Gary

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.






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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






Sources

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  1. 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.
  2. McGehee, Stuart. “Gary: A First Class Mining Operation.” N.d. TS. Eastern Regional Coal Archives. Craft Memorial Library, Bluefield.
  3. McGehee, Stuart. “Gary: A First-Class Operation.” Goldenseal Fall 1988: n. pag. Print.

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18 Comments

    1. I am from a family of eight children, ages ranging from 79 to 66 (All are still living) and we were all born and raised there except my older sister. My dad worked in the Number 2 coalmine until his death in 1968. He was only 61 years young. It was a wonderful place with all the different ethnicity races and we all got along well each other. I would like to have The Coal Digger papers. I visited our home place about a year ago and the house we lived in was no longer there and the school is being used for church groups to come and help those older people to do home repairs.

    2. I am from a family of eight children, ages ranging from 79 to 66 (All are still living) and we were all born and raised there except my oldest sister. My dad worked in the Number 2 coalmine until his death in 1968. He was only 61 years young. It was a wonderful place to live with all the different ethnicity races and we all got along well each other. I would like to have The Coal Digger papers. I visited our home place about a year ago and the house we lived in was no longer there and the school is being used for church groups to come and help those older people to do home repairs.

  1. Hello my dad worked at no 9 in filbert from 1969 to 1986 and I am looking for pictures of the mines during its operating days if anyone can help thank you

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. I lived in a Hollow in Mercer county called Hunk Hollow. The house they lived in is still here. That’s why they call it Hunk Hollow because the Hungarians worked and lived there. Good luck on search.

  4. 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!!

  5. 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.

  6. 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

    1. 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

  7. 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

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