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. 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.
The first widespread use of West Virginia coal began when the salt works 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.
Today many decry conditions in the “coal camps,” but miners and their families fared as well as most working class Americans, and better than those unfortunate souls who labored in urban sweatshops or as rural sharecroppers.
West Virginia’s coalfields were home to some of the most significant labor strife in this nation’s history, as the United Mine Workers battled coal operators for control of the industry. Spectacular incidents such as the famed Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain, landmarks in American labor history, showed the strategic importance of the state’s crucial industry, and its national significance.
Today, West Virginia’s coal industry contains more than 500 mines, provides more than 44,000 direct and contract jobs, pays $1 billion dollars in annual payroll and hundreds of million dollars to state and local governments in taxes and contributions. Coal is still the rock-solid backbone of West Virginia’s industrial economy.