Gary, West Virginia - Abandoned

Gary, West Virginia

Gary, West Virginia is a former company town in McDowell County. The town 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.


The town was constructed in 1904 by the U.S. Coal & Coke Company, a subsidiary of the U.S. Steel Corporation.1 Gary was named for Judge Elbert H. Gary, who oversaw the reorganization of the Illinois Steel Corporation in Chicago. Gary helped turn Illinois Steel 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, the Carnegie and Federal merged to form 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 almost immediately.

After the purchase, 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 town boasted 1,479 miners residing within its border and at its peak, Gary served as the nucleus for 12 satellite company-owned communities. The town was well planned and served as a model coal town for others. When the U.S. Coal Commission studied the town, they gave Gary a score of 90 out of a possible 100 points, the highest rated town in southern West Virginia and one of the highest in the nation.1 3

By World War II, Gary boasted nearly 15,000 residences, 20 churches, 10 company stores, many restaurants and retail outlets, clubhouses and athletic fields. The community also had a bowling alley, tennis courts, theaters and other amenities, such as a company-owned dairy farm in a nearby county that kept the town supplied with fresh dairy products year-round.3

The community was diverse as well. 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 the 1950’s, some of the original United States Coal & Coke mines had closed, but Gary remained essentially the heart of U.S. Steel’s coal mining operations. The population peaked and began to decline. In 1969, U.S. Steel began to sell off company-owned assets, such as residences and retail outlets, to independent owners and operators. In 1971, U.S. Steel oversaw the incorporation of Gary.1

The 1970’s saw an uptick in coal production and the town began to see new growth, which was ultimately short-lived. The 1980’s 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, once the largest in the world, was closed and later demolished.1

Sources

11 Comments

  1. looking for report or list of injuries that occured between 1923 – 1926 for a Alfred Lee Gold. any assistance would be appreciated.

    best regards,

    Linda

  2. My great grandfather was killed in a coal mine in Gary west Virginia June 15, 1956 Flay Rhodes. Just looking for info

  3. I was first African American woman to work underground fir u.s.steel in Elbert west va. I was 26 now I am 65 but it’s depressing what happened to that area because of greed

    • Hi Beverly,
      I would like to hear more about your story. Are you willing to share more about your whole experience? We are trying to make a power point about the area so that possibly the Coal Heritage Trail with extend into Gary and surrounding areas and would love to hear any information you have. Sincerely, Donna Detrick

  4. I come from coal mining people on both sides of my family, all from West Virginia. I am interested in learning more about the coal mining community of Gary, Welch and Filbert. My grandfather and 3 of his sons worked in the mines at, “#9.” The family lived in company housing that was integrated with black, and eastern European families. I have a few pictures and census data from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

  5. I’m from Gary it was the best life my grandfather had 43 years at the mine my dad worked in the mine .i was a Gary coaldigger an proud of it!!

  6. My family emigrated from Hungary to Gary to work in the mines. My grandfather was George Roth and I am looking for information before making a visit. Does anyone still have Hungarian roots in the area?

  7. My dad is from Gary (Donald Myers) and his dad was a coal miner who died in 1950 of black lung. Most of my dad’s uncles also died of black lung. My father loved growing up in Gary, and said it was an unusual place to be due to all of the different ethnicities and races that lived there together, very unusual for the time in the South. He said everyone got along, and that his two best friends were African Americans, but that they had to go to different schools. One of our favorite family recipes is cabbage balls, most certainly picked up from a neighbor from another country. My Granny continued to live in Gary in a former company house until she passed away in her late 90’s. The house used to be a duplex-type house but had been converted into one large house.

  8. I have a number of copies of The Coal Digger from the first school paper in McDowell County. Dates from September, 1941 – April, 1942 during the beginning of World War 2. Email me if there is interest. Would like to give them to someone whose family member was a student or teacher in the school during that time period. Thank you.

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