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History of West Virginia Mineral Industries - Coal

Dividing Line

In 1742, John Peter Salley took an exploratory trip across the Allegheny Mountains and reported an outcropping of coal along a tributary of the Kanawha River. He and his companions named this tributary the Coal River, and his report became the first reference to coal in what is today West Virginia.

Although coal was known to occur throughout much of West Virginia, no extensive mining took place until the mid-1800s.

coal mine entrance

Until that time, there was little incentive to exploit coal as a resource because of the great abundance of wood and a lack of manufacturing industries. Small amounts of coal were used by crossroads blacksmiths or by the settler whose cabin stood near an outcrop. In 1810, the people of Wheeling began to use coal obtained from a nearby mine to heat their dwellings. In 1811, the first steamboat on the Ohio burned coal from the Ohio banks. By 1817, coal began to replace charcoal as a fuel for the numerous Kanawha River salt furnaces. By 1836, the western Virginia coal fields had received so much attention that Virginia's foremost geologist, Professor William B. Rogers, was sent to visit the mines and analyze the coal in eight counties. The total coal production in 1840 for the State was about 300,000 tons, of which 200,000 tons was used in the Kanawha salt furnaces and most of the remainder was consumed by factories and homes in Wheeling. Between 1840 and 1860 many coal companies were organized, and corporations were created under the laws of Virginia for the purpose of encouraging financial investments from foreign countries.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Kanawha Valley mines were closed. Confederate troops set up camps in the valley, and many of the locks and dams along the river were destroyed, thus preventing shipping. Farther north, the Elkins and Fairmont fields remained active, providing coal for the Union via the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The coal was used for railroad engines and for heating in the east.

coal car

Following the Civil War, an awakening of interest in the State's mineral resources brought a new era of development and growth for the coal industry. The industry spread to new localities, and by 1880 there were extensive operations in Mineral, Monongalia, Marion, Fayette, Harrison, Ohio, Putnam, and Mason counties. Of the numerous coal fields which grew up in West Virginia, a few are of particular interest. One of the larger fields is the Fairmont Field, developed around the rich Pittsburgh seam. The first marketed Pittsburgh coal in western Virginia was produced around 1852 from a mine near the present city of Fairmont. Production and marketing success of the field increased, and in 1901 the Fairmont Coal Company was formed, later to become the Consolidation Coal Company.

West Virginia's southern coal fields were not opened until about 1870, though they were known to exist much earlier. One of the major southern coal fields was the Flat Top-Pocahontas Field, located primarily in Mercer and McDowell counties. The Flat Top Field first shipped coal in 1883 and grew quickly from that time. Operations were consolidated into large companies, and Pocahontas Fuel Company, organized in 1907, soon dominated the other companies in McDowell County.

Many of the coal fields, such as the Kanawha, New River, Winding Gulf, Logan, and Greenbrier, owed their success to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. As the railway expanded its lines, coal became more available for marketing and the coal fields prospered. The Logan Field, lying in Logan and Wyoming counties, did not develop until 1904, when the railway finally reached the fields. Soon Logan became the largest coal-producing county in the State, dominated by the Island Creek Coal Company.

coal transport

As the coal industry grew, mining methods and laws changed rapidly. In the earliest days, local farmers and slaves surface mined the coal, using picks and shovels to remove the overburden. The coal was then dug out, shoveled into baskets and sacks, and carried away. Later, sleds, wheelbarrows, and carts came into use in deep mining, hauled by oxen, mules, goats, dogs, and sometimes men. Progress in mechanization was slow, as operators did not want to pay for expensive new equipment, and miners feared being replaced by it. Also, many felt that the old bank mule was more reliable. By 1890, however, electric coal cutting, loading, and hauling machines came into use, and mules were used less frequently. After 1936, mechanization went forward very rapidly, with shuttle cars, long trains, conveyor belts, and all kinds of large mining machinery coming into common use. Large-scale surface mining did not start until 1914, but with the development of huge shovels and draglines, the overburden can now be removed more easily and in recent years this method has become a major method of mining coal in West Virginia. Two peaks occurred in West Virginia's coal production: in 1927 production reached 146,088,121 tons and in 1947 it peaked at 173,653,816 tons.

A coal company provided not only a job but a unique way of life for West Virginia miners and their families. Since most of the mines were located too far from established towns, the coal companies built their own towns and provided inexpensive homes, a company store, a church, and often recreation facilities for the miners and their families. Because of the need for daily supplies from the company store, a simplified method of bookkeeping was established, using coal scrip. The earliest coal scrip (tokens) dates back to about 1883. Miners could get advanced credit on their earned wages (in scrip) to pay for daily necessities at the company store. This use of coal company scrip eliminated the need for the coal company to keep a large amount of U. S. currency on hand. Each mine had its own scrip symbols on the tokens, and these tokens could only be used at the local company store.

in the mine

As early as the 1850s, immigrants from Wales, England, and Scotland were brought over to work in the coal mines. As the coal industry grew, most of the mining was supported by out-of-state capital and thus was run by out-of-state superintendents. These men brought in cheap foreign labor, especially from southern Europe, and often abused them with long working hours, poor medical care, and generally inferior living conditions. The poor conditions in the mines brought about the first West Virginia coal mining legislation in 1883. A state mine inspector was appointed to inspect all mines for adequate safety conditions. In 1890, the state union of United Mine Workers of America was organized in Wheeling to push for better conditions. In 1905, the West Virginia Department of Mines was established to enforce inspections laws. But it was not until the Franklin Roosevelt era that the federal government stepped in to help the miners. The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed to help industry and labor during the Depression, established an 8-hour day and minimum wage provision, and condoned unions. Although the act was later declared unconstitutional, most of the industries had unionized by then. Since the 1930s, the union has been a powerful force in procuring welfare, retirement, and many other benefits for the miners.

(adapted from an article by Jane R. Eggleston, updated September 1996)

Page last revised June 20, 2017.
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