For many years, southern West Virginia produced more bituminous coal than any other region in the country.The coal boom began simply, as operators opened small mines with little money. The coming of the railroads changed everything, as hundreds of independent operations sprung up in Fayette and Raleigh counties in the 1870s. Within months of the C&O’s arrival in 1873, Joseph Beury opened the first large-scale mine in southern West Virginia at Quinnimont in Fayette County; after the N&W’s completion, Beury also became a pioneer in the Flat Top-Pocahontas Coalfield. By the end of the 1870s, the New River Coalfield produced more than 365,000 tons of coal annually.
Investors in the N&W realized the C&O’s error in not acquiring valuable coal lands near its tracks. The N&W purchased vast acreage in the smokeless coalfields of Mercer and McDowell counties. In 1885, the railroad’s executives formed the Flat-Top Coal Land Association Company (later reorganized as the Pocahontas Land Corporation), which leased tracts to coal operators. This system of owning the rails, the mines and the land gave the Pennsylvania-based N&W (and, later, other railroads) vast power. Due to the economic dominance of the railroads, in 1895, the West Virginia Legislature prohibited rail companies from engaging in the coal industry. In response, the railroads simply sold the property to separate land companies, which frequently had the same stockholders as the railroads.
Railroads were the catalysts for the burgeoning coal industry. Before the railroads arrived, however, investors had anticipated the growth. Hundreds of coal companies were formed in the years after West Virginia became a state. Many of the investors were from out of state, creating a situation where non-West Virginians controlled the bulk of the state’s economy.
The numbers tell the tale. In 1867, West Virginia produced 490,000 tons of coal; 20 years later, that number had grown to 4.9 million tons. By 1917, the state was producing nearly 90 million tons annually. Meanwhile the number of miners in the state increased from 3,701 to nearly 90,000 between 1880 and 1917.
By the early 1900s, coal was essential to virtually every aspect of life in the United States. Bituminous coal heated homes, powered railroad engines and fueled Navy battleships. For many years, southern West Virginia produced more bituminous coal than any other region in the country.
Perhaps no other industry depended on West Virginia coal more than the Northeast steel factories. Steel production required a clean-burning coal byproduct known as coke. In the early 1900s, approximately 10 to 15 percent of all West Virginia bituminous coal was loaded into hot-burning beehive-shaped ovens and distilled into coke. About one-half of this coke production occurred in McDowell County.
The U.S. Steel Corporation realized it could boost profits by owning its own coal and coke operations. U.S. Steel formed a subsidiary, U.S. Coal & Coke, which purchased land and built a fully integrated mining operation in McDowell County. The crown jewel of U.S. Steel’s coal empire was the town of Gary.
U.S. Steel was just one example of the monopolies that began controlling the coal industry in the early 1900s. Even as the industry expanded, the number of companies decreased. Large corporations bought out many small mines and forced others out of business.
Several companies dominated vast sections of the southern coalfields: Samuel Dixon’s New River Company controlled more than 70,000 acres in Fayette and Raleigh counties; U.S. Coal & Coke eventually possessed more than 300,000 acres in the Flat Top-Pocahontas field; and Justus Collins’s Winding Gulf Collieries owned much of the region served by the Virginian Railway.
Since its earliest days, the coal industry has struggled to make mining safer. Between 1890 and 1912, West Virginia mines were the deadliest in the United States. Most miners were killed by roof falls, which often occurred in smaller mines. Explosions received much more attention due to the dramatic impact of the blast and the fact that many miners often died instantly. Explosions usually occurred when a spark, such as the open flame on a miner’s cap, would ignite methane gas or coal dust. The state’s 13 deadliest mine disasters were caused by explosions, including the nation’s worst mining disaster—a death toll of at least 361 at Monongah in 1907.
Southern West Virginia’s worst disaster—second only to Monongah—occurred in 1914, when an explosion killed 183 men at the Eccles No. 5 and No. 6 mines in Raleigh County. Explosions five years apart (1900 and 1905) also devastated the community of Red Ash in Fayette County’s New River Gorge. The state’s third-worst disaster killed 119 miners at Layland in Fayette County in 1915; amazingly, 47 other miners emerged alive after being trapped under ground for five days. Two explosions within 15 days occurred in a mine at Switchback in McDowell County, killing a total of 117 miners. The New River Company even changed the names of two Fayette County towns due to the stigma of disasters: Stuart became Lochgelly and Parral became Summerlee.
In the 1920s and 1930s, West Virginia began appropriating more funding for safety inspectors. Coal companies responded by introducing new safety equipment, including battery-powered lamps, as opposed to open-flame lights worn on caps; roof bolting, instead of wooden support timbers; and rock dusting to prevent coal dust from triggering explosions. In addition, new regulations required improved mine ventilation.
By the mid-1900s, the number of accidents and explosions had dropped significantly; however, disasters in southern West Virginia continued: Glen Rogers in Wyoming County (1922, 1923, 1931 and 1957); Macbeth in Logan County (1936 and 1937); Bartley in McDowell County (1940); Nellis in Boone County (1943); Havaco in McDowell County (1946); Kermit in McDowell County (1951); Wevaco in Kanawha County (1951); Amonate in McDowell County (1957); Bishop in McDowell County (1957 and 1958); and Holden in Logan County (1960).
One of the worst coal disasters in the state’s history occurred above ground and away from the mines. In 1972, a coal refuse dam in Logan County’s Buffalo Creek hollow failed during a rain deluge. A torrent swept through the valley and killed 125 residents. The Pittston Coal Company, which had been cited previously for safety violations regarding the dam, blamed the event on “an act of God.”