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New River Gorge West Virginia Coal Mining Heritage

For five decades, coal mining in West Virginia helped power industry and expansion throughout the United States.  Without the rich coal mines of this and other regions, the industrial revolutions would not have been the world changing and country-building time that it was.

Much of our country was built on with coal, from steam engines trains transporting food and cattle to market to factories that produced sewing machines and automobiles and to the power plants that still make much of our country run.

Companies and Coal Miners

The story of coal in West Virginia is one of technological innovation and greed, wealth and suffering, pride and violence.  Coal companies made fistfuls of money on the backs and lives of their miners who worked in dangerous and unhealthy conditions and often ended up in debt to the famous ‘Company Stores’. 

Coal Towns were owed and controlled by the companies and most families had little hope of ever living in anything but poverty when everything they could buy, everywhere they could live and all the work they could do was controlled from top to bottom by corporate interests.

The trials and cultural impact on the people of West Virginia were made infamous by songs such as “Sixteen Tons” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter“. 

In the 1920’s, attempts at unionization among the miners lead to the Coal Wars,  uprisings throughout coal country that often came to violence as the upper class mine owners and poor workers clashed over working conditions, wages and work hours, and company control over most aspects of their workers lives.

Coal Technologies

The technologies created to extract, process and burn the coal for fuel were created as the industry bloomed and grew. 

Complex systems of tunnels, ventilation and transportation systems for both men and mined coal were created throughout and deep beneath the mountains of West Virginia.  Rail lines snaked through towns, down the New River Gorge and over mountain passes to carry the coal

Coal coking ovens, and heating ovens were invented and reinvented and re-innovated for decades.  (Coke is the solid carbonaceous material derived from destructive distillation of low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal. Wikipedia).  Here are examples of the complex designs and evolution of the coal ovens. The layout and design of the Nuttallburg, West Virginia coal transport system can be seen here.

Coal Mining Ghost Towns

More than 50 mining communities existed in the New River Gorge Region during coal’s heyday. Some, like Thurmond, have been preserved and attract many visitors every year.  Some are only ruins gradually being reclaimed by the forest.

A complete list of Coal Ghost Towns and an interactive map showing their locations can be found here.

The Coal Heritage Trail

West Virginia’s Coal Heritage Trail is a scenic byway that winds through the heart of West Virginia Coal Country.  Along the way, visitors can explore hosts towns, historic buildings, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine where visitors can explore a mine underground.   With a map of the Coal Heritage Trail route in hand, exploring West Virginia’s cola mining history become a great adventure.

Coal Mine Tours

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Youth Museum: