The Fading Glory of Coal Country: Gary, Iaegar, and War

The coalfields of southern West Virginia, once teeming with life and industry, now stand as somber reminders of a bygone era. My recent journey through McDowell County, deep within the heart of the state’s coal country, unveiled a landscape etched with the remnants of a once-thriving mining empire, now grappling with the harsh realities of economic decline and depopulation.

The coalfields of southern West Virginia, once teeming with life and industry, now stand as somber reminders of a bygone era. My recent journey through McDowell County, deep within the heart of the state’s coal country, unveiled a landscape etched with the remnants of a once-thriving mining empire, now grappling with the harsh realities of economic decline and depopulation.

The tour began on an auspicious note in Iaeger, where the sight of a Norfolk Southern Christmas caboose hinted at this town’s rail heritage. However, Iaeger’s symbol of civic pride, the Iaeger Graded and Junior High School built in 1922 lies in ruins – its rear auditorium and classrooms collapsed, the front façade exuding decay. Across the Tug Fork rail line stands Iaeger High School, constructed in 1918, in better repair but shuttered since its final class of 88 students graduated in 2010. High school students from Iaeger now attend the new River View High School that opened in August at Bradshaw. The site of Iaeger High will be replaced with a new Iaeger Elementary.

Nearby was the Jolo Grade School. The Art-Deco-inspired building was built as a Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works project and functions as a community center today.

A short drive brought me to War, renamed from Miners City to conform to postal conventions. The near-vacant downtown and abandoned homes revealed a declining community despite the sun’s rays. Nearby stood War High School, a three-story 1923 edifice built to serve the town’s once-booming population due to multiple mine openings and World War I industrial demand.

The journey continued through former company towns – Caretta was developed originally as a logging camp, then sold and resold between coal firms like a corporate game of hot potato before its final 1983 closure. Coalwood met a similar fate, founded by magnate George Lafayette Carter in 1905, only to see its operations dismantled by 1959 under the Olga Coal Company’s ownership.

However, Gary stood as the crown jewel of McDowell’s coal kingdom. Christened after U.S. Steel Chairman Elbert Gary, it served as a hub with vast underground mines, coke ovens, and the mammoth Alpheus Coal Preparation Plant – once the world’s largest, now demolished into rubble by 1991. An operation of such scale required a vast workforce, which the Gary schools provided.

The Gary Grade School for white students opened in 1903, followed shortly after by its counterpart for African Americans. The impressive Gary High School complex opened in 1924 with later expansions but closed by 1978 after the merger with Welch High into the consolidated Mt. View High. Nearby stood the Gary District High School for black pupils, a two-story 1925 brick structure featuring a gym, which admitted its final students in 1965 before closure a decade later. Now abandoned for over 30 years, its remarkably preserved and distressed spaces exist in eerie juxtaposition.

As dusk fell across the hollows, I couldn’t help but reflect on these proud communities forged through shared industrial toil, only to wither from societal forces beyond their control. The schools, churches, and gathering spaces that once bound them together now crumble, forsaken relics of more prosperous times.

While economic renewal remains uncertain, one truth persists – the stories etched into these Appalachian landscapes deserve preservation in the nation’s collective memory. For these hollows indelibly shaped America’s industrial might through the sacrifices of those who called them home, fuel for a fire that may smolder but shouldn’t be forgotten.


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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I was born and raised in McDowell County. My father, Joseph Lavender, was General Maintenance Foreman at #14 mine and then in later years became Superintendant of #4 mine. It was wonderful growing up in such a small community where everyone looked out for each other. It is indeed a shame that some of these communities no longer exist or are in ruins. Munson, where #14 mine was located, once a lovely and vital community with it’s own one-room school house, has actually been filled in and is sadly now nothing more than a pile of dirt.
I have been doing some research on the fourteen US Steel Coal Camps in Gary. I have been unable to find the name or any details about the name and location of #7 mine. Any information you can give me will be greatly appreciated.

Clincho Elementary School and Ervinton High school in Dickenson Co va are scheduled for demolition this month. I was looking at your pics of them and you mentioned you didn’t know how much longer they would be standing. Sad to see these old structures lost forever. Thanks for doing what you do!

Bravo for an important inclusion in what is the mining history of the United States. Your tenacity and courage are deeply appreciate, the simple act of caring for your fellow man and for this beautiful part of our country and all it has contributed. What is happening now is a disgrace, as many have profited from this earth and the many who went into the low of the mines at great cost to themselves and their families, and it would seem that those who profited would not just simply walk away and allow it to fall to ruin. As for fracking, etc. one reader refers to, it decimates the land and there is much research which confirms this for no other reason than for profit on the part of these business owners. As a capitalist, I have no problem with profit making. I do have a problem with those who destroy the health and lives of people living in those areas, let alone the land, Flint being one example as the source of toxicity in the water has an earlier history you can google, and walk away, never looking back.

Good story. But, I do want to inform you that the Iaeger Hgh School “auditorium” is just the Ieager High School Gymnasium. It is not the Bob N. Jack Auditorium. That is the name of of Mt. View High School Golden Nights’ Auditorium. Iaeger High kids were never lucky enough to have an auditorium. We always got the “short end of the stick” so to speak. But, we always did the best with what we had. Ou gymnasium was used for everything from basketball games, to band concerts, awards ceremonies, and graduations. But an auditorium is was not.

Thank you for sharing these photos. My dad's family is from Iaeger, and my granddaddy was the mayor for years. We lived there until 1977, and then moved to Wytheville, VA. We always spent holidays in Iaeger and a few weeks in the summer (if not the entire summer) and I still have family there. I recall driving from Wytheville to Iaeger at Christmas and seeing all the towns with the Christmas decorations and hearing Christmas music coming from the churches. I see the photos of Iaeger HS and remember how big an event homecoming was, and how my cousins told me there were pictures of my dad and his sister in one of the hallways in the high school. I live in Tampa, FL, and have for the past 10 years – seeing these photos makes me realize it's time for a trip home *smile*

You'll find a lot has changed! A new school is being built near Iaeger, which is replacing the former Iaeger HS. I love going through this part of West Virginia, no matter how depressed it may be in areas, is still very much beautiful.

I was born & raised in Mingo County West Virginia but I live in Florida today. A lot of old abandoned schools can be found there because the State has been in an economic free fall since the 1970s. Everything revolved around coal mining. As these mines closed, the ripple effect was devastating. Families moved away, and took a great database of alpha

Hello there. Thank you for these pictures and giving attention to the Coal Mining Camps in West Virginia. I am a Coal Miner's Granddaughter and love seeing the places where my family is from. That being said–I have a suggestion for you for your next trip. My family is from a part of Logan County called Elk Creek–near Amherstdale, WV. When I last visited there in the 1970's, the coal camp was pretty much gone–just a few buildings remained. I'd love to see what has become of it. I now live in North Carolina and can get pretty homesick for the mountains. I'd be very happy to see pictures from home–even if it is an abandoned home. Thank you so much.

I have some pics from Iager Intermediate and War Junior High if you're interested. I went there this weekend with my sister-in-law.

Dear Mr. Cahal, I enjoyed looking at your photographs of Jewell Valley and other areas. Your article contained some information that was very accurate, however, I take issue with some statements. I am a coal miner's wife and daughter and may I add, I am proud of all my family that

worked in the coal mining industry. I think it would have been appropriate to have shown some of the nice homes located in Buchanan County, not

all the focus on the negative side. Have you visited the Applachia School of Law, Buchanan County School of Pharmacy, and the new school

of optometry that is soon to be a reality in our area? I do not like to see the mountain removal pictures but I have seen some that have been

reclaimed which opened the area for future projects. Yes, Mr. Cahal, flooding of streams and rivers, has caused damage and destruction. This

was a problem that people experienced in the early years before mining became so prevelant in our area. I am sure we cannot blame all the

flooding in Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee and all the other states on mountain top mining. I believe miners earn ever dollar they make and

they are to be admired as they risk their lives every day so you and others may enjoy life to the fullest. I suggest you turn off your electricity

for one week and realize how COAL effects all of our lives. I am glad I was born in coal country as I have seen all the changes that have emerged

from a gift that God created for His people. The main thing is to pray for all of our miners that they will always return home to their families after

a hard day's work which impacts the lives of everyone.

Thanks for this…I support the McDowell County Humane Society, even though I live in Kentucky–long story–and thought that this "might" be what most of McDowell County resembled. So sad to see these buildings not only abandoned, but decayed. The brick company housing could be beautiful.

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