Deep within the once coal rich veins of Buchanan County, Virginia lies the remnants of a much more prosperous era. The southwestern county is bordered by two coal rich counties: Pike County, Kentucky to the north, and McDowell County, West Virginia to the northeast – also known as holding the billion dollar coalfield.
The regional topography is exceptionally rough and mountainous, coupled with narrow valleys and steep highwalls and narrow ridges.The population of the county grew slowly after it was formed from Russell and Tazewell counties on February 13, 1858, doubling every twenty years. At the turn of the century, the county still had that pioneer-edge and was isolated, with Grundy – the county seat, holding only 200 persons. The county itself grew to 9,692 by 1900 over 507 square miles.1
The county was considered under-developed for much of the first three decades of the 20th century. While it was recognized that there were coal seams underneath the surface, only lumbering was considered the principal industry from the 1890s into the 1920s due to the lack of reliable transportation availability. The first railroad to connect to Buchanan County, a narrow-gauge – The Big Sandy and Cumberland Railroad, was put into operation in 1901.3 4 It connected Grundy with the Norfolk & Western Railroad (N&W) at Devon, West Virginia. The railroad traversed Knox Creek from West Virginia, traversed over a mountain, and then down Slate Creek at Matney to Grundy.1 The railroad was purchased by the N&W in 1923, and was rebuilt five years later and operated as the Buchanan Branch.5
Much of the timber was managed by the William M. Ritter Lumber Company, a logging and timber operation founded as a sawmill in 1890 in Oakdale, West Virginia.2 Ritter soon expanded into McDowell and Mingo County, West Virginia, Pike County, Kentucky and Buchanan County, Virginia, along with counties in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. By the 1920s, Ritter began expanding into coal mining, purchasing several coal companies and coking operations. By the early 1950s, Ritter averaged an annual production of five million tons of coal. In 1957, the company stores were sold, and the coal mines leased to the Island Creek Coal Company.2 On October 1, 1960, the Ritter Lumber Company was sold to the Georgia-Pacific Corporation.
Island Creek became one of the bigger coal mining companies in the region, having constructed Keen Mountain, a model coal mining community whose mine closed in the 1980s. They were also the operator of the Whitewood Island Creek Loading Tipple No 1.
The remains of the Island Creek Coal Virginian Pocahontas operation at Whitewood, Virginia in 2011. The MSHA ID expired in 2008.
The former Norfolk & Western Dismal Creek Branch has been abandoned since 2005. To the right, a N&W branch line curves south to Richlands.
Nearby was Jewell Valley, a model coal camp town built by George L. Carter, who was the founder and owner of the once mammoth Clinchfield Coal Company. Not much is known about Jewell Valley, except that the coal mines began closing in the 1960s as the seams were being exhausted. The town remained well into the 1970s, although not much is left today.
Jewell Valley was remote. After the company store closed in the early 1970s, it became a laborious drive over narrow one-lane roads to the general store near Whitehead. Slowly, the community of Jewell Valley was reduced to one surviving residence, and the remainder were allowed to rot into the ground, serving as a reminder of the temporary nature of habitation. The community, which included a brick-and-mortar school, a community center and a company store, now boasts two living beings and the shells and ruins of everything else.
Most of the underground coal seams in the region were exhausted by the 1970s, and the future of the region is now dependent on mountaintop removal-based mining and strip mining, both of which can considerably damage the environment.
- Schwab, W. G. “The Forests of Buchanan County, Virginia.” The Geology and Coal Resources of Buchanan County, Virginia. By Henry Hinds. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1918. 251-252. Print.
- “CHARLES C. TILLER PHOTOGRAPHS 1924-38.” Archives of Appalachia. East Tennessee State University, 4 Mar. 2002. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. Article.
- Baker, Nancy Virginia. “Bountiful and Beautiful: A Bicentennial History of Buchanan County, Virginia, 1776-1976.” Grundy: Buchanan County Vocational School, 1976. Print.
- Coleman, Ron. “We Dig Coal: The Story of Coal Mining in Buchanan County, Virginia.” Radford: Commonwealth Press, 1975. Print.