Prior to the industrialization of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, the area was characterized by a few settlers dependent upon subsistence farming and some trading. The arrival of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway along the New River in 1872 led to the transformation of the New River valley into one of the world’s most important coal mining regions. As the railways were extended up into nearby valleys, including Laurel and Piney Creeks, coal became more accessible. The coal rush was on.
In 1863, West Virginia produced just 444,648 short tons of coal, the majority of it utilized in the burgeoning salt industry near Charleston. Just ten years later, at the advent of the earliest coal mines in the New River valley, mines in the state produced nearly one million short tons. By 1883, that figure had increased to 2.3 million tons and by 1893, it had vastly increased to 10.7 million tons. By 1924, coal production had spiked at nearly 156.6 million tons.
The boom in the New River Gorge, which led to the development of Thurmond, Fayette, Kay Moor, Nuttallburg, Thayer, and several mines along Laurel Creek, and the creation of a miners’ hospital at McKendreee, was relatively short lived.
The increased mechanization of the coal industry reduced the number of miners needed, a process that began as early as the 1890s. Miners were concerned that the machines would eventually replace them, but coal mine operators did not want to pay for the expensive equipment. But as new methods and machines were introduced, machine mining became the dominant method of coal extraction as it was more economical and productive. By the 1950s, nearly all of the coal extracted was by machine as one machine could produce as much coal as four to seven miners using picks and shovels.
By the 1950s, the once vast underground coal reserves in the New River gorge had all but been extracted. Strip mining continued on until the 1980s but it required relatively few workers as much of the work was mechanized. The region’s socioeconomic composition changed as the area slowly depopulated because of a lack of employment.
This post will be updated as more areas of the New River Gorge are explored.
Fayette and South Fayette
Fayette and South Fayette is a former coal camp established by the Fayette Coal & Coke Company in the shadow of the New River Gorge Bridge.
Kay Moor is a former coal camp built by the Low Moor Iron Company to supply coal to the company’s blast furnaces in Virginia. The site also featured 120 beehive ovens to bake coal into coke for pig-iron furnaces. The coke ovens were operated until the 1930s and underground coal mines were worked until 1962.
Laurel Creek, located between the Greenwood and Backus Mountains, was home to numerous coal mines and camps.
The McKendree Hospital complex is a former state-operated miners’ hospital between Thayer and Prince. It remained in use to serve miners until 1941. The complex was then reused as the West Virginia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Men and Women until 1956.
Nuttallburg was a coal mining venture that was spawned out of England-born entrepreneur John Nuttall. It was one of the earliest coal camps in the New River valley. Nuttallburg was later owned by the Ford Motor Company and remained operational until 1958.
Thayer is a former coal camp built by the Empriam Creek Coal & Coke Company to work the Buffalo and Slater mines along the Fire Creek seams. The community was also the hub of two sandstone quarries that mined the rock for refinement for the state’s glass industries. The underground coal reserves were exhausted by the 1950s, although some minor strip mining continued on for some years after.
Thurmond is a storied town located along the New River in Fayette County, West Virginia. It was once the hub of local operations for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and the center of commerce.