Southern West Virginia’s economy is dominated by coal and timber
. As the coal market fluctuated, so did the number of jobs and the complete economic well being of the Coal River communities. The New Deal era of the 1930’s was a boom period for coal, and towns on the Coal River, such as Whitesville and Edwight
, expanded rapidly over the next two decades. Following the Second World War, as the national demand for coal declined and new technologies reduced the necessity for human labor, many Coal River families moved to the northern industrial centers to find work. Ohio became the primary destination for many migrants from West Virginia.
To listen to Shorty Bongalis talk about the migration of West Virginians to Cleveland, Ohio, click the icon. Tending the Commons 1994 interview with John Flynn and Mary Hufford courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
As strip mining expanded throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the populations of coal towns began to decline. Jimmy Meadows, a long time resident of Edwight explains how the process of outmigration began, "[Deep mining] consists of a good many more employees, which would benefit... the economy of our state. But when you use high-wall mining or strip mining, it’s a lot fewer employees [that] are required to do the same amount of work.” Deep mining requires a much larger workforce than surface coal mining, and the boom of the 1930’s and 1940’s had increased the populations of several Coal River communities into the thousands. Meadows recollects the state of Coal River communities during the coal boom “You had areas here when they had deep mining that had thousands of people living in them. Edwight had several thousand people living in it; Montcoal had several thousand.” Edwight and Montcoal had been the locations of some of the largest deep mines in the Coal River region, and served as the social and economic hubs of the surrounding hollows.
Montcoal, W.Va., as it appeared in 1930. Photo courtesy of West Virginia & Regional History Collection.
Meadows states, “At one time they had a train station in Edwight that would run two three trains a day from St. Albans and Charleston. It had a movie theater, grade school, company store, doctor’s office, barber shop, gas stations.” Strip mining and the slumping demand for coal closed down many deep mines, sending coal towns like Edwight
into a long economic depression.
More than a quarter of a million workers and their families migrated to the midwest for jobs in factory towns. Some were able to stay by devising livelihoods outside of coal and timber. John Bowman, of Piney View, had put himself through high school by making moonshine. When he was 16 years old his father, a coal miner, became ill and could not work. John wanted to finish high school, but knew he would be needed to make a living for the family. His older brother, "Duck," came up with the solution: "Let's make some moonshine." To listen to that story, click the icon below:
Tending the Commons interview by Mary Hufford and John Flynn courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
John Bowman was able to rely on this skill to stay on Coal River during the outmigration of the 1960s, as he explains here (click icon to listen):
The devastation of American industry in the north during the early 70’s and a spike in the demand for coal as a result of the Oil Embargo brought many residents back from Ohio and other regions. While the boom was relatively brief, many return-migrants found that while the economic situation had changed, the things they valued culturally on Coal River remained the same. Betty Ross remembers her family’s return from Ohio, “when we first came back here in ’71 from Ohio, see we were gone to Ohio for 20 years? We loved it. The kids loved it. We had all these mountains to travel." The mountains, despite strip mining, remained, and the land and culture that residents valued appeared to remain despite large portions of their lives spent out of the region. While some coal towns were devastated in the early 50’s and 60’s, economic and social centers like Whitesville lived on.
changed everything. To make way for Mountaintop Removal projects, entire communities were evacuated, such as Packsville. Residents like Meadows point out the change in coal company intentions towards Coal River communities, “it’s just a gradual depletion of people to relinquish liabilities for the future.” Rather than simply letting communities ebb and flow with the market price for coal and labor, companies such as A. T. Massey were now attempting to push entire towns off the map to make way for MTR and all the catastrophic environmental and health “externalities” which comes with it.
Clear Fork High School in Colcord, now closed. Photo by Rick Bradford.
Even compared to conventional strip mining, Mountaintop Removal
uses an incredibly small workforce to mine an enormous amount of coal. Throughout the 1990’s, the assault on union miners and the rapid depletion of jobs led to another wave of outmigration, this time however, many migrants went south to the furniture factories of North Carolina’s Catawba River region.
The most recent wave of outmigration hit Coal River very hard. The combination of fly ash, coal dust, the threats of slurry impoundments, the risk of flooding, coal company harassment and antagonism and the rapid decline in the number of jobs completely devastated Coal River communities. Many residents still morn the decline of Whitesville in particular. Chuck Nelson states,
I can drive through Whitesville now, and I just can’t believe what those towns have turned into. At one time in Whitesville we had two pharmacies, we had a clothing store, furniture store, bowling alley, theater, a taxicab—in Whitesville!—and a jailhouse. I mean it was a boomin’ place. You could get your shoes shined, you know, walking up the street. The streets were packed back then. And it was a great place to grow up… Blue Pennet, right up by Whitesville Junior High School, up that hollow there where Massey’s got their mines at now. You know, you can’t believe that it happened. From the time that I was a kid, up to this point—It’s just hard to describe how much they’ve wiped out since they’ve come there.
Listen to Jimmy Meadows talk about how outmigration caused by MTR has devastated Coal River communities.
Whitesville was the social and economic hub of the Coal River communities, and its destitution is symbolic of MTR’s catastrophic impact on the region. The population of the region declined over the past 30 years so dramatically that Rick Bradford states that Whitesville “was once a thriving town, now it’s just a ghost town.”
An abandoned bus stop in Whitesville. Photo by Rick Bradford.
Many Coal River residents who have lived through the oppressive reign of King Coal fear that young people moving out of the region are leaving behind a rich cultural heritage that is connected to the mountains. Debbie Jarrell expresses her concerns for young outmigrants: “how are you going to teach them where their food comes from; how are you going to teach them where they come from if they have to move because there’s nothing here? Cause there’s no clean water, because they’re afraid of getting flooded out.” The culture of the Coal River communities is directly connected to the mountains and the resources and traditions they represent. Young people forced to leave their homes simply to find work become disconnected from this heritage and these traditions.
Those who left for work before the 1970’s and then returned to retire face a similar heartbreaking situation. Many retirees returned to settle back in the place they had always considered home, only to find that by the 1990’s, Mountaintop Removal
began systematically destroying that home while bombarding residents with the environmental and social hazards it creates. Jimmy Meadows described his situation and those of other retirees as:
a situation that you’re gonna be tormented in the years in your life, supposedly the golden-years, that you have to uproot and move due to things happening that destroys your home or depreciates the value of your property— like the land in this area, they think that it’s not worth anything but it’s the richest land in the world.
Unlike the previous waves of outmigration in southern West Virginia, residents are not simply leaving to find work. They are leaving because the coal companies and Mountaintop Removal are making life in the land they call home unlivable.
For more information on sources used in this theme, please see the Notes on Sources
section of Journey Home.