Coal has left its mark on West Virginia. Its legacy can be seen in the long-abandoned coal camps and the people who still live there.
On Sunday following our Thanksgiving celebration in my hometown of Summersville, West Virginia, I decided to take the scenic route and travel through the southern West Virginia coalfields on my way back to Lake Norman, North Carolina, my temporary home. I veered off 77 south at exit 42 leading to Sophia, Mullens, Pineville and other points south. The road was fine. I drove through Pineville, in Wyoming County, and on to Welch.
My GPS took me into town through a section of pretty, well-maintained brick homes perched on the steep hillsides on each side of the highway. I drove by the Sterling Drive-In Restaurant, where you can pull your car in under a red shelter and use a phone to order. A waitress will bring your hamburger, French fries and Coke out to the car and take your money.
Welch, located at the confluence of the Tug and Elkhorn rivers, is the county seat of McDowell and was incorporated in 1893. the town is a trove of coal history.
One unforgettable story: Lawman Sid Hatfield and Deputy Ed Chambers were gunned down on the Welch Courthouse steps in August 1921. Hatfield and Chambers, noted figures in West Virginia mine union troubles, were facing charges connected with shooting up the town of Mohawk in Mingo County.
Baldwin-Felts detectives C. E. Lively, George Pence and William Salters were charged with killing Hatfield and Chambers. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was hired by coal operators to police miners. The killing was about a year following the bloody confrontation between Matewan townspeople, miners and Baldwin-Felts agents. The United Mine Workers of America was attempting to organize and miners who supported the union’s efforts were fired from their jobs, evicted from company houses and blacklisted.
One story I’ve heard is that women and children were physically removed from the company-owned houses and left standing outside in the snow and rain. Their furniture was busted up. Hatfield, in his twenties, emerged as a hero for defending the miners. More than 200 people attended the graveside services of the two lawmen. Hatfield and Chambers’ deaths led to many disturbances in the coalfields, including the march of 10,000 West Virginia miners to Blair Mountain in Logan County.
During the first half of the 20th century, the streets of Welch were compared to the streets of New York City. On Saturday nights the narrow streets were bursting with a population of people crammed between two narrow West Virginia mountains. The coal industry was booming and railroads were opening up. Welch was home to three hospitals and was a hub of retail business. Welch was a prosperous city. Population of the city peaked in 1950, then began declining when the demand for coal slowed and the mechanization of mining replaced miners with machines. McDowell County still held the number one spot in coal production in the US in 1960. Welch dubbed itself “The Heart of the Nation’s Coal Bin.”
And like so many ironies in the coalfields, while McDowell County ranked number one in coal production in the U.S. in 1960, on May 29, 1961, Chloe and Alderson Muncy of Paynesville, McDowell County, received $95 in federal food stamps, the first in the nation to benefit from the early war on poverty.
John Kennedy in Welch
When J.F.K. came to Welch in 1960 on the Presidential campaign trail, he saw a city struggling to survive. He made a speech in Ohio telling the people there what he had seen in West Virginia. Kennedy could not forget the contrast in the mining town – vast riches owned by coal companies and vast poverty suffered by miners and their families. On September 27, 1960, in a speech in Canton, he told the people who had gathered to watch and listen:
“McDowell County mines more coal than it ever has in its history, probably more coal than any county in the United States and yet there are more people getting surplus food packages in McDowell County than any county in the United States. The reason is that machines are doing the jobs of men, and we have not been able to find jobs for those men.”
Welch continued to decline in population and jobs during the ‘60s and ‘70s, even though McDowell County remained a major coal-producing county fueling the steel and electric power generation industries. When US Steel closed its mines in Gary, a few miles from Welch, in 1986, more than 1,200 jobs were lost on the spot. There was nothing for the miners and their families to do but abandon their homes, load up their personal belongings and look for work out of the region.
On a Sunday, I drove the streets leading through the outskirts of town which are dangerously narrow and built on high ridges. Houses were built on switchback curves above the city. Downtown Welch is a heart breaker. The brick buildings that were once homes to thriving businesses are in shambles today, with broken windows and wooden structures falling down. The Tug Fork River flows through the business district of Welch on one side, with a steep hillside on the other. The buildings were built to fit the landscape. Some are narrow on one end and expand as space allows.
Keystone: A town hollowed out
The next mining town on my route was Keystone. I thought coal may trickle down Main Street, the coal tipple is so close. I didn’t see that as a problem, since Keystone is the heart of mining country. The appearance of this once prosperous town was another matter.
Buildings that once housed thriving businesses are now run down and unoccupied. Doors hang open on loose hinges. No one is inside and gravel and dirt lay in piles on Main Street. There was nothing going on except for what was happening at the coal tipple on a hillside a stone’s throw away. The people I saw while in Keystone were sundering about the streets. The Council of Southern Mountains, a non-profit community service agency, is active in the community. One of its functions is providing non-emergency medical transportation by van to people in Keystone.
The Keystone Coal & Coke Company founded keystone in 1892 and until 1986 was home of the oldest coal mine in the Pocahontas Coalfield. The mine produced coal for 94 years. Koppers Coal Company acquired Keystone No. 1 mine and, in 1939, three years after the purchase, miners produced 1,189,000 tons of coal. Approximately two million tons of coal was mined at Pocahontas No. 3 mine at Keystone in 1967. Strip mining began at the same time at Pocahontas No. 12 at Keystone. There were 453 residents of Keystone in 2000.
Only 4.5 miles from Keystone is Kimball, incorporated in 1911 and named for Frederick J. Kimball, second President of the Norfolk and Western Railway. The nation’s first war memorial dedicated to the actions of African-American veterans of World War is located at Kimball. More than 1,500 African-Americans from McDowell County saw combat in World War I. The memorial building was dedicated in 1928. The memorial building has now deteriorated badly; a fire destroyed the inside in 1991. A large building painted a bright white stood out with large lettering which identified the one clean looking building in this community. The sign said “Food Pantry. “
‘Home of the Millionaires’
My side trip to Bramwell was an accident. I didn’t have it on my itinerary but when I saw the sign, “This way to Bramwell,” I couldn’t pass it up. My visit to Bramwell, a small Victorian town, revealed what is possible with left over coal camps. Certainly it takes hard work from many people and lots of grants to refurbish old and run down coal camp houses. But it can happen. It happened in Bramwell.
Bramwell’s founding history is different from most coal camp communities. By the end of the 1800s more millionaires lived in Bramwell than any place of its size in America – as many as 19 millionaires were found in the town with a population of 4,000. The discovery of the Pocahontas coal seam along the West Virginia/Virginia state lines attracted speculators, developers, entrepreneurs and miners. Miners were recruited from immigrants at Ellis Island with a promise of good jobs, homes – The American Dream.
Bramwell, “Home of the Millionaires,” served as the business and residential community for Pocahontas coalfield owners and coal mine operators. The town owned its water, electric and phone company. Bramwell published a weekly newspaper.
On November 4, 1881, the first load of coal was shipped from John Coopers mine in Bramwell. The valuable Pocahontas coal was loaded into coal cars owned by the N&W railroad. Pocahontas Coal & Coke became the coalfield’s largest landholder.
The Great Depression ended Bramwell’s “Home of the Millionaires” status.
Elkhorn and Maybeury are the next two coal mining communities I remember. I stopped by the Elkhorn Inn, owned and operated by two New Yorkers who came on the scene as Disaster Assistance Employees for FEMA after the 2002 flood. The Inn has close ties to the railroad. Dan and Elisse Jo Goldstein-Clark bought the flooded building (built in 1922 as the Empire Coal & Coke Co. Miner’s Clubhouse) and the theatre after that, at the end of 2002. Dan spent the winter restoring it. The Inn opened as the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre in May 2003.
Squire and Cucumber are two coal mining communities hard to forget with their little houses in disrepair and a narrow road winding up and around the mountain to War. On January 7, 2007, a tunnel collapse at Brooks Run Coal Company killed two coal miners from the town. I saw a man standing by a Jeep near the post office in Squire and further on up the road I passed a truck hauling two muddy ATVs used for four wheeling on the popular Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
A Trip to Hell
I wound around the switchback curves topping the mountain. I could see the city of War below. I began the descent. I stopped by Josephine Zando’s home but did not get an answer when I knocked. She lives in the second house her Italian immigrant father built. Julia Zando (deceased), Josephine’s mother, told how her husband worked the mines during the day and when the mountain was blasted he carried or hauled rocks to the side. Later, he used the rocks to build two houses and stone fences. When the first house became too small because of a growing family, he built the second house next door and moved his family there.
In 2004 Julia Zando told me of her trip from Italy in 1913. She was 9 years old. Her sister and brother came as well. Julia’s parents came to America earlier and left the children behind with their grandmother. Julia was delayed on Ellis Island for ten days and during her stay, one of the most vivid memories she recalled was of the wealthy people who came to the island and tossed coins to the poor immigrants.
They were put on a train to Washington D.C. where their father met them. Julia wore a locket around her neck with a picture of her father to help her identify her dad. Julia said the ride on the train from Washington D.C. to War was a ride to “hell.” Julia had never seen snow, which was on the ground, and flames were shooting up from the coke ovens. She tells about her wonderful life in War — growing up, getting married, raising a family in War.
The population of War reached 3,000, its peak, in the late 1950’s. The town had three theatres, clothing stores, shoe stores, two variety stores, a dry cleaner, furniture stores, a state liquor store, beauty and barbershops and several restaurants.
The city began its decline in population in the 1960’s as mines closed because of less demand for the bituminous coal of southern West Virginia. Many of the stores closed and the Miners Hotel shuttered.
In the late 1990’s Dr. Tom Hatcher, a native of War, West Virginia, retired from his job in education and returned home to began serving his community. He was elected mayor of War in 1997 and has served in that position for 12 years and reelected for another four year term.
Tom Hatcher has thrown his life into revitalizing War. Broadband, hi-speed Internet service has been a staple in the remote coal mining community since 2004. A public library occupies a prominent space in town. This has happened since Hatcher’s return. In 2004 on my first trip to War when I saw bits of paper hanging on tree branches and twigs in Warrior Creek I thought it was the remains of a flood. Hatcher told me otherwise. He told me that land owners owned only six inches down and coal companies owned below that so home owners ran a pipe straight down out of their homes to Warrior Creek to drain their sewage.
When I spoke to Dr. Hatcher by phone on Monday he told me that he is working now to help outlying communities gain safe drinking water and sewage plants.
Big Creek People In Action
When I left War I drove up the mountain towards Caretta. This mining town was owned first by The Virginia Pocahontas Coal Co. then, later by the Carter Coal Co. The final operators were Consolidation Coal Co. Its No. 254 mine was a slope into the Sewell seam, and No. 261 mine was a shaft down to the War Creek seam.
I drove by the school that has been converted into the home of the Big Creek People in Action. This organization founded in 1990 to improve the area and has partnered with universities, churches and volunteers who come to the community.
One lone man was stringing Christmas lights on a wire fence that separated his dilapidated house from his neighbor’s dilapidated house. I waved to the Christmas man and wished him a Merry Christmas as I drove towards the mountain separating Caretta from Coalwood.
A short distance out of Caretta I passed by a single lane muddy side road with the sign Bartley Mine.
The road appeared insignificant considering the January 10, 1940, mine disaster at the Pond Creek No. 1 Mine at Bartley, killing 92 miners. Pocahontas Coal Corporation owned the mine. The explosion occurred at exactly 2:30 in the afternoon. In the blink of an eye, a cloud of black dust and bits of paper shot out of the entrance of the mine making widows of 51 women and orphans of 169 children.
Top mine officials began rescue efforts immediately. At 3:00 rescue workers entered the mine and traveled in fresh air to the explosion site and extinguished some small fires. Seven hours after the first explosion, a second explosion occurred.
Relatives gathered around Bartley mine anxiously waiting for word of their loved ones. The cold rain turned to snow as dawn broke. Bonfires were built. Barrels were made into makeshift stoves. One person asked: “How many tears can the people of Bartley shed?”
The Rocket Boys
My trip would not be complete without going to Coalwood, hometown of “Rocket Boys” author Homer Hickam.
Coalwood has a large sign announcing its importance – hometown of the Rocket Boys and Homer Hickam. A large general store jaunts out at the junction. The store has everything from gasoline to Moon pies. I believe that is the only business for the town of Coalwood.
Coalwood has a good appearance with houses updated and neat yards. A parade is held there every year and Homer returns for that. Last summer the actress who played the Rocket Boy’s mother came to Coalwood.
Coalwood was recognized nationally by 1930 as a “model town.” The town signified a place where the quality of life was of abundance because management invested in the community. Productivity increased and laborers were content.
A reporter for the Washington Post wrote in December, 1936, that Coalwood “looks more like an alpine village than the begrimed coal towns of most of America.”
Jobs attracted a diverse population to the remote coal community of Coalwood. At its peak Coalwood’s population was more than 2,000, with ethnic origins recorded on coal company records as “Bohemian, Croatian, Syrian, Slavish and American.”
I backtracked from Coalwood to the junction at Caretta and made a right turn leading to Bradshaw. I didn’t have time to visit but it has been rumored for years that moonshine is made on Bradshaw Mountain.
After Bradshaw I got serious about getting back to North Carolina. I drove along the Dismal River until I came to a small town called Whitewood. I didn’t know it at the time but I had crossed over into Virginia. I went over Jewel Ridge and came to a high point called Chicken Ridge. The houses were neat and pretty. I know Buchanan County, Virginia, is coal country but I felt away from coal mining towns in Chicken Ridge.
From there it was down beautiful Burk’s Garden to Bland and finally nose-to-nose traffic on to North Carolina and Lake Norman.
What is West Virginia’s coal legacy?
Bramwell, West Virginia, is beautiful. Many of the houses have been renovated; the town is clean and the restored homes and businesses are a tourist attraction.
Beyond that – there are so many coal camp communities that will break your heart. I held back tears when I saw two little boys playing in knee-deep mud in front of an old trailer. Many of these struggles, hardships and setbacks are not the people’s fault. They are the same as you and me. But conditions directly related to the coal industry have destroyed their chance for a better life — unless they leave the area. That is hard for people with such deep roots.
The importance of coal cannot be downplayed. It has been instrumental in creating this country. The hard-working coalminer labored to make this possible.
Southern West Virginia mines closed in record numbers in the 1950s with tens of thousands of miners losing their jobs to machines. Although machines generally made mines safer, they also produced more coal dust than hand-loading tools. Many miners began developing black lung, a deadly disease. Thousands of unemployed miners began leaving these towns in search of work. Houses were abandoned and once-bustling communities became ghost towns.
During the 1980s coal mining employment in the state of West Virginia decreased by more that 53%. McDowell County was more severely distressed by these losses than any other county in the state and by 1990 50.3% of all children in McDowell County were living below poverty level.
Coal has not left McDowell County or the state of West Virginia. All it takes is a short drive to see that coal and its legacy are still center stage.