeded only by five other states and one that harked back to the area's population profile before coal transformed the region.

By the time the effects of the Great Depression were being felt across the nation, coal country was already experiencing its own depression. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 at last sanctioned union activity in the mines, and WPAsponsored projects brought temporary relief and employment to the area. The WPA's West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State (1941), in describing a particular section of McDowell County, was, in essence, describing most of the region as “a territory given over to small coal camps and slightly larger coal towns, almost indistinguishable except for different colors of paint on the houses and varying degrees of disintegration and decay.… Only a quarter-century has elapsed since this section was wilderness, yet ghost towns are to be found here, abandoned when coal seams were depleted.”

The outbreak of World War II put coal country back on its feet, but only temporarily. When the war ended, the boom was definitely over, and soon other factors such as strip mining would nearly devastate the region and its people. First utilized in the northern coalfields of Harrison County in 1916, strip mining became a major factor in the southern fields with the sudden surge of demand during World War II. Coal companies were able to buy or lease equipment, such as steam shovels, that otherwise were idled during the government-mandated hiatus on new construction in the war years. In 1938 only two West Virginia coal companies practiced strip mining; in 1942 fourteen did. Despite its negative impact on miners and their families, strip mining had enormous economic advantages over traditional mining practices for coal companies: better production rates, fewer laborers, less time for training, and far fewer possibilities for accidents.

Another twentieth-century development, the widespread availability of the automobile, would help spell the end of coal country's company towns. In April 1949 the Bituminous Coal Institute ran a full-page advertisement in Manufacturers Recordtitled “Mining Town—Modern Style.” The ad's photograph showed a mine with a number of cars parked in a lot next to the entrance. The message was simple: with new and improved roads, miners could now drive to work and no longer had to live next to the coal mine. In fact, the ad stated, about two-thirds of the nation's bituminous coal miners now “rent from private landlords or own their own homes.” In coal country, miners left company towns in droves for the brighter lights of such county seats as Welch, Logan, and Williamson. The era of company towns had largely run its course by the end of World War II. In September 1946 the West Virginia Reviewannounced: “The Island Creek Coal Company is offering its employees first options to buy 204 houses and lots in Whitman.” Similar announcements soon followed in other issues of the Review.

The end of World War II, the introduction of strip mining, the advent of automobile transportation, and the demise of the company town would all leave an indelible imprint on coal country, but not immediately, at least not judging from the 1950 census. In 1950 the seven counties that make up coal country had a population of 465,686, nearly a quarter of the state's total of 2 million people. Both figures would prove to be high-water marks and are yet to be exceeded.

Since the 1950s coal country has changed as dramatically as any region in the country. Former governor Philip Conley, in his History of the West Virginia Coal Industry (1960), wrote that “today at least ninety percent of the coal produced underground is cut by machines and eighty-five percent is loaded mechanically.” “Continuous miners,” huge “behemoth-like machines,” extract coal at far faster rates than humans ever did and at far less potential cost to life and limb. Mining, processing, and shipping of coal is still West Virginia's largest single industry, but strip mining (now more euphemistically called surface mining) is the chief means of extraction. “Mountaintop removal,” an even more recent addition to the lexicon of coal production, speaks all too clearly of continued increases in the scale of operations.

The growth of such processes has been paralleled by an almost continual decline in population. As of 1999, West Virginia ranked second, behind Wyoming, among the nation's leading coal producing states, but coal accounted for only 3 percent of the state's jobs. Coal camps and towns with such enchanting names as Affinity, Amigo, and Mistletoe and less felicitously named places such as Lego, Pickshin, and Slab Fork have virtually ceased to exist, or are at best ghost towns. If one word could describe what happened in coal country during the half century between 1950 and 2000, it would be “exodus.” Fifty years after the 1950 census counted a population of 465,686 in the seven coal country counties, the 2000 census counted 286,735.

With the phenomenal changes that recent years have brought in the coal industry, vestiges of earlier mining methods have all but vanished. Fortunately, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine ( RA8) provides a splendid hands-on experience of mining as it used to be. The Beckley mine, a typical drift mine first opened in 1890, operated until 1953 and became an exhibit in 1962.

In recent years, the potential of coal country as a tourist destination has received a great deal of study. The Coal Mining Heritage Act (Public Law 100–699), passed in November 1988, charged the National Park Service with studying the feasibility of preserving resources in eleven counties in southern West Virginia. (In addition to the seven counties considered here as coal country, the NPS study included Cabell, Fayette, Summers, and Wayne counties). These counties have since been designated the National Coal Heritage Area, one of eighteen National Heritage Areas in the country.

In 1988–1989 the U.S. Department of Commerce conducted its own survey of the area's tourism potential and published the results in The Coal Road. Undertaken by Huntington's Marshall University, the study recommended a two-pronged approach. Plan A envisioned a “coal road,” where tourists could visit mining sites and company towns by driving along a prescribed route from any of the region's urban centers. Plan B proposed an in-depth restoration of a particular town and mining site as a living museum. Seven former company towns were considered, and the study concluded that the Wyoming County community of Itmann ( WY5, WY6) best met the requirements of accessibility, remaining resources, and potential for restoration.

Tourism may well be an eventual avenue of escape from the chronic boom-andbust economy that coal has traditionally fostered, but few of the suggestions made by the federally sponsored studies have been enacted as of this writing. The Coal Heritage Trail has been marked as part of the Federal Scenic Byways program. Trailheads are at Beckley and Bluefield, and a brochure advertising the route states that it “winds past company stores, miners' houses, massive railroads, coal tipples, and company towns. Intrepid visitors can experience coal society and gain remarkable insight into American history.” Unfortunately, the word “intrepid” is all too well chosen.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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