Gary, West Virginia is a former company town in McDowell County and was named after U.S. Steel Chairman Judge Elbert Gary. Elbert, Filbert, Ream, Thorpe, and Wilcoe were satellite coal camps around Gary, and for decades, the town held the distinction of having one of the largest preparation plants in the world.
Gary was constructed in 1904 by the U.S. Coal & Coke Company, a subsidiary of the U.S. Steel Corporation. 1 It was named for Judge Elbert H. Gary who oversaw the reorganization of the Illinois Steel Corporation in Chicago, which transformed into the fully integrated Federal Steel Company. At the same time, Andrew Carnegie, who had built the Carnegie Steel Company, was looking to sell off his vast steel mills. Gary helped persuade J. Pierpoint Morgan to purchase Carnegie and merge it with Federal Steel in 1901, which became U.S. Steel.
Morgan had interests in the Gary region, tracing back to a business deal by Bramwell, West Virginia banker Isaac T. Mann. Mann who had made an offer to purchase 200,000 acres of land from the Flat Top Land Association, a subsidiary of the Norfolk & Western Railway. 1 3 The respective company attorneys offered the land to Mann for a low-ball $50,000 as a joke, thinking that the land, with its challenging topography and limited access, was worthless; Mann purchased the land without hesitation.
Mann traveled to New York and met with Morgan who backed the venture. Mann returned to West Virginia, sold the land back to the Flat Top Land Association for $20 million and arranged for a lease of 50,000 acres along Sandlick Creek of the Tug Fork 3 for Morgan’s newly formed U.S. Coal & Coke Company. Mann profited heavily, allowing him to invest in the mining, land and banking industries and maintain his grand estate at Bramwell. He later served as president of the Bank of Bramwell and the Pocahontas Fuel Company. 1 2
Construction of Gary began in 1901. 3 By 1915, the company town boasted 1,479 miners and at its peak, it served as the nucleus for 12 satellite company-owned communities. It was also the site of the Alpheus Coal Preparation Plant, the largest coal preparation plant in the world. 1
Gary served as a model company town as it was well managed, highlighted by the U.S. Coal Commission, who gave the town a score of 90 out of 100 points, the highest rated community in southern West Virginia and one of the highest in the nation. 1 3 Gary was also diverse. In a 1915 West Virginia Bureau of Mines report, there was a nearly equal number of white and black citizens, and a substantial number of Hungarians, Rumanians, Italians, Poles, and others of Slavic descent. 3
By World War II, Gary boasted nearly 15,000 residences, 20 churches, 10 company stores, numerous restaurants and theaters, several athletic fields, a bowling alley, tennis courts, and a company-owned dairy farm in a nearby county that kept the town supplied with fresh dairy products year-round. 3
By the 1950s, some of the original U.S. Coal & Coke mines had been exhausted, but Gary remained the heart of U.S. Steel’s coal mining operations. In 1969, U.S. Steel began to sell off company-owned assets, such as residences and stores, to independent owners and operators, and in 1971, the company oversaw the incorporation of Gary. 1
The 1970s saw an uptick in coal production but it was short-lived. The 1980s saw a dramatic decline in coal output, leading to the outright closure of the underground mines in Gary in 1986. The Alpheus Coal Preparation Plant was closed and later demolished. 1