Coal Mining History in West Virginia

Coal mining is the largest economic mineral mined in the state of West Virginia. There are hundreds of operations that employ thousands of men and women throughout the state. Coal mining not only employs citizens but also impacts other secondary businesses as well. Throughout many small towns in West Virginia, a majority of small businesses depend on the coal industry for their economic survival.

The Early Years

A man named John Peter Salley took a journey throughout the mountains of West Virginia in 1742 and he documented a large amount of coal around the Kanawha River. This area later became known as Coal River, and his discovery became the initial discovery of the mineral known as coal or black gold.

Many settlers had known that coal existed throughout most of West Virginia; however, virtually no substantial mining operations occurred in West Virginia till the mid-1800s. Right up until that period, there was no desire to mine the coal because the state had an abundance of timber. During this period coal was mainly used by local blacksmiths and citizens that lived around the resource who discovered that coal can heat their house.

Around 1810, folks living in Wheeling, West Virginia started to use the coal extracted from a nearby coalfield to heat their homes. During 1811, steamboats that operated on the Ohio River used coal that was found on the Ohio River banks to run their boats. In 1817, coal began to take the place of charcoal as the energy-producing product for quite a few Kanawha River salt furnace operations. Then in 1836, West Virginia coalfields started to receive a lot of interest from outsiders.

Then around 1840, the entire coal production in West Virginia was around 300,000 tons, which 200,000 tons were utilized by the Kanawha salt furnace operations during this time and virtually all of the remaining ended up being used by manufacturers as well as citizens in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Somewhere between 1840 and 1860 numerous coal organizations were being structured and this started the period when outsiders were coming to West Virginia to get involved in the coal industry. Foreign investors started trickling in the West Virginia coal industry and this started the expansion of coal mining in West Virginia.

When the Civil War started the Kanawha Valley coal mines ended up being shut down as the Confederate soldiers had established camps around the Kanawha River valley. Plus, during the Civil War, many of the dams were destroyed thus impeding the shipment of coal. Further north, the coalfields around Elkins and Fairmont stayed productive, furnishing coal to the Union soldiers to help with their camp living. Also, coal mined from this region was shipped up and down the East coast to help heat homes during the Civil War.

When the Civil War came to an end, interest started to pick back up on the abundance of West Virginia’s coal resources. This point in time helped start the progression of the coal mining industry in West Virginia. Mining of coal extended to various new discovered coal fields within the State, and by the late 1880s there ended up being quite a few mining companies running coal operations within Fayette, Harrison, Mineral, Monongalia, Marion, Ohio, Putnam, and Mason counties in West Virginia.

During this period of time, the Fairmont area was one of the largest operations due to the fact that this coalfield was in the heart of what is known as the Pittsburgh coal seam that is still being mined today. Due to the output of this coalfield sales were picking up and more and more people were becoming employed to work the established coal mines. See also this article titled “Coal To Diamond”. Many people believe that diamonds are made from coal through some sort of metamorphism deep in the earth but that’s fiction.

The southern coalfields of West Virginia weren’t really mined until around 1870. Many people knew that the coal was there in the southern part of the State for a long time, but didn’t have the transportation and money to start mining the coal during this period of time. Just as the Pittsburgh coal seam was the largest up north, the south’s largest coalfield is the Flat Top-Pocahontas coalfield, situated mostly within Mercer and McDowell counties. The particular coalfield began shipment of coal around 1883 and expanded rapidly during this time.

The majority of the southern coalfields, including Kanawha, Logan, New River, Winding Gulf flourished once the Chesapeake and Ohio train company expanded their tracks in this region. This allowed for shipment of coal thus increasing coal mining operations within the region.