The coal and timber resources of the Coal River region remained relatively unexploited until the railroad construction at the end of the Nineteenth
Century. The Chesapeake & Ohio railroad constructed the first tracks that penetrated Raleigh County in 1901, sparking the rapid growth of timber and coal operations surrounding Beckley.[1
However, the railroads merely allowed a connection to national markets, while the private and industrial ownership of land and resources had already been put in place during the previous decades
. It was the lack of transportation that kept southern Appalachia from feeling the full brunt of absentee landownership
. In her work, Absentee Landowning & Exploration in West Virginia, 1760-1920
, Barbara Rasmussen explains the foundations of economic exploitation in southern Appalachia:
Merchant capital was diligently applied to the purchase, sale and development of gigantic land grants that were secured in the Virginia land office before the American Revolution was won. Because many of these transactions took place in faraway cities, their impact was not immediately felt in the mountains. This land business required political resources to keep property taxes low.[2
Rasmussen continues, "industrial control of western land by the end of the Civil War was so prevalent that it rendered farmers helpless to influence the course of the transformation of the region."[3
] Rasmussen emphasizes how the changes in Coal River brought by the railroads forever changed the lives of Coal River settlers, stating "these farmers entered modern society as victims of a process that transferred their agricultural wealth to industrial coffers."[4
] The absentee land ownership patterns that create an exploitative political and economic climate continue to the present day.
While Coal operations in Coal River Valley still took several years to fully develop, timber exploitation increased quickly after the construction of the railroad. Small mills had existed before the railroad, but access to national markets brought in larger timber companies. Two notable mills opened near Coal River Mountain—the Marsh Lumber Company operated several circular mills in the Marsh Fork region, clearing large portions of the area and the American Column and Lumber Company, which opened a large mill in Colcord on the Clear Fork of the Coal River.[5
] In 1891, the Bowman Lumber Company logged heavily on Hazy Creek
and became one of the most powerful timber companies in the region, owning rights to much of the area surrounding Coal River Mountain.[6
Industrialists viewed the coal of southern West Virginia as one of the great untapped natural treasures of the country. It’s low volatility and relatively clean combustion (earning it the title of “smokeless” coal for its relatively clean burning) was greatly prized for its high heat return and efficiency in powering steam engines.[7
] In 1886, the Rowland Land Company
was formed from Bowman Lumber and other companies and it purchased 60,000 acres of land rich in coal and timber on the Marsh and Clear Forks. Many new settlements were founded during the coal boom, often based around the coal mining operation that owned most of the housing and stores. These company towns were often named after founders and employees of the land companies and coal operators, such as Colcord and Dorothy on the Clear Fork (named after E. C. Colcord, a manager of the Rowland Land Company and his daughter).[8
UMWA and the Coal Wars
The largest mines of the region during this early period were located on the Paint and Cabin Creeks. In 1904 the first railroad was constructed down the length of the Coal River, fueling the massive growth of the mines on Paint and Cabin Creeks.[9
] It was there that the events leading to the greatest labor battle in American history would occur.
In 1890, the United Mine Workers of America formed to organize and protect the interests of miners. Southern West Virginia was designated by the UMWA as district 17. The miners in southern West Virginia responded enthusiastically to unionization, primarily as a reaction to poor working conditions. By the beginning of the 20th Century, miners in West Virginia had a death rate five times higher than their European counterparts.[10
] Dangers from fires and cave-ins inside the mines were equaled by economic dangers from payment in company scrip and poverty. Massive unrest and a series of strikes at the turn-of-the-century culminated in President Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention in 1902. A deal brokered by Roosevelt between coal operators and the UMWA led to the unionization of the Kanawha Valley coalfields, but the Coal River coalfields remained non-union.[11
Underground miners at the beginning of the 20th Century
. Courtesy of West Virginia & Regional History Collection.
In 1907 the UMWA began a new drive to unionize the Coal River fields. The massive amount of non-union coal flowing out of the Paint and Cabin Creek mines were a threat to the union’s growth throughout the region. For four years the operators managed to break strikes through a combination of court injunctions and intimidation by the infamous Baldwin-Felts detectives, guns-for-hire used to break up strikes and evict strikers from campsites.
Strikes in southern West Virginia continued and tension between coal operators, hired detectives and striking miners rose. In 1912, strikes on Cabin and Paint Creek turned violent when private detectives opened fire on union campsites. The coal boom caused by the First World War reduced tensions until the war’s conclusion, which was followed rapidly by renewed unionization drives.
Click the headphones to listen to Joe Aliff, Rock Creek, describe his mother's role in helping the miners arm for the Battle of Blair Mountain, while living in a striking miners' tent colony in Cabin Creek. Tending the Commons interview with Mary Hufford courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Mae Bongalis, born in 1917 on Indian Creek, tending her garden on Montcoal Mountain as a young woman. Photo courtesy of Woody Boggs, Pettry Bottom.
Listen to Mae Bongalis describe her visit, when she was a little girl, to the tent where Mother Jones stayed. Tending the Commons 1994 interview with Mary Hufford courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
In May of 1920, coal operators called in Baldwin-Felts detectives to evict striking miners in Matewan, West Virginia. Sid Hatfield, the sheriff of Matewan and a passionate defender of the miners, met the detectives at the train station. The ensuing gun battle, which claimed sixteen lives, became known as the Battle of Matewan and made Sid Hatfield a hero to miners in southern West Virginia. However, several months after the Battle of Matewan, Sid Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers were assassinated by Baldwin-Felts detectives outside of the McDowell County Courthouse. Sid and Ed were both unarmed.
The death of Sid Hatfield was the spark that ignited the years of tension and struggle for West Virginian miners. Lon Savage in his book, Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-1921, wrote,
Guns bristled everywhere. Men carried revolvers in their belts, Winchesters in their arms, bandoliers across their chests, bayonets attached. Many wore their army uniforms, jackets and breeches and wrap-around leggings, and some buckled on their old World War I steel helmets. As their numbers grew, they showed up increasingly in a uniform for a miner’s army: blue bib overalls with red neckerchiefs.[14
The miners formed and prepared to march to Matewan in August of 1921. Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County, vowed to stop the miners, calling for volunteers. When the miner’s force met Chafin’s defensive line at Blair Mountain a massive battle unfolded. Savage wrote, “fully ten thousand men… were involved as the two armies began exchanging shots along a ten-mile front." After several days of open warfare, President Harding sent in the Army to restore order and the miners, unwilling to fight their former comrades from the trenches of World War I, withdrew. Despite their withdrawal from Blair Mountain, Savage wrote that, “for a few days, at least, they [the miners] had gotten the nation’s attention, had made the people of America a little more aware of the conditions of the life of the Appalachian miner."
For more resources on Blair Mountain, see Blair Mountain Resources.
A train loaded with miners heads to the battlefield at Blair Mountain. Photo courtesty of West Virginia & Regional History Collection.
After the Paint and Cabin Creek violence and the Battle of Blair Mountain, UMWA organizing in Southern West Virginia was stifled for a decade. In response to strikes, mine operators would bring in trainloads of workers from the coalfields of Pennsylvania and other regions, often African American and Eastern and southern European immigrants, to southern West Virginia. These groups often received disproportionate discrimination in the mines. Eventually African American and Immigrant groups would integrate into an increasingly diversified culture on Coal River until the waves of outmigration in the mid 20th Century.
In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt threatened to send the army into the coalfields to enforce unionization, forcing the coal operators to accept union contracts for the vast majority of miners. The New Deal and the coal boom caused by industrial needs during the Second World War ushered an era of prosperity for the communities and miners of the Coal River Valley. By 1940, Marsh Fork had a population of 7,428 with Clear Fork close behind at 5,129. At the conclusion of the war, there were eleven coal companies employing 3,000 miners in the Coal River mines alone. During the same period UMW miners produced over 90% of the coal in West Virginia.
The federal government took initiative immediately following the Second World War to improve the conditions of coal mines by supporting the UMWA. Rick Bradford, in his book Edwight, at the Mouth of The Hazy, wrote that “President Truman seized control of the nation's mines in 1946 during a lengthy walkout and instructed his Secretary of the Interior, Joseph Krug, to negotiate a contract with the UMWA,” Rick wrote. “Eight days later, an agreement was signed that provided for a welfare and retirement fund financed by payments into the fund for operating managers of $0.05 per ton on each ton of coal produced for use or sale.'” However, the coal companies soon found a new way to undercut the growing power of the union miners in southern Appalachia.
In response to the growing power of the UMWA and the desire for increased efficiency, coal companies in West Virginia began to heavily mechanize their coal operations. While coal production had become slowly mechanized over time, new technologies such as the continuous miner allowed companies to increase production while employing much fewer miners. In addition the post-war years also brought a new form of mining into the Coal River region that would forever alter not only the lives and
culture of the communities, but the very land they live on as well. In 1949, the first two strip mines opened in the Coal River Valley on Marsh Fork.
New technology drove strip mining and used far fewer miners than underground mining. Photo by Rick Bradford.
Edwight resident Bill Ross remembers the event: “it started in Edwight back in the mid-forties: the strip. I remember when the first damn steam shovel…come in and they started goin’ round mid-point in these mountains.” For Ross, the event now marks the beginning of a dark period for Coal River, “And that really turned it loose, that there made it [strip mining] ruined everything."
Adding to the post-war troubles of Coal River, demand for coal declined rapidly with the switch in home heating and locomotive power to natural gas and oil. Both strip mining, the mechanization of mines, and the decrease in demand for coal drove miners out of work and led to a massive outmigration
of Coal River residents into the industrial regions of the North. As continued mechanization and strip mining replaced
underground miners, the once thriving coal towns lost substantial portions of their populations. By 1960 Marsh Fork’s population had dropped to 5,213 and Clear Fork’s to 3,386. By 1970, Marsh Fork had dropped to 4,050 and Clear Fork to 2,483.
The remnants of a strip mining operation on Hazy Creek. Photo by Rick Bradford.
However, by the 1970’s the Federal Government began to take a more active interest in regulating the activities of the coal industry. In a victory for coal miners, the federal government passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. The act made coal companies responsible for mine safety conditions. However, the resounding moral victory for miners in the act were the provisions requiring operators to reduce the threat of Black Lung in mines and to compensate afflicted miners. In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed. The act founded the Federal Office of Surface Mining under the Department of the Interior, which was charged with regulating all surface mining sites including slurry impoundments and valley fills. The act also created the “approximate original contour,” stipulation to surface mining, allowing large-scale environmental alteration and destruction as long as operators attempt to return the landscape to something resembling its original state. These changes greatly reduced some of the most extreme health and environmental risks of strip mining. However, as time came to pass, coal operators continually worked through loopholes in regulations or challenged regulation procedures in order to press federal and state regulations to the point of near irrelevancy.
The same period of strip mining and mechanization of extraction and production brought on a new period of environmental destruction. While timbering and coal mining had always been rough on the land of southern West Virginia, they paled in comparison to the devastating effects of strip mining and the new methods of industrial production in the preparation plants. In 1947, as a result of coal waste running off into the hollows and creeks, the West Virginia State Conservation Society declared Coal River unsuitable for bass fishing. The passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation act attempted to regulate and limit the amount of environmental damage caused by landscape changes and coal waste. While it achieved the goal of regulating the damage, it did not end the terrible environmental destruction of forests, water systems and communities caused by surface mining.
The impact on the Coal River region was devastating. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, outmigration of residents to the industrial centers of the north brought economic depression to many once thriving coal towns. The Oil Crisis in the early 70’s and the decline of northern industry brought a return migration of many residents. The returning migrants found the heads of many hollows stripped and union miners locked in a bitter battle for the protection of their rights against coal companies trying to lower costs. Strikes became commonplace, including the large 118 day strike which won the UMWA an industry wide benefits plan. This would be a high-water mark for the union, which could not maintain its power when underground mining was being slowly replaced by surface mining. By the 1980’s, several coal companies in the Coal River region launched a union-busting campaign that coincided with a new and terrible form of strip mining.
While the 1980’s brought government support for the rights of miners, it also ushered in an era of struggle for the UMWA that would last to the present day. In 1981, A.T. Massey, one of the larger coal operators in the Coal River region, opened a non-union mine under a subsidiary named Elk Run in Sylvester, West Virginia. The UMWA miners of the region protested and picketed Elk Run, but could not close down the operation. A.T. Massey led the assault on the union at Coal River. In the strike of 1984, Don Blankenship, then-accountant of Massey Energy subsidiary Rawl Sales, hired strikebreakers from Kentucky in order to continue the operations of union mines. The strike became violent, with union snipers in trees and three of Blankenship's bullet-proof cars destroyed. “One day, he said later, eleven shots were fired into his office while he was in it,” Michael Shnayerson, author of Coal River: How a few brave Americans took on a powerful company—and the federal government—to save the land they love, wrote. “Finally, in December 1985, the union leaders caved. After decades of union rule in the valley, the coal bosses were in charge again. Seven years later, Blakenship became chairman of Massey and through the '90s took pride “in buying up union mines and taking them nonunion,” Shnayerson wrote.
In 1986, the massive underground mine at Montcoal was transferred from Armco to Peabody mines as Armco’s lease ran out. Armco was an employer of union miners, and the mine was a stronghold of UMWA strength in the region. Peabody continued the process of union-busting set by Massey’s precedent, shutting down union mines and then reopening them as non-union. Chuck Nelson, a retired coal miner, marks expansion of Massey as the beginning of the decline of the union: “at one time prior to 1980…every mine around here was union. There wasn’t no non-union mines. When Massey come on Coal River the first place they came was Sylvester" Nelson states that Massey, “continued just buyin’ out union mines. They bought our Peabody mines, that was a union mine, they come up there and bought us out."
While the UMWA fought its battle to maintain the rights and benefits of miners, coal operators increased strip mining on an incredible scale. The use of drag lines in the 1980’s made it possible for coal operators to remove larger amounts of mountains and ridges than had ever been possible. It was now possible for coal companies to remove the tops of mountains to gain access to the layers of coal underneath, a process known as Mountaintop Removal. Throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Mountain Top Removal spread across the coalfields of Southern Appalachia as the more “efficient” alternative to underground mining. The desire for low-sulfur coal further fueled the expansion of Mountaintop Removal mining, as southern West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee contained the primary low-sulfur seams on the East Coast. The vast majority of low-sulfur coal is located in the Western United States, and Appalachian coal operators used the excuse of competition to rapidly increase the pace of MTR mining in regions such as Coal River.
The decline in strength of the UMWA and the expansion of MTR in the 1990’s did not go unchallenged in Coal River. In 1987, the Citizens Coal Council was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, a coalition of community-based organizations from coalfields across the country. In response to strip mining and economic and social injustice, several organizations formed to fight for the rights of Appalachia and its people, including Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Ohio Valley Conservatory, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. In 1998 members of Coal River communities created Coal River Mountain Watch to fight for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of southern West Virginia against the destructive practices of MTR and the coal companies. Click here for more information on Mountaintop Removal and Coal River Mountain.
 Wood, Jim. Raleigh County, West Virginia. Raleigh County Historical Society. BJW Printing and Office Supplies: Beckley, Wv. 1994. 301.
 Rasmussen, Barbara. Absentee Landowning & Exploration in West Virginia, 1760 – 1920. University Press of Kentucky Press.1994. 16.
 Rasmussen, Barbara. Absentee Landowning & Exploration in West Virginia, 1760 – 1920. 13.
 Rasmussen, Barbara. Absentee Landowning & Exploration in West Virginia, 1760 – 1920. 14.
 Wood, Jim. Raleigh County, West Virginia. Raleigh County Historical Society. BJW Printing and Office Supplies: Beckley, Wv. 1994. 314.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” The Library of Congress: American Memory Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia. From the Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/tending/. 14.
 Ibid 319.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” 14-15.
 Wood, Jim. Raleigh County, West Virginia. 367.
 Ibid. 367.
 Ibid. 373.
 Savage, Lon. Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-1921. 24.
 Ibid. 70.
 Ibid. 3.
 Ibid. 81.
 Ibid. 199-120
 Ibid. 164.
 Wood, Jim. Raleigh County, West Virginia. 367.
 Ibid. 441.
 Bradford, Rick. Edwight, at the Mouth of The Hazy.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” 20.
 Ross, Bill. Interviewed by Jen Osha. November 6, 2008. Aurora Lights.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” 27.
 Ibid. 21.
 Wood, Jim. Raleigh County, West Virginia. 446.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” 26.
 Ibid. 26.
 Ibid. 21.
 Schnayerson, Michael. Coal River. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2008.
 Schnayerson, Michael. Coal River. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2008.
 Nelson, Chuck. Interviewed by Jen Osha. November 21, 2008. Aurora Lights.
 Mannin, Robert. The First 50 Years of Strip Mining in West Virginia. 17-18.
 Freese, Barbara. Coal, A Human History. Perseus Cambridge: Perseus Publishing. 2003. 180.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” 30.
 Hufford, Mary. “Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: An Overview.” 31.
For more information on sources used in this article, please see the Notes on Sources section.