The last update in the Coal Camp series from January unfolds deep within McDowell County, West Virginia, including Gary, Iaeger and War.
There was a lengthy agenda for this Sunday. The light would be short, being mid-winter and such, with the weather calling for snow flurries and mild temperatures in the high 30s. Getting up at first light would be essential, because the roadways in the southern half of West Virginia are anything but generous. Going from Gilbert to Welch, which would be a 30 minute commute in a more topographically-friendly region, took over an hour due to the long, winding grades and coal truck traffic – and that is just one remote example. Passing zones are infrequent, as are straight stretches with clear sight lines, and you can forget about many modern conveniences. Fueling stations, once plenty in the land that once held nearly 100,000, are scant, along with any decent restaurants.
But I came not for modern conveniences, but to see what is being forgotten. My first stop was Iaeger, which seems depressing enough to view from U.S. Route 52 as you cross the viaduct over the Tug Fork and the Norfolk Southern main line. This once happening town, which could boast theaters, multiple schools at capacity, and a burgeoning downtown, is now seeing its very symbol of pride being demolished.
One example is the Iaeger Graded and Junior High School, constructed in 1922. The school later became home to the Iaeger Immediate School before closing in 1999, but you would never have guessed that standing out front today. The rear, which housed the auditorium and classrooms, is in a state of collapse, and the front – while not pitted with broken windows, just has an aura of decay.
Iaeger High School, located across the Tug Fork and railroad, is in much better condition but was constructed in 1918. The high school, which opened in 1918, was home to the Iaeger Cubs. On May 28, 2010, the last graduating class – 88 graduates, walked across the stage at the Bob N. Jack Auditorium to accept their diplomas. High school students from Iaeger attend the new River View High School that opened in August at Bradshaw. Iaeger High will be replaced with a new Iaeger Elementary.
Nearby was the Jolo Grade School. The Art-Deco inspired building was built as a Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works project. It functions as a community center today.
War was not too far of a drive from Iaeger, a mere 22 miles or a good hour by conservative estimates. The community of just 800 was once named Miners City, with a railroad station along the Norfolk & Western named War for War Creek that ran adjacent. But postal office conventions required one word for the city, and War it was decided. The community was reminiscent of many others: a dying business district almost completely void of any businesses, houses that were foreclosed or just empty, and a lack of children. But the sun was shining and it seemed that War was just okay: not depressing, but not booming. Nearby was the War High School, a three-story school for white students that was constructed in 1923 as a result of a 440% population growth in the preceding decade – spurred by the opening of several mines and the onset of World War I. After Big Creek High School was constructed in 1932, War High became known for a junior high school.
A gymnasium and a front addition to the school was later constructed. After the coal mines closed and schools began to consolidate due to a drop in population, War Junior High was shuttered. Unfortunately, due to a lack of time, I did not partake in the photography of these buildings below, although it was pretty open and obvious.
As I began my drive out of town, I spotted a seemingly abandoned school, located immediately behind the new Southside K-8 School. Entirely boarded up and sealed, it remained un-vandalized and from all outward appearances, in good condition. This was Big Creek High School, constructed in 1931 and notable for the national attention it gained in the 1999 movie “October Sky.” Big Creek was known as the historic home of the Rocket Boys of McDowell County, and it graduated its last class on May 28, 2010. The stone structure is marked for demolition for 2011.
I assumed that the school mergers and consolidations were an easy deal. Outside of the coalfields, it seemed that the consolidations were an almost constant reminder of how population centers shift, where cities wither, suburbs reign, and the cities regain a stronghold all within a timespan of a few decades. And where the population resides is where the investment is. But what do you say to those who have lived their entire lives in one hollow, where the town’s very identity rests not with the declining number of jobs at a particular coal seam or mine portal, but with the local school? And when that identity is removed, what replaces it? Communities abound of this missing trait; no heart, no soul.
Approximately two miles north along the now-abandoned Norfolk & Southern Caretta Branch was Caretta. The town, known initially as logging Camp No. 5, was later developed as a coal mining operation by the Virginia Pocahontas Company.n The town was named Caretta after the transposed syllables of Mrs. Etta Carter, the wife of George Lafayette Carter, who founded Carter Coal. In 1922, the operations were sold to the Consolidation Coal Company, and two years after, the first mine shaft was constructed. At least 200 houses were constructed for Caretta, along with a 22-room boarding house, water treatment plant, sewage plant and power plant.
Consolidated went into default on March 16, 1933 and Carter regained control of the Caretta operations. In 1947, when the operations and town were sold to a group of industrialists from Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Interlake Iron Corporation, and the Steel Company of Canada who renamed the company to the Olga Coal Company. In 1956, the Caretta mine was connected to the Coalwood mine, which was also owned by Olga. By the end of the decade, all coal was being shipped via the tipple and processing plant at Caretta, and the operations at Coalwood were closed.
The mines at Caretta produced a steady amount of coal annually, although employment went down throughout the latter half of the 20th century.3 This did not correspond to lower production numbers due to an increased reliance on technology, ending at the coal market bust in 1982 that resulted in a 33% reduction in demand. When the mine was reopened in 1983, the amount of miners needed was far fewer, and the operations lingered on for three more years before closing for good.
Next on the driving tour was Coalwood, a company owned town founded by George Lafayette Carter in 1905. The first inhabitants of the area, though, founded the community of Snakeroot at the junction of Wolfpen Branch and Clear Fork Branch. In 1904, work began on constructing the West Virginia Southwestern Railway from its junction with the Norfolk & Western at Gordon along the Tug Fork west of Roderfield. The 10-mile branch was completed to Coalwood and opened on April 10, 1905, and was owned and operated by the Norfolk & Western as their Clear Fork Branch.
In 1922, Carter sold the mine and town to the Consolidation Coal Company, who built the community a new clubhouse. Consolidation owned the property until March 16, 1933 when the company went into default, at which time Carter regained control. In 1947, the coal operations and town were sold to a group of industrialists from Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Interlake Iron Corporation, and the Steel Company of Canada who renamed the company to the Olga Coal Company. In 1956, the Coalwood mine was connected to the Caretta mine, which was also owned by Olga, but by 1959, the Caolwood operations were dismantled.
In 1980, the Olga Coal Company was purchased by the LTV Corporation, and the Coalwood mine was closed six years later. At that time, the houses and businesses were still company owned – one of the last in the United States, and were sold to the respective residents and business owners.
Finally, it was onward to Gary, a coal mining community named after U.S. Steel Chairman Judge Elbert Gary, and was the hub of operations for U.S. Steel’s Gary operations, which included numerous underground coal mines, coke ovens and preparation plants. Elbert, Filbert, Ream, Thorpe and Wilcoe were considered satellite coal camps around Gary, and for decades, the town held the distinction of having one of the largest preparation plants in the world: Alpheus Coal Preparation Plant.
Alpheus was built to serve United States Coal & Coke/United States Steel Operation No. 2’s operations. When the No. 2 mine was in full operation, plans were crafted to construct a tipple and coal preparation plant northwest of Gary. Metallurgical coal would be transported from the mines to the new facility, which would then use wet and dry processes to clean the coal for shipment. Coke ovens at United States Steel plans would churn out high quality coke for the pig iron blast furnaces that were used to make steel.
The first plan for Alpheus came in 1936, which called for the existing No. 2 tipple to be removed, and for a new five-track tipple and coal preparation plant to be constructed for the No. 4 seam at both the No. 1 and No. 2 operations, and for the No. 3 seam for the No. 10 operation. At peak, the plant would be able to handle 360 railroad cars a day, with a total capacity of 7 million tons of coal.
A new coal tipple opened for No. 2 in 1941, but work was not finished at Alpheus until 1948 due to World War II. Alpheus plant had an operating life of 20 years, and was mostly automated.
With an operation of this scale, a large refuse dump was required. A 1,500-foot long covered conveyor belt was constructed from the valley to the adjacent mountain top via a 1,500-foot long suspended bridge.
Alpheus was expanded in 1959, and renovated in 1985-1986, but by this time, the plant was not able to operate as efficiently as newer preparation plants – such as the plant near Mine No. 50 near Pineville, Kentucky. In 1986, Alpehus was closed and demolished in 1991.
An operation on the size of Alpheus, even though it was mostly automated, required a sizeable workforce. And the mines employed even more, so a school of some size was required. United States Coal & Coke Corporation, when constructing Gary, had allocated land for at least two schools. The first school, the Gary Grade School for white children, was built in November 1903. Another, for Negros, was built earlier in October 1903.
In 1913, a new Adkins District School, which served students from Gary Grade School, opened in 1913. This was supplemented with a larger two-story high school (Gary High) and gymnasium in 1924, and a classroom wing four years later. A gymnasium, music building and central utility plant was added later.
In September 1965, Gary District High was merged with Gary High, and the elementary school was moved to Gary District High. In 1978, Gary High School merged with Welch High to form the consolidated Mt. View High School. Although Gary High closed long ago, it remains in partial use as an outreach center.
Up the hollow from Gary High was Elbert-Filbert Public, located in Elbert. The school was used only for white children until integration, and was built in 1922. It serves today as a church.
The sun was starting to set at this point – at least deep within the hollows, where it seemingly starts going down after 2 PM due to the looming mountains and the narrow valleys. On the way out from Elbert, I passed back through Gary and decided to see more of the town for myself, and stumbled upon what was Gary District High School, which was for black children.
The Gary District High School was constructed as a six-room wood-framed structure in 1913. In 1922, the school was renamed to the Gary Negro High School.
Three years later, the Gary Negro High School burned and a new brick structure was constructed. The new two-story school featured ten classrooms, a library and gymnasium. But shortly after, Gary’s Negro schools faced an enrollment of 437, which was only increasing. Due to overcrowding, a new elementary school was completed adjacent to the high school in 1927/1928, but by September 1938, enrollment had increased to 650.
At the beginning of the fall term in 1954, students were given the option of remaining at Gary District High, or transferring to another school, such as Gary High. The majority of the students chose to remain at Gary District High, and the agreement remained in place until September 1965 when falling enrollment meant that all of the high school students were transferred to Gary High. The high school was converted into an elementary school until the entire complex was closed in 1975.
Abandoned for over 30 years, Gary District High is still in remarkably good condition in some rooms, and in total collapse in others. You’d typically find this in other locales, such as Detroit, where buildings abandoned for decades can still stand. But West Virginia?
An overview of the locations covered in this round-trip:
- Iaeger Graded and Junior High School
- Iaeger High School
- Jolo Grade School
- War High School
- Big Creek High School
- Alpheus Coal Preparation Plant
- Gary High School
- Elbert-Filbert Public
- Gary District High School
An overview of the Coal Camp series from January:
- Surveyor, West Virginia | Trap Hill High School
- Glen Rogers, West Virginia | Glen Rogers, West Virginia (town entry), Glen Rogers High School
- Man, West Virginia | Man Community Hospital,
- Jewell Valley, Virginia | Jewell Valley, Virginia (town entry)
I hope you enjoyed reading through the Coal Camp series from January, and I hope that some of the histories that were discussed were of some use. It’s hard to approach this part of West Virginia from any casual standpoint. The amount of history that is visible in each and every coal camp community, the stories that could be told of each passing derelict, and the bonds that were forever lost when the mines began closing down is hard to capture, both in writing and from a photographic standpoint. My reach in this was to explain a little of the history without going extensively into details, and to photograph a little bit of what I have seen and experienced. I’ve only touched upon the subject of coal mining in this region, and for better or for worse, it still is a top employer in this area.
Coal provides the jobs, and has done so for over one-hundred years. But coal is no longer king – especially in the county that I explored for this particular writing. Going from near 100,000 in population to the low 20,000’s, and seeing entire communities vanish under the effects mountaintop removal, bulldozed for flood remediation projects, and washed away in the spring rain, it’s hard to not feel a bit worried that this region will only continue to decline. The only saving grace is tourism for the long-haul, but even the effects of that is muted in an area where the economy remains in tatters.
Be on the lookout for more updates from this region as time permits. There is a wealth of knowledge stored in the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, and plenty still left to see and photograph. Thank you for reading!