|I. EARLY COAL PRODUCTION IN WEST VIRGINIA
A. Attractiveness of
West Virginia Coal
1. With a BTU rating of 15,200, West Virginia
coal was among the best coal not just in the United States, but also the world.
2. Mining in West Virginia also was cheaper:
a.) Large, soft, exposed seams allowed for
drift & slope mines.
b.) A relatively small investment required.
3.Within a few decades (1880s-1900) West
Virginia coal had captured a large part of the nation's coal market.
B. This Trend Is Revealed in West
Virginia Coal Production Figures:
1867-- 489,000 tons
1887-- 4.9 million tons
1917-- 89.4 million tons
C. Early Operators Shared Common
1. They were very aggressive and
individualistic, non-corporate types; Most had little education although a few were
engineers; All had drive, natural intelligence, assumed large risks, and possessed an
unusual capacity for hard sustained work. Such a man was James
O. Watson, founder of the Fairmont coal field. Highgate.
2. The early mine operations were very
efficient and simple, with few officials or staff, usually a superintendent, foreman, or
In 1911, one operator declared:
"I am my own president, superintendent, clerk, office boy, boss mule driver, and
carry my office in my hat."
II. THE COAL INDUSTRY TRANSFORMED
By World War I, however, the
"corporation men" had taken control of the industry, and the pioneer operators
either became subordinates or were driven out of the business. A new phase began.
The coal corporations were controlled by
northern, eastern, and some British speculators who understood the processes and
controlled the capital required for industrialization and modernization.
A. Ascendancy of the Coal Barons
Brought Major Political Changes:
1. The older system based on kinship and
personal contacts which had protected mountain culture in the backcounties, as it did for
the Hatfields during Feud, was dissolved by the new legal and institutional approach
associated with modernization.
2. Capitalists used influence to control
local and state politics.
3. Even the major public officials were soon
serving the interests of the capitalists, including governors and U.S. Senators and
congressmen, rather than the people of West Virginia.
a.) U.S. Senators: Senator Clarence Watson (1911-1913) was president of Consolidated
Coal; Senator Howard Sutherland (1917-1923) was a coal operator; Senator William Chilton
(1911-1917) was a coal corporation attorney.
b.) Governors: Between 1888 and 1924, there
were 9 governors who were either coal operators, major coal investors, or coal attorneys
who owed their loyalties to the coal industry. An example is Aretus
B. Fleming, Gov. (1890-93) and congressman. He was the son-in-law of James O. Watson
and business partner of Johnson Camden in the Fairmont Coal Co.
c.) State Legislature: coal corporations
manipulated all the major committees that had regulatory influence over the industry.
Under these conditions, many people
came to believe that the extractive industries had captured political and economic power
in West Virginia.
B. Capitalists Used Various Means to
Gain Control of the Resources
1. Acquisition of Formal Titles:
a.) There were vast areas of unpatented land,
and residents quarrelled over boundaries of the land they claimed, but often neglected or
were unable to obtain formal titles that would have legitimized their possession of the
b.) Titles could be legally obtained from the
state by any person willing to claim unpatented land, survey it, and pay a nominal fee,
about 26.5 cents per acre in 1875.
2. Land Agents Acquired Options:
a.) Land agents came as early as 1875 to
obtain coal rights.
b.) The Land agents often were college
educated, business-wise, and the mountaineers they negotiated with were often cash poor
and illiterate who did not understand the broader implications of the rights they sold.
c.) Some agents bought the land outright, but
most acquired options to buy the "mineral rights" at a specified price in the
future. They often knew when and where the railroads would be laid.
d.) Options minimized the agent's tax
liability, and left mountain farmers happy with the thought that they still owned land
because they owned surface.
3. "Short-Form" Deeds:
a.) Short form deeds conveyed title to
minerals only "Together with all of the usual and ordinary mining rights and
privileges thereunto pertaining."
a.)Broad form deeds was far more sweeping:
i. Relinquished the owners' rights
to everything on or below the surface, and permitted coal operators to do whatever it took
to extract the coal.
ii. Made landowners rights subservient to
iii. Absolved coal companies of all
responsibility for damages caused by mining, such as the diversion of water, pollution,
etc., even downstream.
5. The deeds and options were signed and
registered at county courthouses, and the agents departed.
a.) Mineral rights often were virtually given
away. In the early years, landowners received .50 cents an acre, and although the amount
rose over the years it never exceeded $5 an acre.
b.) An ordinary underground mine recovered
between 1,000 to 1,500 tons per acre foot. Thus, a seam 5 feet thick produced 5,000 tons
per acre foot and if more than 1 seam was present yield might reach 15-20,000 tons, plus
oil and gas.
C. Transferring the region's mineral
wealth to coal companies which began in the late 1870's had been completed by 1910.
1. By 1910 a majority of the land was owned
by absentee owners, and 85% of the minerals had passed out of local control.
2. Some mountaineers were cheated, others
thought they had made a bargain, but many hoped to participate in and benefit from the new
D. Profound changes in the economy
also accompanied the ascendancy of big coal
1. Decline in farming:
a.) Average farm acreage fell from 187 acres
in 1887 to between 47 and 76 acres in 1930.
b.) Average acreage in farms fell to 15% in
Boone and Mingo Counties, and 7.3% in McDowell County. Land available for agriculture
competed with industrial uses in narrow bottomlands, such as on the original Williamson
farm where Williamson grew.
2. Rise in company towns. Over 90% of
southern West Virginia miners lived in company towns vs. 20% of Ohio's miners.
3. Social-Economic diversification and
a.) Industrial development disrupted the
roughly comparable status of traditional farm family economic units as members became
merchants, doctors, politicians, railroad men, coal operators, company guards, and miners.
4. The railroads promoted settlements and
civic development, and the institutions that went with them, such as banks and newspapers.
5. They increased educational opportunity by
improving libraries and schools; even Devil Anse became a school trustee.
6. Traditional life was altered because
industrial activities chased game deeper into the hills, and pollution killed fish in the
7. Industrialization also marked the decline
of mountain clans, or extended family networks located in wide rural neighborhoods. When
the coal companies acquired the land, families were moved off the home ground and
dispersed with some moving to other farms, and others finding work in the mines.
III. TRANSFORMING THE CULTURAL
A. Crowded Bottoms: Patterns of
Settlement in the Southern West Virginia Coal Fields
1. The B&O and C&O did not originally
come to West Virginia to tap the resources so much as to go through it to on their way to
the Midwest, but by the turn of the 20th century both were deeply involved in natural
2. The Norfolk & Western, however, came
specifically to carry coal from southern West Virginia to its docks in Norfolk, Va. The
N&W arrived in McDowell Co. in 1888, and reached Kenova in 1892.
3. Like the other coal carriers, the N&W
followed the easiest grade along the river and creek bottoms. A map of the tracks,
therefore, reflects the drainage system.
4. Coal mine operators need access to the
railroad to ship their coal so they bought or leased mineral rights at chosen locations
along the line. The streams had cut their way through the strata exposing the coal seams,
and operators built their tipples and plant, and entered the seam where it was exposed in
the side of the mountain. The pattern of leases from the stream bed, and railroad, back
into the mountain reflects indicates the pattern of settlement that would follow.
5. Mining settlements built up around the
production sites of these leases creating the pattern of "string" community
development we still see in the coal hollows and valleys of southern West Virginia.
6. These mining communities
continue to exist in very crowded bottoms. They share the valley with the stream, railroad, coal mines, coke ovens, crops and gardens,
all terraced up the mountain from the bottom. Visual observation demonstrates the point.
IV. THE "JUDICIOUS
MIXTURE": CREATING A WORK FORCE
A. Native-Born West Virginians:
Prior to industrialization, West Virginia was
inhabited overwhelmingly by native-born whites, mostly of British and German extraction.
1. Residents living in the backcounties where
the coal industry were farmers for the most part, unskilled in coal mining. They were
forced off the land and into the mines as it was converted to resource extraction.
2. Even after the excess farm population was
absorbed into the industry, the native population was still insufficient to provide the
number of workers required for industrial development. Labor scarcity necessitated the
recruitment of laborers from outside the region.
B. Influx of Foreign Immigrants:
With the transition to an industrial economy,
the population became strikingly diverse in ethnic composition.
1. Beginning in 1890 foreigners began to
arive in the coal fields, and over the next few decades their numbers excellerated.
2. Thousands of immigrants found their way
into the coal towns. They came to America and West Virginia for similar reasons as other
a.) high wages
b.) family and friends were there
c.) the desire for citizenship
3. Before emigrating to America, many were
barbers, waiters, shopkeepers, and farmers who knew nothing about coal mining.
4. Why West Virginia?
a.) They were promised good jobs at high
wages by labor agents.
b.) Labor agents located in port cities, such
as New York, were contracted by coal companies to deliver so many immigrant workers for a
specified fee, on a certain date.
c.) Often they made outlandish promises,
often higher wages, and free transportation, which the companies were unaware of and never
intended to pay.
d.) "On Transpsortation": special
trains were loaded with the immigrant recruits, and to protect their investment, agents
locked the doors until they got to the coal fields.
e.) When they arrived, immigrants found
conditions far different than promised. Some tried to "escape" and were forced
to work at gun point until they worked the two or three months it took to pay off their
transportation bill and initial stake for food, tools, and clothing at the company store.
f.) When this happened, companies were
engaged in "debt peonage." This was illegal,
although the local courts sided with the companies. The Italian embassy became involved in
four such cases in southern West Virginia in 1906 and 1907.
This is an example of a supposedly
"free" transportation contract signed (or marked) by the immigrant bound for the
mines of West Virginia:
"The company agrees to pay my
transportation to the place of my employment and the amount of such transportation [is] to
be deducted from my wages at the rate of twenty-five per cent per month until paid, and if
I leave the employ of the company before all of the transportation is collected on a
deducting basis, the balance fue shall forthwith become due and I must work 60 days to be
entitled to free transportation.
Signed the 21 day of November, 1912.
5. Gov. Dawson and the legislature approved
the creation of an West Virginia Immigration Bureau in 1907.
a.) John Nugent, a former UMWA official,
became the first commissioner.
b.) The relationship between coal and state
is indicated by the fact that he received no state salary. Although a state official, his
salary was paid by the companies.
c.) Nugent went abroad to recruit foreign
workers for the mines.
d.) Such extraordinary measures were
necessary because the mines were too dangerous, and the State Department refused to
approve West Virginia as an immigrant destination.
6. The Monongah mine disaster of Dec. 6, 1907
illustrates the point.
a.) Worst mine disaster in the state's
b.) The mine had only one portal although
against the law; it was full of coal dust and the only sprinkler a horse-drawn water cart.
c.) The explosion blew a large hole in the side of the hill, streets opened in
fissures, and sidewalks buckled.
d.) Official death toll was 361, but much
higher. There were so many dead that the street was used
as the morgue. Miners were buried in a special graveyard.
e.) The dead: Native Americans 85
Left were 196 widows,
f.) The mine was owned by Johnson N. Camden, Clarence
Watson (US Senators), and Aretus B. Fleming (Gov.,
Congressman). The coroner's inquest found the explosion to
be an accident.
7. There seemed to be little nativist
hostility pointed at immigrants, although that became a line of conflict if they came in
8. Many of their customs were different for
a.) Married couple might rent a 4 room house,
and sublet 2 rooms to 8 miners each. The couple would live in 2 rooms and renters paid for
the house rent plus extra income.
b.) On payday they would chip in on beer and
sing songs from the old country well into the night.
c.) Also, they took many national and
religious holidays which were different.
d.) The infamous "blackhand" style
of crime followed Italian immigrants into some coal towns, but they preyed on their own
countrymen not natives.
9. World War I began in Europe in 1914, and
increasingly young men who were drafted returned home for fear of losing their
a.) At least one-half of the immigrants in
West Virginia returned home; the other one-half stayed and either assimilated into the
West Virginia population or migrated elsewhere in America.
10. The war shut off immigration as a labor
supply, so agents began to look elsewhere in America for a pool excess workers who would
be receptive to relocating to the West Virginia coal fields.
C. THE DEEP SOUTH'S BLACK
During the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, millions of African Americans were concentrated in the south. After slavery
they took up share-cropping, and tenant farming, but did not own the land. By the turn of
the century they were being squeezed off of the land by farm mechanization and the modern
system of farming.
1. With World War I a labor scarcity of jobs
opened up employment opportunities in the northern cities to blacks for the first time,
and there followed a "great migration" to the north.
2. Coal operators hoped to attract their
share of these desperate workers into the mines, and sent labor agents to entice them to
3. White agents and black assistants
travelled into Virginia and the coal district of Alabama in particular to attract
a.) Promised free transportation and a place
b.) More importantly, they could earn
"equal pay for equal work," which they did not get in Alabama because
segregation laws prohibited blacks from making as much or more than white counterparts.
c.) U.S. Dept. of Labor estimated that 75,000
(8 1/2%) of Alabama's black population emigrated North between 1916 and 1917.
d.) Many of these came to Central Appalachia;
a minimum of 13,000 from Birmingham alone.
e.) Many blacks
migrated from Virginia farms and went to work in the mines
for cash to pay their farm mortgages. Often they stayed, older sons joined the fathers,
and then the entire family would sell the farm and become residents of West Virginia.
D. THE "JUDICIOUS MIXTURE"
Coal operators were not haphazard in their
recruitment policies, but rather sought a particular mix
of native, foreign, and African American labor. Each operator had his own particular
preferences, but often they attempted to divide the composition of their work force with
each group representing about one-third of the whole.
1. This policy thrust a very diverse
population together in one very small place giving the coal camp a unique ethnic
2. Reasons for this policy:
a.) Customs, holidays, and work habits of the
diverse group would offset the others; blacks would work when Catholics were off on a
b.) Diversity would divide the miners and
thwart labor unity.
3. Operators reinforced the divisions by
segregating the coal camps by race and ethnicity.
4. The divide and conquer approach succeeded
only in the short term, however, for their close proximity, equal pay for equal work, and
common problems generated a class consciousness which eventually unified the miners by
5. This diversity is illustrated by the
mixture of mine workers in Fayette, Raleigh, Mercer, and McDowell counties, 1909:
|Italian & Hungarian
|14 other nationalities
V. THE COAL COMPANY TOWN
More miners in West Virginia lived in company
towns than miners did in any other state, and in the southern coal fields the percentage
reached over 90%. The nature of the company town, therefore, is a significant form of
social organization to understand because it exerted such a potent force on the lives of
so many people.
A. It is important to understand that
the miner found no cities or other industries nearby.
1. No other employment options were available
miners unless they left the area.
2. The miner's wife and children could find
no employment at all, except for taking in washing and ironing.
3. The miner was trapped and could only move
on to another town just like the one he left.
B. Company towns were regarded as
part of the company's business operations. Therefore, it was intended to turn a
profit. As one operator ( Justus Collins ( a, b) ) put it to his
"We are not running a Christian
Endeavor camp meeting or a Sunday school. Never lose sight of the fact that the sole
purpose of the organization is to make money for their stockholders and matters of conduct
. . . that tend to produce a contradictory result should be promptly squelched with a
The company town made it easy to
"squelch" opposition with a "heavy hand."
C. A miner who lived in a company house ( a, b, c) signed a contract that
the courts of West Virginia ruled created a legal relationship not of "landlord and
tenant," but of "master and servant."
D. Upon employment the miner was
required to sign a "yellow dog contract"
1. Permitted the company to search or seize a
miner's house without notice.
2. A miner's house was rented to him
incidental to his employment, and if he quit, was fired, harbored union organizers, or did
anything else contradictory to company interests, he was summarily evicted.
3. Without a place to live, the miner's only
alternative was to leave.
4. If the operator "black-listed"
the miner, he might not find enother job or house unless he left the district.
5. The classic eviction notice was one issued
to a miner at Widen: "I want my house." (J. Gardner Bradley)
6. Notice of eviction was exceptional.
Usually, the company sent mine guards to the house who simply dumped the miner's
belongings on the road or railroad siding.
E. The West Virginia coal miner
worked in the most dangerous coal mines in the nation, in fact, the world:
1. Highest death rate in the nation between
2. 5 times higher than any European country
3. During World War I, southern West Virginia
miners suffered a higher proportional death rate than the American Expeditionary Force.
F. If the miner survived a month in
the mines he was paid not in cash but in company "scrip."
1. Scrip was good only at the company store.
2. At the company store the miner paid a
premium price for goods.
3. The companies tolerated no competitors to
undercut their rates.
4. With scrip the miner could shop nowhere
else anyway, unless another store traded in scrip at a greatly discounted rate.
5. The Merle Travis song which laments
"I owe my soul to the company store" takes its meaning from this relationship.
6. The miner purchase everything at the
company store, and that included work supplies such as tools, blasting powder.
G. The Political system was
strikingly different from most American towns. Because the company town was
1. There was no mayor, town council, only the
2. This also made it hard to get information
on political candidates; newspapers unfriendly to the operator's politics were banned.
3. No political canvassers allowed except
thos approved by the company.
4. The post office was usually located in the
company store; the postmaster was a company official; political mails were closely
5. Company guards served as poll-watchers
during general elections.
6. Guard/poll-watchers enabled company to
monitor miners' voting; sometimes guards handed miners previously marked ballots. By this
method coal company associations were able to develop strong political machines which
supported the system they dominated.
H. The methods used to control miners
during the first decades of town development were blunt and coersive, but a major shift in
approach occurred after the Paint-Cabin Creek mine war of 1912-13. This conflict
convinced operators a more sophisticated approach was needed, one which relied on a
mixture of paternalism and coersion.
1. Coal Operator
a.) founded to control prices and to fight
b.) set up well-endowed defense funds; the
"million dollar defense fund" was set up after Paint-Cabin Creek mine war.
c.) lobbyed government agencies
2. Model Company
a.) Idea was to gain allegience of miners,
rather than the union, through "uplift" by providing better housing, recreation,
b.) Other industries employed this same
"welfare capitalism" approach called the which they called the "American
3. Company "Theater": This new
paternalism went well beyond welfare capitalism by attempting to inculcate new cultural
values, and shape the social behavior, of coal miners along lines beneficial to the
company. "Theater" is used to do this rather than depend on daily exhibitions of
House: It was positioned in the symbolic pinnacle in the community, usually a
comparatively impressive house on the hill.
b.) Operator: He attempted to become the
father figure to workers, their provider and protector.
c.) Operator's Wife: She became an active
civic leader in the camp social life usually in schools and churches.
d.) Company Employees: The store clerks treated miners with more respect and better
service; foremen was to treat workers professionally by maintaining power, but no
"cussing out" or belittling the men.
4. Welfare Workers: They were hired to teach
miners and their families new values, and to infuse new aspirations.
a.) By 1915 welfare workers were found in 70%
of the company towns in southern West Virginia.
b.) Their duty was to teach the miners
"to want" more with the idea that with rising expectations they would produce
more coal and acquire self-discipline.
c.) They helped build playgrounds, form
social clubs, upgrade homes, and taught wives how to budget money, sew, cook, and improve
and Home Maintenance: Companies held prize competitions to encourage spare-time gardening
and fixing up the houses as a way to improve conditions in the camps and elevate personal
6. Recreational Facilities: Companies built
playgrounds, swimming pools, ball fields, pool rooms, movies, churches, and YMCAs in hopes
of reducing the pastimes of drinking and gambling, and thereby improve the
"character" of their workers.
7. School System: Companies donated land,
buildings, and materials. They also attempted to bring in good teachers by building
"teacherages" where teachers lived rent-free and by supplementing their county
pay. Company concern for education had several sources:
a.) Better schools attracted better miners
and also more enlightened company men who concerned for their children.
b.) Educated men were more productive, safer
c.) Companies believed that the unions fed on
ignorance, the inability to reaons for oneself.
d.) Schools were intended to teach the
children to do the same thing as their fathers only better; schools were to be agents of
the status quo rather than fundamental change. Therefore, high schools concentrated on
vocational, technical, and values appropriate for a commercial society.
8. Intoxicants: Companies fought a running
battle against liquor because it affected worker discipline, and increased violence. Companies pushed for state-wide prohibition in West
Virginia which was achieved in 1914.
9. Health Facilities: Many companies supplied
doctors and dentists who served the community. The miners' were assessed a fixed fee for
these services. Essentially company employees, doctors stopped practicing during a strike,
ignored the privacy privilege, and generally sided with their employers.
I. By World War I the company town
was regarded as a positive good. Companies supplied all of the social services
necessary to maintain a work force. The company town was created to serve the company's
interest, however, and this underscored the most important point regarding the
relationship between company and workers: only the company determined what was in the
interests of the miners.
As one miner declared: "In
our town we have many good things, there are different kinds of churches and good schools,
but there is another think of much more importance . . . that the coal operators have
intentionally overlooked -- and this is our freedom."
J. If all of these benevolent
measures failed to instill loyalty to the company, and the miners embraced the union then
there was always the "yellow dog contract," the "black list," and the
hated company police.