Several years ago, I embarked on a winding trip through the Winding Gulf coalfield of West Virginia, to explore and discover the history of this once bustling part of the nation. The Winding Gulf coalfield rapidly developed in the early 20th century with the advent of deep underground mines that required thousands of miners – and their families.
The Winding Gulf featured low-volatile “smokeless” coal, ideal for coking and steel operations. The earliest mines came in the first decade of the 1900’s when the Beckley seam was mined. After the Beckley seam was exhausted in the 1950’s, companies moved onto the Pocahontas No. 3 and No. 4 seams.
One of my first stops was Glen Rogers, a former company town in Wyoming County. It featured some of the largest mines along the Virginian Railway system – and some of the deadliest mines in the United States. The company that operated the mine went bankrupt in 1960.
What was fascinating about visiting Glen Rogers was the amount of intact infrastructure – from a former amusement hall to a long disused hotel. What was once called a progressive mining community was described as a ghost town by 1965.
Residents were taken back with shock when the announcement came in 1960 that Old Ben Coal of Chicago had declared bankruptcy and abruptly closed operations at Glen Rogers. The company had poorly managed the mine, using outdated, second-hand equipment, and operated it with ill-regard to miner safety. To the coal barons, workers were an expense akin to machines – leading to over 130 preventable deaths in the few decades the mine was in operation. Despite cutting corners in a booming economy, the mine failed.
To make matters worse, residents had to sell what little belongings they owned to leave Glen Rogers. The company owned the town and refused to sell the homes to the residents. It also refused to sell its commercial buildings and expansive land holdings for other developments. Within a few years, Glen Rogers was devoid of activity with most of the mining site scrapped.
Nearby is the Glen Rogers High School, constructed in 1951 to replace an earlier structure. It closed in 1992 when enrollment in the school dipped under 200 students and demolished in 2013 after an arson destroyed much of the building.
Nearby was Trap Hill School in Surveyor which served the Trap Hill district from its inception in 1930 until a new facility was constructed in the 2000’s. It was demolished in 2013.
The Winding Gulf region has declined significantly in the past several decades as Pocahontas No. 3 and No. 4 seams have been depleted of easily accessible reserves of coal. Only a handful of facilities are still operating with just a thousand or so miners. With the advent of cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas brought on by hydraulic exploration in the northern reaches of the state, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and stricter environmental regulations on antiquated coal-fired power plants, coal – and its mining and offshoots, will continue its inevitable downward slide and eventually become an irrelevant economic factor.