The first known reference to coal in what is now West Virginia came in 1742, when John Peter Salley took an exploratory trip across the Allegheny Mountains. He reported seeing an outcropping of coal along a tributary of the Kanawha River in an area that is currently located in Boone County, West Virginia. However, no extensive mining took place in West Virginia until the mid-1800s. Coal mining grew slowly but steadily until the outbreak of the Civil War interrupted the industry’s progress. Following the Civil War an awakening interest in the state’s mineral resources brought a new era of development and growth for coal.
West Virginia’s southern coal fields were not opened until about 1870. This was primarily because there was no way to get the coal out of the area. Many of the rivers were only navigable seasonally and rail lines had not been built into the region yet. Completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway from Richmond, Virginia to Huntington, West Virginia was the turning point in making the mining of coal in southern West Virginia feasible. Soon rail spurs off this line made nearly every known coal deposit accessible and the growth of mining in the region grew exponentially. The Logan Field, lying in Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties, did not develop until 1904, when the railway finally reached these fields. However, within a few short years, Logan became the largest coal-producing county in the state.
In the earliest days, coal was mined using picks and shovels. The coal was then loaded into carts and hauled away by oxen or mules. 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 draft mule was more reliable. By 1890 electric coal cutting, loading and hauling machines started coming into use. However, it wasn’t until the mid 1930s that mechanization really took off and became common in the state.
One unique aspect of the coal industry in West Virginia was that a coal company not only provided a job but a unique way of life for miners and their families. Since most of the mines were located far from established cities, the coal companies built their own towns and provided inexpensive homes, a company store, a church, and 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 that involved paying the miners in company issued money called scrip. 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 keeping a large amount of U. S. currency on hand. Each mine had its own scrip and it could only be used at the local company store.
The practice of paying in scrip combined with the entire community being owned by the coal companies resulted in these companies exerting unprecedented control over workers’ lives. Miners who complained about safety, working conditions or pay could be fired and not only lose their job but also their home, and their company issued money would be worthless outside the area. In addition, coal companies could arbitrarily raise prices at the company story, reduce wages or employ other tactics that made it hard to the miners to earn a viable living. When this happened, miners had no recourse and complainers were often fired. These practices eventually led to increasing amounts of worker dissatisfaction.
In order to combat the control of the coal companies over their lives miners eventually began joining labor unions to give them more bargaining power. Those who joined unions immediately lost their jobs. Replacement workers or “scabs” were then brought in to do the work and live in the miners’ former homes. This only added to the tension in the mining communities and eventually violence irrupted. This pattern was repeated throughout the coalfields in the first half of the 1900s and resulted in a large number of bloody labor conflicts known collectively as the West Virginia Mine Wars. This unrest peaked in the Battle of Blair Mountain in the early 1920s. After the U. S. Army was brought in to squelch this conflict unionizing efforts in the state lost steam. Then the Great Depression began at the end of the twenties and those few who had jobs were afraid to do anything that might jeopardize them.
During the Depression Franklin Roosevelt got the National Industrial Recovery Act passed as part of his New Deal legislation. This established an 8-hour day, minimum wage provisions and condoned unions. As a result, labor unions became common in the coal fields and working conditions began to improve along with the nation’s economy. The coal industry grew and prospered through the end of WWII but a post war recession and the increasing use of oil as a fuel source led to a plateau in the use of coal. Since that time, the coal industry has experienced a series of booms and busts. Today coal is mined primarily in surface mines and union membership is only a tiny fraction of what it once was. Coal is still one of America’s most abundant energy sources and West Virginia remains a leading producer of coal. Fifty percent of the electricity produced in the U. S. is generated by coal.
The coal industry has a rich and colorful history. Controversy has followed coal – whether it is the labor conflicts of the past or the environmental disputes of today. With the world’s ever increasing need for energy it is probable that coal will remain an important asset for our country and, if its history is any indicator, coal will continue to be in the news for a long time to come.