Colonization of the Coal Camps

Gary, West Virginia

Written by: Jeri Whitely

Coal company towns bear a strong likeness to early colonialism in the United States. The communities, which were defined by their natural resources, were created by business organizations, with one purpose in mind. The removal of coal and timber has benefited the powerful coal operators. The resources are depleted and the wealth has not benefited the coal towns. explains colonization as; "economic control over an area by occupying state that usually has organizational or technological superiority." The definition continues; "Imperialism has been a major colonizing force. The colony's population must be subdued or assimilated to the colonizer's way of life, or a modus vivendi otherwise imposed" (Colonization). This picture of colonization is a reminder of the European expansion into Africa and the Americas. Time has revealed this classic form of development is at best immoral and at its worse, destroys the human side of the people.

A common euphemistical statement is "Power corrupts and absolute power, corrupts absolutely".

When the idea of the communities was being considered, the overriding idea by James Pierpoint Morgan's, United States Steel Company, and the owners of the Norfolk & Western Railroad was of personal gain (McGehee). The means for obtaining the riches was the execution of a business plan. The plan involved shaping and changing the lives of the people, who would have the responsibility of mining the coal. The impact on the people would have a minor role in the business plan.

Common services such as education, church, and entertainment, would be an after thought, of the big plan. Any public services needed by the workers would be provided by the Company, which would lessen any governmental involvement.

"Company towns were places of stark ethnic, and socioeconomic contrasts. African Americans, Anglo-Americans, and 19th-century immigrants (especially from eastern and southeastern Europe) were all represented, often with their own schools, churches, and "neighborhoods." The article continues; "Most conspicuous are the differences in housing and living conditions between the miners and their families and the coal operators and their managers, presenting the image of a society sharply divided between management and workers" (Anderson). A study from the Appalachian Journal stated that Consolidation Coal established the coal towns with five main points: "Standardization, effective control of the labor force, dependency, the illusion of social progressiveness, and the "Fordist" mentality of management" (73).

They had no understanding of the people who had struggled to sustain themselves on this land. The people who loved the land, called it home, and had wrestled food from the land, built their homes, birthed their children, and were buried deep in the hills they had grown to love.

The little community where my family lived was named Wilcoe, number 1. This number, following the name, was the assigned number to the mouth of the mine. There came to be 14 communities, built to house the men and their families, who would be asked to enter into the "belly of the earth" and remove this black gold.

The building of these small enclaves began around the turn of the twentieth century, by U. S. Steel. My little town began its life in 1902. When my family arrived in the early forties not much had changed from the early construction.

My paternal Grandfather died in the mines at Matewan, when my Dad was ten years old. The children worked at any task to add to the family's coffers. My Dad went to work at an early age to assist his family. Education for him, ended early.

Compared to his Father before him, he must have considered his job with US Steel, in the rich WV coalfields to be a blessing. This job assured him, he thought, of a future. It was a large company. There would be a house for his family, and the company would provide protection and assistance. It was 1942 and my Mother and Dad probably came to this life filled with promise.

Least this lifestyle seem bleak and desperate, one must go beyond the economics of the coal camps, to understand the daily life of its people.

An interview with one of my friends, Jerry Kailing, tells a more human view of our life. My childhood friend writes:
There was well-defined demarcation between adults and children in those days and we were left pretty much on our own when it came to play time. I can remember playing baseball on the playground at Wilcoe many times, and I don't recall that anyone who wanted to didn't get to play. You learned early on the virtue of taping up a new baseball with friction tape so the cover didn't get ground off by the cinders on the playground. Then there was the running basketball game in the alley at Wilcoe. With the goal mounted on top of one of the outhouses, trashcans for line markers, and compacted cinders for a floor, how good could it get? I'm convinced that unstructured play for kids is as good as it gets (Kailing).

Jerry reminded me that our knowledge of good and evil was always subject to the "mother's talking network". Authority figures, teachers, religious leaders, and merchants, while engaging in their profession, were also close friends. Indeed, the entire community cared for and supported the children. We were permitted complete freedom in our adventures. The only danger facing children in our closed community was our unlimited imaginations.

Another interview with a childhood friend, Dorothy Mahone, who was born and raised in the N & W railroad community, remembers:
I enjoyed rubbing the dirt on my friends to see who could get the dirtiest, drawing pictures and playing hopscotch in the dust, writing with chalk on the coal cars, and climbing aboard the cabooses (Mahone/Todd).

One of my friends, growing up in one of the other small coal camps writes about her visits to the Company Store and playing with "blacks". Somehow, there was no separation of races. There was only the economic factor, and except for the superintendents, sent from the coal operators, we were all poor. Barbara Sims tells me, "The only difference between the blacks and the Sims was the color of the hair." The Sims were blonde towheads, and the black children had black hair. Playing in the coal dirt put all the children on the same level because we all had black skin. (Sims). Some of the children had acquired the color at play, while others were born with the black skin.

The elements extracted from the coal were released into the atmosphere, and the waste from the coke ovens, created a polluted environment that is hard to imagine. The health hazard this imposed went unheeded. There was one consideration; getting the coal to market at the cheapest cost to the coal operators. If any one of the workers feared for his family, or his own life, what recourse did he have? The Company owned the house you lived in, the store where you bought life's necessities, and of course, controlled your income. Putting the extraction of the coal in jeopardy, meant banishment.

My Dad, Earl Whitely, died in a mining accident in 1955, and all the realities of the "colonial system" became clear to me. My Mother, left with two children under 18 years old, was without an income, and would be expected to vacate the house within the year (State).
Technology and awareness of the environmental destruction began to unsettle the "old ways". The absence of social needs of the families, also, began to disturb the way of life created in the coal camps. The costs of maintaining the property and collective bargaining for higher wages spelled the end of the huge profits from the coalmines.

Herman Hickam, author of Rocket Boys, weaves a tale of life in the coal camps, and brings to light, the problems and joys of this lifestyle. His work of fiction is remembered, for the true story of his desire to learn rocketry. He brings praise to one teacher who encouraged him, but reminds us of the bleak future painted by other authority figures (Hickam). Denise Giardina, an award-winning novelist has written, Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth. They are both works of fiction, based on her life in the coalfields. In both these books, she points to the injustices of this era (Giardina).

She is so passionate about the problems created by the powerful coal industry that she has taken the necessary steps to run for Governor of West Virginia. To support her causes she writes:

"West Virginia was the nation's - and the world's - leading source of coal. Once coal employed hundreds of thousands of miners and other workers. Those days are gone. And while some mourn their passing, a strong case can be made that coal has been a curse rather than a blessing for our state" (West 2).

When I began this research, my thoughts were filled with the similarities of colonization and the development of the company coal town.
Colonization in its purest form is immoral. The interest of my childhood friends and their encouragement to look closely at this lifestyle has favorably impressed me. I have come to the understanding that the individual and their hope for the future can indeed work wonders.

The people of the coalfields have remained strong and continue to espouse the virtues of their forefathers. Despite the theme of powerlessness, I know that the people of the coalfields are rich in the cooperative power of its own people. For too many generations, dependency has been fostered. It is possible and expected, by my generation; these same people can be creative, inventative and imaginative. The people themselves must shape their own destiny.

Cohen, Stan. King Coal - A Pictorial Heritage of West Virginia Coal Mining. Charleston: Histories Publishing, 1984.

"Dr. Israel C. White, the first state geologist, reported on the status of coal in the state in the Geological Survey's 1903 Coal Report:

Those who seek gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, and other costly metals, should waste no time in West Virginia. Traces she may have of all, but none in commercial quantity But while precious stones, gems, and metals, have been denied the Little Mountain State, yet generous nature has so richly endowed her with common minerals that her natural wealth is unsurpassed by any equal area on the continent. These are some of her riches clays, shales, and silica beds limestones building stones natural gas fields and last but not least, coal in great variety and quantity."

Chapter: Geology, p. 1

"John Peter Salley of Augusta County, Virginia, is credited with the first discovery of coal in what is now West Virginia"

"During the years preceding the Civil War, coal became more of an economic factor in the valley, and the first commercial coal company was incorporated on March 10, 1834. Slaves were even brought to some areas to mine the resource."

Chapter: The Beginning, p. 5

"Commercial coal mining in the state began around 1817."

Chapter: Mining Methods and Operations, p. 11

"Young boys often went into the mines with their fathers to learn the trade. They were given odd jobs at first, such as door-tending, or "trapping" which consisted of sitting near a ventilation door and opening it as the mule drivers, or "skinners," passed with their loads of coal."

Chapter: Mining Methods and Operations, p. 14

Observation Men were paid according to the amount of "tonnage" they extracted and an allowance for impurities was considered. The operators often cheated the workers with regard to the amount of impurities versus the coal. This became one of the important issues to be addressed by the union and was the biggest reason the workers were receptive to the formation of the union. Another equally important factor after the introduction of machinery: safety on the job. As the mining operations expanded and went deeper in the mountains, safety became an even greater issue.

The production of coke was an important by-product of coal. The tars, oils, and gases are burned off leaving only fixed carbon. This product was used in the production of iron. In the early 1900's, there were brick dome-shaped ovens, referred to as "beehives" built near the entrances of the mine to produce this coke. Coke ovens operated in the state through the 60's. What was considered waste, tars, oils were released into the atmosphere adding to the dust filled air always encircling us.

"Other towns ,and Gary, for Judge Elbert Gary, the president of U. S. Steel who established several towns to provide coal for his large steel mills, are examples of these."

Chapter: Company Stores and Towns, p. 60

"The opening of the coalfields brought an influx of miners from the southern United States and from Europe, creating crowded, unsanitary conditions in the coal camps. The isolation of the camps only worsened the situation with the lack of modern sanitation facilities and adequate health care. The foreign-born workers often could not speak or understand English and were not used to mining work. Death in the camps were numerous and frequent. Many of the coal companies, motivated solely by greed, ignored the plight of the miners. In too many instances, the miners were treated as slave labor, tied to the company through company-owned houses and the company-store system. It was only through the efforts of the union that this type of worker-employer relationship, a throw-back to feudal times in Europe, was ended".

Chapter: Living Conditions, p. 119

Depression Flower
Arrange coal in a bowl or flat dish. Mix 6 tablespoons water, 6 tablespoons salt, 6 tablespoons bluing, 1 tablespoon ammonia, and stir until salt dissolves. Pour over coal. Use mercurochrome or food coloring for different hues. Add more of the liquid along to keep it growing.

State of WV. Department of Mines. Fatal Accident Report.

Personal Observation: My Dad, Earl Whitely, died as a result of a "mountain bump" on the 30th of August, 1955. (See the email message I sent to my friends regarding the events of my Dad's death as I remembered)

Personal Observation: My dad was an operator of a loading machine. This was considered a responsible position and usually consisted of a crew of 3 to 4 men. The machine cut the coal from the "face" which was supported by timbers in an upright position. These timbers supported the roof in this deep cave.

Personal Observation: In one of the messages I received from my friend, Nancy, she relates her emotions at seeing the "black" people standing outside our house in reverence to our family. One of the persons would have been Frank Johnson. He was a crewmember on my Daddy's machine. He was very supportive of our little family after my Dad's death. He said he owed my Dad so much because he was the only operator "that would allow me to run the machine". Frank only had one arm (his right arm had been severed in a mining accident) and was working full time. No consideration was given for even the most severe injuries. If you could breath and walk or crawl around, you could earn your daily bread. If you were unable to earn your daily bread and you were BLACK, I suppose you were to disappear. It made the coal operators uncomfortable to see you "hanging around."

See attached copy of page 2 of report entitled: PRIMARY CAUSE OF ACCIDENT

The Employer's Report of Injury (3rd page) records the cause as: "Measuring for timber to be erected. While measuring for the timber a large piece of rock 20' 6" long, 10' wide and 30" thick fell without warning dislodging fourteen timbers and injured was caught beneath the fall."

Personal Observation: On this same form, it is recommended that my Mother and the two surviving dependent children (myself and my 2yr. Old brother) be given $844.67, which represented two months wages. My Mother would later receive funds from the Social Security Administration, until my brother and me were 18 years old, and a small pittance from the state of West Virginia. The two months wages was the total amount that U. S. Steel felt his life was worth, as required by law. U. S. Steel had the choice of paying his survivors "two, six or twelve months earnings immediately preceding date of the injury, whichever is most favorable to the injured person." Why would a large corporation assume that the least amount would be most favorable to my Mother and two children?
There was no life insurance and coupled with the fact that the worker of U. S. Steel was gone, the house would have to be vacated for another worker. Now we were without an income and our home was in jeopardy.

Employer's Report of Injury: "Nature and Location of Injury - Crushing injuries through pelvis and chest. Severe shock"

Personal Observation: The section foreman, A. W. Garnett, had told my Dad that he was concerned because the roof was "working" and suggested my Dad needed another timber in place before he continued loading. My Dad asked him (Garnett) to finish loading the shuttle car and Daddy got a measuring stick, as he walked toward the "face" the slab of slate fell. He was crushed beneath the slab.

Working Bibliography
Anderson, Timothy G., Buckley, G. L.. "Images." Appalachian Journal
27 1 (1999): 74-73.
"Annual Report." U. S. A., Dept. of Mines. Charleston: 1915
Castle, V. E-mail to the author: 31 Jan. 2000.
Cohen, Stan. King Coal-A Pictorial Heritage of West Virginia Coal Mining.
Charleston: Histories Publishing, 1984.
"Colonization." The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
Dawson, B. E-mail to the author: 4 Feb. 2000.
Dawson, N. E-mail to the author: 4 Feb. 2000.
Denise Giardina for Governor. Home Page. 27 Jan. 2000 <>.
Ewen, Lynda A., Lewis, Julia A.. "Media." Appalaachian Journal 27 1 (1999).
Gergely, T. E-mail to the author: 6 Feb. 2000.
Hendershot, Judith and Thomas B. Allen. In Coal Country. New York: Dragonfly, 1987.
Hickam, Homer H. Jr.. Rocket Boys. New York: Random, 1998.
Issues. Denise Giardina for Governor. 27 Jan. 2000 <>.
Kailing, G. E-mail to the author: 3 Feb. 2000.
Mahone/Todd, Dorothy. Letter to the author. 10 Feb. 2000.
McClanahan, S. E-mail to the author: 8 Feb. 2000.
McGehee, Stuart. "Gary: A First-Class Mining Operation." Diss. Bluefield College.
Rylant, Cynthia, and Barry Moser. Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.
Sims, B. E. E-mail to the author. 28 Jan. 2000.
State of West Virginia. Department of Mines. Fatal Accident Report
Sunday Gazette-Mail [Charleston] 11 July 1999: Life & Style: 1+.
West Virginia's Post-Coal Future. Denise Giardinia for Governor. 27 Jan. 2000
Whitely, H. E-mail to the author: 5 Feb. 2000.
Whitely, R. E-mail to the author: 12 Feb. 2000.

Works Cited
Anderson, Timothy G., Buckley, G. L.. "Images." Appalachian Journal
27 1 (1999): 74-73.
"Colonization." The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.
Giardina, Denise. Storming Heaven. New York: Ivy Books, 1987. ---. The Unquiet Earth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Hickam, Homer H. Jr.. Rocket Boys. New York: Random, 1998.
Kailing, G. E-mail to the author. 3 Feb. 2000.
Mahone/Todd, Dorothy. Letter to the author. 10 Feb. 2000.
McGehee, Stuart. "Gary: A First-Class Mining Operation." Diss. Bluefield College.
Sims, B. E. E-mail to the author. 28 Jan. 2000.
State of West Virginia. Department of Mines. Fatal Accident Report.
West Virginia's Post-Coal Future. Denise Giardinia for Governor. 27 Jan. 2000 <>


McDowell County