General History of Mining in West Virginia and the Fairmont Coal Field

An Introduction to coal mining in Northern West Virginia

Coal from the Watson Mine
Coal from the Watson Mine near
Fairmont, 1920s

Coal mining in West Virginia extends as far back as the late 18th century, when local landowners who discovered coal outcrops on their property opened “coal banks” for nearby residents to access for heating. Not until the 1880s, however, when the pace of industrialization quickened across Appalachia, did coal become an integral part of the state’s social, cultural, economic, and political development. Alongside other forms of resource extraction including timber, oil, and gas, coal became “synonymous with the state’s capitalist transformation.” This transformation altered local communities, reshaped politics, and created a new labor force in the Mountain State.

Industrialization and Railroads

Railroad Cars With Coal
"West Virginia, A railroad yard with cars loaded with coal," Oct. 1935
Office of War Information Photograph Collection (LOC)

Industrialization in West Virginia occurred in different areas at different times. The Upper Monongahela (Mon) region, where the Federal No. 3 mine is located, developed before the state’s interior and southern counties. This was largely due to the presence of navigable rivers and the early development of railroads. As regional historian Ronald L. Lewis explains, “Typically, development occurred at strategic locations in the emerging transportation nexus, first along the major streams, later augmented by roads and increasingly during the last half of the nineteenth century by railroads.” Morgantown, located on the Monongahela River, became one of the key locations for the exchange of goods in the early nineteenth century. But it was the construction of railroads that truly transformed West Virginia’s economy. The Baltimore and Ohio trunk lines had almost an immediate effect on northern West Virginia’s economy. The first line, completed in 1853, stretched through the eastern panhandle to Fairmont and extended on to Wheeling, while the second, built in 1857, extended from Grafton to Parkersburg. These lines facilitated the shipment of livestock, timber, industrial goods, and coal to markets outside of the Appalachian region. Their presence also sparked a spirit of entrepreneurship and progress in the northern region.

Railroads brought capital and prosperity into the Upper Monongahela region, and new towns sprang up along the rail lines, while older, established towns boomed. The Fairmont-Clarksburg metro area became the Upper Mon’s core center of commerce. Many of the individuals promoting this development were the same local elites who fought for and achieved statehood in 1863. These men gained power and prestige “based on how well they promoted development, brought capital into the region, and provided employment and progress to the people.” They had demanded statehood so that they could develop the region at will, and although development was sporadic between the 1860s and 1880s, it finally took off in 1888. By the late 1880s, national industrial growth prompted a coal boom that in turn fomented remarkable population growth in the Upper Mon’s urban centers. Indeed, the population of the ten counties in this region doubled between 1890 and 1920.

The Coal Boom

Counties in the Fairmont Coal Field
The Fairmont Coal Field

Coal was the driving force behind this regional boom. During this period, coal production increased by an astonishing 1800 percent. In addition to the B&O trunk lines, another railroad was developed that facilitated the extraction of the region’s black gold. The Monongahela River Railroad, developed in 1890 by Parkersburg-based magnate Johnson N. Camden and Fairmont-based James O. and Clarence W. Watson, ran in between Fairmont and Clarksburg. This line, along with the lower B&O trunk line, serviced the Fairmont coalfield. Part of the expansive Pittsburgh coal seam, the Fairmont field spans seven counties, including Monongalia, where the Federal No. 3 mine is located.

This field produces high quality, low sulfur bituminous coal, useful for coking and producing iron and steel. Coal extracted from this area serviced both eastern and western markets, but it was also shipped north to Pittsburgh. The geographic location of the Fairmont field was significant to local labor struggles for two reasons: competition with other bituminous coalfields and its position between union and non-union areas. As we shall see, area coal operators had to compete with the Central Competitive Field, which was composed of unionized coalfields in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and southern West Virginia’s rich fields, which remained largely non-union until the New Deal.

The Difference Between North WV Fields and South WV Fields

It is important to note a few differences between West Virginia’s northern and southern coalfields. First, outside capitalists largely developed the southern coalfields, whereas local businessmen developed those in the northern part of the state. Absentee ownership meant that coal camp conditions were often worse than their northern counterparts because the owners had little vested interest in improving those communities. But it also meant that coal miners in the southern counties had a larger degree of freedom to explore unionization. In the northern coalfields, local elites’ political power enabled them to keep tighter control over their employees. The composition of the labor force also differed, and the varied backgrounds of miners influenced the frequency and nature of strikes. The northern coalfields had a larger percentage of southern and eastern European immigrants than those in the south, and these individuals were a powerful force for labor militancy.

Conversely, it was native white miners in the south who most commonly pushed to organize. In spite of these differences, miners’ efforts to organize the Fairmont field should not be seen as having occurred in a bubble. As we shall in the discussion of the Labor History of the Fairmont field, international, national, state, and local trends and events all shaped labor’s struggle to unionize West Virginia’s coalfields, and the state’s southern and northern miners influenced each other in some significant ways.

History of the The New England Gas and Coke Company

The New England Gas and Coke Company is a voluntary association formed by Henry Melville Whitney in 1897. Their byproduct coke plant with 400 ovens was located on the banks of the Mystic River in Everett, an industrial suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. All the gas produced at their plant was sold to the Boston Consolidated Gas Company. Organized in 1902, Massachusetts Gas Companies was established as a stock-holding trust association to consolidate several incorporated gas companies, including the reorganization of New England Gas and Coke Company. In the same year, the New England Gas and Coke Company signed a new contract with Dominion Coal Company to keep a surplus of 50,000 tons of coal at their plant, with the provision that New England Gas and Coke could terminate the contract with six months’ notice. This requirement was prophesied to be a foreshadowing of the purchase of a coal mine by Massachusetts Gas to supply the coke plant in Everett, and, subsequently, the Boston gas companies.

Entrance to Fed No. 3
The Entrance to Federal No. 3 mine, 1927

Reorganized and incorporated in 1907, the New England Coal and Coke Company served as a holding company, which owned stock in the Massachusetts Steamship Company. This was one of the largest coal shipping plants on the Eastern seaboard. In the same year, the United Mine Workers of America announced their intention to organize the coalfields near Fairmont, West Virginia. In 1897, a strike caught the attention of the nation. In 1908, the company acquired the mines and property of the Federal Coal and Coke Company in Fairmount, West Virginia. The New England Coal and Coke Company intended to reinvest in their purchase to develop its acquisitions. method for loading and discharging coal at our works in Everett.” They intended to engage in the “wholesale coal business,” with the advertised ability to handle 1,000 tons of coal per hour. In 1914, the Massachusetts Gas Companies was credited with the slogan, “from mine to gas jet” by the editors of the Boston Globe. The limited access to foreign markets during World War I provided encouragement for this new diversification strategy known as vertical integration, a process first introduced in the steel industry by nineteenth-century industrial tycoon, Andrew Carnegie. The Massachusetts Gas Companies sought to control all levels of production from mining to market. There were not the only ones. Between 1915 and 1922, several companies based outside of West Virginia, including the New England Fuel and Transportation Company from Boston, Massachusetts, began to establish new operations in the Fairmont fields. From 1919 to 1920, coal production in Monongalia County increased from 605 to 977 tons, the highest increase of all counties in West Virginia.

Selected Bibliography and Acknowledgements