The story of a forgotten America.

The Rise of Coal in Wise County, Virginia

The rise of coal in Virginia in the early 1900s was propelled by the expansion of railroads and the increasing demand from industrializing cities. This era saw the development of many new coal mines in the Appalachian region, transforming local economies and shaping the landscape of communities in southwestern Virginia.

In 1866, the establishment of Wise County, Virginia, was marked by the merging of territories from Lee, Scott, and Russell counties. 1 The county was named in honor of General Henry A. Wise, who held the position of governor at that time. During this period, the region had a relatively sparse population, with only 3% of the land being cleared and used for cultivation. The primary sources of income for the residents were centered around cattle and hog raising, hunting, trapping, and trading in furs and pelts, as well as ginseng digging. Notably, timber was not highly valued, and much of it was simply burned for agricultural purposes.

In December 1879, an influential event took place at a club dinner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where General John D. Imboden delivered a captivating speech about the vast untapped iron ore and coal reserves in southwest Virginia. 1 This speech left a lasting impression on the audience, prompting some of them to commission Imboden to conduct a thorough examination and report on the available resources. Imboden then embarked on a journey to assess the iron ore and coalfields in Wise and Lee counties, traveling to Bristol, Virginia, on the Tennessee border, and conducting surveys on horseback. During his expedition, he secured options on three sizable coal properties. Subsequently, C. S. O. Tintsman and associates from Pittsburgh acquired the Olinger survey, which encompassed an impressive 42,000 acres.

In March 1881, E. K. Hyndman, the superintendent of the Western Division of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, became interested in another substantial tract of land spanning 25,000 acres. 1 At the time, Hyndman was actively involved in developing the Connellsville coalfield for the Connellsville Coal & Iron Company, comprising individuals from Philadelphia and Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. Hyndman successfully garnered interest in his Virginia properties from these investors, leading to the official chartering of the Virginia Coal & Iron Company in 1882.

The 1890-91 period witnessed the entry of railroads into the southwest Virginia coalfields, recognizing the potential opportunities there. 1 In 1890, the first coal was extracted from Looney Creek and transported via the South Atlantic & Ohio Railroad to Bristol.

By 1896, the Virginia Coal & Iron Company completed the construction of its inaugural coal camp at Stonega, 3 which included a hundred coke ovens. 1 In the following year, Stonega boasted a population of 1,200 residents and 350 coke ovens, along with essential amenities such as a company store, a post office, a school, a church, and telegraph and telephone lines. 3 Housing for miners consisted of four-room, single-story dwellings clustered on the hillsides, while company officials resided in more spacious two-story dwellings near the town center. There were noticeable disparities in housing conditions, with Black residents assigned to less desirable accommodations, while efforts were made to provide more favorable facilities to immigrants, whom the company sought to attract. At its peak, the community had 702 single-family dwellings. The uniqueness of the industrial village carved out of the wilderness was so remarkable that in 1898, Bristol organized an excursion train to Stonega for visitors to admire its marvels.

As the coke industry experienced steady growth, the company expanded its capacity to produce one million tons of coke annually, utilizing a total of 1,750 ovens. 1 However, a downturn in the iron industry resulted in reduced demand for coke. Consequently, the company shifted its focus towards mining domestic steam and gas coal instead.

In June 1902, the Stonega Coke & Coal Company was established, assuming control over the operational properties of the Virginia Coal & Iron Company. 1 3 Under this new entity, mines and operations were initiated in Osaka in 1902, Roda in 1903, and Arno in 1908. Further expansions occurred with the acquisition of Imboden and Keokee in 1910, followed by the construction of the Exeter Colliery in 1917. Subsequent mining activities led to the opening of Dunbar in 1919 and the completion of Derby in 1923. A mixing plant was later constructed at the Derby Colliery in 1937. 2

Similar to the challenges faced in densely populated urban areas, the concentration of hundreds of people in narrow valleys posed significant difficulties in ensuring access to clean water and establishing an effective sewage and refuse disposal system. 3 When Stonega was initially established, it lacked advanced amenities, and basic privies were positioned over Callahan Creek. However, Stonega Coke & Coal swiftly took measures to improve the sanitation and water facilities in its towns.

In 1915, a comprehensive sewer system was constructed in Andover, followed by the laying of pipes between houses and fire hydrants in Roda in 1916. 3 These pipes were connected to a water tank that received its supply from artesian wells. The towns were also connected to a centralized garbage incinerator. These initiatives aimed to enhance the overall sanitary conditions of the communities.

Furthermore, the company undertook additional efforts to control the outbreak of communicable diseases. This involved implementing improved sanitation practices, providing inoculations, establishing bathhouses, and conducting health education programs. 3 Through these measures, the company successfully managed to curb the spread of epidemics in the region.

By 1940, the Stonega Coke & Coal Company had developed the capacity to produce all grades of domestic, steam, and stoker coal. In April 1964, the company and Westmoreland Coal merged to create the 13th largest coal mining company in the nation, boasting revenues of $20 million. 4 Westmoreland Coal, being twice as old as Stonega, was chosen as the name for the newly formed entity. These two companies had been amalgamated since 1929. 5

  1. “Stonega Coke & Coal Company is Directly Associated with Rapid Development of Virginia Section.” The Post, 11 Oct. 1934, p. 6.
  2. “Stonega Company Is This Section’s Largest Industry.” The Post, 15 Aug. 1940, p. 8.
  3. Shifflett, Crandall A. Coal Towns: Life. University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 37-38, 56-57.
  4. “Stonega to merge with Westmoreland to form $20,000,000 firm.” The Post, 2 Apr. 1964, p. 1.
  5. Stonega Coke and Coal Company.” SNAC.

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