SOUTHERN WEST VIRGINIA COALFIELDS

DEDICATED TO ALL THE PEOPLE IN THE SOUTHERN WEST VIRGINIA COAL INDUSTRY

WINDING GULF COALFIELD RALEIGH AND WYOMING COUNTIES

NEW RIVER COALFIELD FAYETTE AND RALEIGH COUNTIES

FLAT TOP-POCAHONTAS COALFIELD MERCER AND McDOWELL COUNTIES

KANAWHA-COAL RIVER COALFIELD KANAWHA, FAYETTE, BOONE, CLAY, RALEIGH, & PUTNAM COUNTIES

GREENBRIER COALFIELD GREENBRIER, FAYETTE, SUMMERS, AND NICHOLAS COUNTIES

LOGAN COALFIELD LOGAN, WYOMING, AND LINCOLN COUNTIES

WILLIAMSON COALFIELD MINGO, McDOWELL, AND WAYNE COUNTIES

REFERENCE LITERATURE

(There are also the Elkins, Fairmont, Upper Potomac, and Panhandle coalfields in Northern West Virginia.)

This is a presentation of historically significant coal mining towns in Southern West Virginia. A coal camp is a town where everything was built and owned by a coal company, including schools, churches, stores, theatres, and residential structures. Coal camps in Southern West Virginia generally date from the 1880s through the 1930s. They are fast disappearing. Some, like Kopperston and Nellis, are more or less intact. Some, Big Stick and Clearco for example, have completely vanished. The ones that are very close to a town or very far from civilization are in the worst condition, and the ones that are about halfway between an urban area and wilderness (i.e. Helen, Elkhorn) have survived fairly well.

High quality bituminous coal is still mined in Southern West Virginia, and the state is the No. 2 coal producer in tonnage in the nation. (The reason Wyoming is No. 1 is because the low btu coal seams there are 40-100 feet thick.)

If you would like to visit these mining towns, keep in mind a few things:

1. STAY OFF OF THE PROPERTY OF ACTIVE MINES. THEY ALL HAVE GUARDS WHO WILL RUN YOU OFF. ALSO, IT'S DANGEROUS, SEEING AS HOW YOU PROBABLY WON'T BE WEARING A HARDHAT AND METATARSALS.

2. BE CAREFUL OF TRESPASSING. JUST BECAUSE A MINE IS CLOSED DOESN'T MEAN NO ONE OWNS IT. YOU MAY ALSO HAPPEN UPON SOME LOCALS WHO ARE RANSACKING THE PLACE. THIS COULD BE A PRECARIOUS SITUATION.

3. THE RESIDENTS OF THESE MINING CAMPS MAY NOT APPRECIATE YOUR "INTRUSION." GIVE THEM A LITTLE RESPECT AND YOU'LL PROBABLY BE ALL RIGHT.

4. SOME OF THE RESIDENTS OF THE COAL CAMPS HAVE VICIOUS DOGS.

5. THERE AREN'T MANY RESTAURANTS IN COAL CAMPS. EAT AND GAS UP BEFORE YOU GO.

6. SOME ROADS ARE UNSUITABLE FOR LUXURY AUTOMOBILES. A FEW ARE UNSUITABLE FOR ANY AUTOMOBILE.

7. I WOULD STRONGLY DISCOURAGE ANYONE FROM ENTERING AN ABANDONED DEEP MINE. THE TIMBERS ARE PROBABLY ROTTEN AND THE ROOF WILL PROBABLY FALL ON YOU. IF YOU SURVIVE YOU WILL PROBABLY BE HANDICAPPED FOR LIFE. JEFF WRITES IN TO SUGGEST ANOTHER REASON NOT TO ENTER ABANDONED MINES: BLACKDAMP, A DEADLY LOW OXYGEN CONDITION THAT OCCURS WHEN ORGANIC MATERIAL OXIDIZES IN A RELATIVELY CLOSED CONDITION. THE TIMBERS AND THE REMAINING COAL EAT UP THE AVAILABLE OXYGEN IN CERTAIN CONDITIONS. BESIDES BEING DANGEROUS, THERE'S PROBABLY NOTHING INTERSETING DOWN THERE.

8. SOUTHERN WV, WHICH USED TO HAVE ONE OF THE LOWEST CRIME RATES IN THE NATION, IS NOW EATEN UP WITH DRUGS. ADDICTION TO OXYCOTIN IS ESPECIALLY BAD IN WYOMING AND LOGAN COUNTIES, BUT IT IS BAD ALL OVER. MANY ARE ALSO ADDICTED TO METHAMPHETAMINE AND CRACK. THIS DRUG PROBLEM HAS CAUSED AN EVER INCREASING INCIDENCE IN PETTY AND VIOLENT CRIME.

NOTE: I'VE NEVER HAD ANY OF THESE PROBLEMS (EXCEPT MAYBE THE BAD ROADS). I'M JUST MENTIONING POSSIBLE PITFALLS.

This is the intro from the book "A Space by the Side of the Road" by Katleen Stewart, an author who came here to good old Raleigh County to study our culture.

"Picture hills so dense, so tightly packed in an overwhelming wildness of green that they are cut only by these cramped, intimate hollers tucked into the steep hillsides like the hollow of a cheek and these winding, dizzying roads that seem somehow tentative, as if always threatening to break off on the edges or collapse and fall to ruins among the weeds and the boulders as so many others before them have done. Picture hills so tucked away that the sun shines down on them for only a few hours a day before passing over the next ridge. Picture hills slashed round and round with the deep gashes of strip mining like a roughly peeled apple and hilltops literally lopped off by machines the size of ten-story buildings...Picture mountainous slag heaps of mining refuse that catch fire from internal combustion under all the thousands of tons of their own weight and burn for months or years at a time, letting off a black stench of oily smoke. Picture how the hills burst into red and orange flames at all hours of the night and how the flames are likened to the pits of hell. Picture sagging creek banks shored up with tires, rusted trucks, and refrigerators and trecherous slag "dams" holding back lackes of black oily water from the mines. Picture how, when it rains, the men go on watch through the night, climbing the steep hills to peer into the blackness and wonder if the dam will hold through the night.

"Picture the tattered remnants of the old coal-mining camps crowded into the hollers, how people's places perch precariously on the sides of the hills or line the roads with the hills pressed hard against their backs. Some stand freshly painted in yards filled with kitsch figurines and plastic swimming pools. Others bear the faded pastel blues, greens and yellows they have worn for many years, the paint worn through in places to weathered boards, their porches starkly swept and lined with chairs. Others still are deeply decayed, with broken porches, partially caved-in roofs, broken water pipes gushing out the underside, and relatives' trailers packed tight into their yards for lack of land to rent or buy.

"Picture the places way up the hollers in a wilder, more dangerous zone away from the hardtop and neighbors. Here whole compounds may be pieced together with the remains of the old places now long fallen into ruin. A main house may be surrounded by tiny shacks made out of scrap metal and no bigger than a bed, where grown sons or crazy relations stay....There will be chairs stuck out in the middle of it all-the place where Fred or Jake or Sissy sits-and, further out, encircling the compound, a ring of rusted, disemboweled trucks and cars, a pen filled with baying hounds, and, beyond that, only the hills themselves where you will come across the graveyards, the orchards, the ruins, the named places, the strip mines, the trucks belly-up, the damp, decayed mattresses, some scattered items of clothing, some campfire sites, some piles of beer cans, some bags of trash...

"Imagine a life in a place that was encompassed by the weigh of an industry and subject to a century of boom and bust, repeated mass migrations and returns, cultural destabilizations and displacements, and then the final collapse of mining [Only in Amigo, where Ms. Stewart was staying] and the slow, inexorable emigration of the young. Imagine a history remembered not as the straight line of progress but as a flash of unforgettable images. Remember the old timey cabins in the hills, the fires, the women dead in childbirth, the slick company representatives who dropped by unsuspecting farmers' cabins, stayed for dinner, and casually produced a bag of coins in exchange for parcels of "unused ridgeland", the company camps that sprang up around mines like someone else's mirage complete with company scrip, company stores, company doctors, company thugs, company railroads, company schools, company churches, and company baseball teams. Company thugs carried sawed-off shotgusns, policing who came and went on the trains. They say the thugs stood sentry in the hills over a camp in the night. You could see their lanterns and that's how you knew they were there. Then the lights would go out and you didn't know. Imagine all the arresting images of strikes, lockouts, house evictions, people put out in the alleys with their stuff all round them and the snow coming down...

"There were the dizzying swings of boom and bust, the mechanization of the mines, the mass migrations of the fifties and sixties, the final boom during the oil crisis, the final mine closings in the eighties, the collapse of the place, the painful hanging on, the unthinkable leavings. Imagine how the place became a migrational space that caught people in the repetition of drifting back and forth from the hills to the cities looking for work. How country songs of heartache and displacement became their theme songs. How ecstatic fundamentalism boomed in a performative excess of signs of the spirit and dreams of another world beyond. How the place itself drew them back to dig themselves in - 'so far in I ain't never comin' out.' How the place grew palpable to the remembered senses: the smell of snakes in the air, the sound of slow voices chatting in the yard. the breeze striking the tin pie plates in a garden, the taste of ramps and dandelion greens."