Gary, West Virginia, a coal mining community in McDowell County named after U.S. Steel Chairman Judge Elbert Gary, 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.
Gary was McDowell County’s coal town gem, located on West Virginia State Route 103 south of the county seat, Welch. Noted as being the last company-owned town in the region, the community was built by the U.S. Coal & Coke Company, a subsidary of the U.S. Steel Corporation, in 1904.1 Named for Judge Elbert H. Gary, who oversaw the reorganization of the Illinois Steel Corporation in Chicago and who helped turn the company into the 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 the company and combine it with Federal Steel. In 1901, the two giants merged.
Morgan had interests in the Gary region, tracing back to a business deal by Bramwell banker Isaac T. Mann. Mann 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 mere $50,000 as a joke, thinking that the land – with its challenging topography and limited access, was worthless. Mann, however, purchased the land almost immediately.
After the purchase, Mann traveled to New York and met with Morgan who backed his 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 at Gary began in 1901.3 At its peak, Gary served as the nucleus for 12 satellite company-owned communities and by 1915, there were 1,479 miners residing in Gary.
Gary served as a model coal company. 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 hosted nearly 15,000 residences, boasting 20 churches, 10 company stores, restaurants and independent retail stores, clubhouses and athletic fields. The community also had a bowling alley, tennis courts, theaters and other amenities. Among the amenities was U.S. Steel’s 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 Americans and African-Americans, and a substantial number of Hungarians, Rumanians, Italians, Poles and others of Slavic descent.3
By the 1950s, 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, to independent owners and operators. In 1971, U.S. Steel oversaw the incorporation of Gary.1
The 1970s saw an uptick in coal production and the town once began to revive itself. But the 1980s saw a dramatic decline in coal output, reducing the number of workers needed in the mines. After the mines closed in 1986, and the Alpheus Coal Preparation Plant shuttered, U.S. Steel began demolishing company houses and support facilities, such as churches and schools.1
Today, Gary boasts over 900 persons.
- Torok, George D. “Gary.” A guide to historic coal towns of the Big Sandy River Valley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004. 131-134. Print.
- McGehee, Stuart. “Gary: A First Class Mining Operation.” N.d. TS. Eastern Regional Coal Archives. Craft Memorial Library, Bluefield.
- McGehee, Stuart. “Gary: A First-Class Operation.” Goldenseal Fall 1988: n. pag. Print.