A History of Coal in West Virginia
by Dr. Stuart McGehee
Coal has a rich heritage in West Virginia and has contributed significantly to the progress and well-being of West Virginians since it was first discovered in what is now Boone County in 1742 by Peter Salley, more than a century before West Virginia became a state. The coal industry has played a major leadership role in the state’s economic, political and social history. The industry has also been a center of controversy and the brunt of unfounded criticism, giving rise to battles in the arenas of labor, environment and safety.
Over the years, West Virginia has furnished our nation and the world with the finest bituminous coal found anywhere. And today, West Virginia’s coal miners apply efficient and effective mineral extraction technology that makes them the envy of their counterparts around the globe. West Virginia exports more coal than any other American state, has more longwall mining systems than any other state, leads the nation in underground coal production and sets the pace for the rest of the industry in reclamation and environmental protection. At the same time, the West Virginia coal industry exhibits a sense of responsibility - social, health, safety and environmental - that is unmatched anywhere in the world.
It was coal that transformed West Virginia from a frontier state to an industrial state. Coal in 62 recoverable seams can be found in 43 of the state’s 55 counties. Knowledge of the coal reserves in western Virginia predated the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson reported in his Notes on the State of Virginia that coal underlay most of the trans- Allegheny Ohio Valley. Jefferson’s neighbor, John Peter Salley, traced huge deposits of bituminous coal along the Coal and Kanawha Rivers in the mid-eighteenth century, but there was little demand for the mineral outside of local use in iron forges and blacksmith shops.
The first widespread use of West Virginia coal began when the saltworks along the Kanawha River expanded dramatically in the decades before the Civil War. Coal was used to heat the brine pumped from salt beds underneath the river. That modest use soon was dwarfed by the demands of a growing nation that looked to coal to heat its homes, power its factories and fuel its locomotives and steamships. When the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania no longer could provide the tonnage needed, American industrialists discovered the massive coalfields of West Virginia. Large-scale investment soon opened the remote valleys along the New, Bluestone, Tug, Monongahela, and Guyandotte rivers.
The Chesapeake & Ohio and Norfolk & Western railroads were built specifically to penetrate the rugged terrain of the coalfields, and investors purchased extensive tracts of land to lease to independent coal operators, Later, the Virginian and the Baltimore & Ohio also became coal-hauling lines as well. In those days, coal mining was highly labor intensive, but only a few rugged mountaineers lived in the remote, isolated hills and hollows where the operations developed. Thus, operators recruited much of their labor from two human migrations underway around 1900. Thousands of African-Americans fleeing discrimination and segregation left the Deep South, and many exchanged the poverty of the cotton fields for the bustling coalfields.
Meanwhile, European immigrants fleeing religious persecution and impending war came to America to find jobs and homes, and many came from coal-bearing regions of Europe to the prosperous mines in West Virginia.
Over the next half century, tonnage and employment increased dramatically. By 1950, some 125,000 West Virginia coal miners lived and worked in more than 500 company towns built to house them and their families. Whole new cities sprang up where silent mountains had rested for centuries.