History of West Virginia Mineral Industries - Coal
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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: July 16, 2004
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