Chasing the Powhatan Arrow

Other stories in the series can be found here

It’s only three miles along SR-120 from Pocahontas, Virginia to its more affluent sister town, Bramwell, West Virginia. On our way, let me tell you more about West Virginia’s turbulent history.

No doubt about it, coal mining has produced incredible wealth for a small group of industrialists and investors over the last century-and-a-half. But it hasn’t always been pretty and the costs have been extraordinary.

There is really no way to properly articulate the degree to which coal has affected the places where economically mineable resources have existed. Coal builds and destroys. From western Pennsylvania and southeastern Ohio into West Virginia, where 50 of 55 counties at one time had coal mines, to western Virginia and eastern Kentucky, no aspect of the social, economic, or cultural life has been written without the influence of coal.

Day One of this onslaught locally was March 12, 1883, when the first load of coal departed from Pocahontas on the newly arrived Norfolk & Western Railroad. The Coal Rush began immediately, as the demand for high-quality, low sulfur, low-smoke coal was insatiable. The smokeless burn of this region’s coal was particularly valued by the Navy, as coal-fired ships didn’t leave a 10 mile trail of smoke behind them as they steamed across the oceans.

Thousands of workers from across the country and around the world rushed into hastily built towns and coal camps. Wherever N&W stretched its tentacles, mines arose and communities emerged.

Poor workers came from the industrial cities of the North. As Tom mentioned, European immigrants were lured to the coalfields by recruiters who traveled to Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic to entice them to emigrate. Within moments of landing at Ellis Island, many were placed on trains headed for Bluefield, Bramwell, Pocahontas, and Welch. By the time they got off the train in their new land, they were already indebted to the mining companies. Blacks came from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia, lured away from miserable sharecropper work to jobs that paid them, for the amount of coal dug, the same as for the white men. It was extraordinary anywhere in America for blacks and whites to make the same money for the same work. Blacks in nearby McDowell prior to 1883, could be counted on the fingers of three or four hands; by 1910 over 30 percent of the population was black.

Every aspect of the economic system was rigidly controlled by the coal industry. Every man’s paycheck had numerous deductions before he saw anything, and what he saw often wasn’t U. S. currency. His wages were docked for equipment: his tools, helmet, and suit, rented to him at prices set by the industry. He lived in company-supplied housing for which he owed rent. And all the groceries and supplies he needed were only available in company stores, where the scrip he was paid – the local captive currency – could be spent. No on-line ordering from Amazon in those days! The company stores, having no competition, inflated their prices. As wages grew, so did prices, in absence of any moderating forces of competition.

Miners were paid strictly by the tonnage they produced, so again they were at the mercy of the mine owner. The checkweighman could alter the results of a miner’s day of production as he saw fit, and favoritism and cheating were rampant. If the checkweighman determined that excessive rock, shale, slate, or other unusable materials were in the cart, the miner again could be docked his pay. Checkweighman were universally white, and if bigoted would often deliberately mis-measure the daily haulage of black miners.

If that wasn’t enough, in its early years, coal mining was almost devoid of any safety precautions. Miners were often hurt or killed, and the carnage made mining one of the nation’s most perilous occupations. Death statistics of the day were simply staggering. When miners died, their bereaved families were summarily evicted from company-owned houses, left to fend for themselves with no shelter and no breadwinner.

And of course nobody in control had much interest in clean drinking water. Hastily built towns had no sewer systems – most homes straight-piped their sewage to the creek, and many still do today. Electricity was controlled by the coal companies. School ball-fields were sponsored by the coal companies. Christmas parades were sponsored by the coal companies. You get the idea. Generally, if the companies wanted it to happen, it happened. Otherwise it didn’t.

It says a lot to me about the quality of American workers and the desperation they felt in having and keeping their job that they would endure such conditions. These days, lots of workers will leave a company that doesn’t have a Starbucks nearby. But I digress.

The industry has counted on that desperation continually. To this day it actively strives to keep out competing industries and restricts advancement opportunities for the workers, while feeding them a steady diet of poison water, polluted air, and decimated landscapes. The region is filled with imperiled homes and public buildings including schools that lay downstream of hastily constructed and poorly engineered impoundment dams that cumulatively hold trillions of gallons of wastewater. One dam collapsed in the hollow of Buffalo Creek in Logan County in 1972, unleashing 132,000,000 gallons of liquid sludge, killing 125 people, injuring 1121 more, and leaving 4,000 homeless. In an act of monumental callousness, the responsible company, Pittston Coal, referred to the disaster as “an act of God,” and actively worked to deny survivors any benefits. God didn’t build that dam.

As part of a worldwide trend, labor unions began to emerge as a force in mitigating the power of corporate moguls in the late 1800s. During the ensuing decades, thousands of strikes pitted the wills of workers and mine owners. Most strikes were short-lived and peaceable, and after concessions were made, miners returned to work. But the stakes were always high and tempers occasionally flared. By the turn of the 20th Century, most miners in Appalachia were represented by some brotherhood or labor organization, with the United Mine Workers of America, formed in 1890, being the most prominent and successful.

What did the miner want? Primarily, they sought the opportunity to meet, organize, and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. They wanted recognition of their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. They wanted pay in currency rather than in scrip and alternatives to company-owned stores. They wanted accurate, verifiable scales for measuring their production, with union supervision to prevent cheating. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable to me.

One of the most forceful and bellicose union leaders was Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. An Irishwoman thought to have been born around 1845, Jones was already in her golden years when she began her combative and sometimes profane verbal diatribes directed not only at coal mine owners but politicians as well. Mother Jones remains to this day a symbol of the plight of working people worldwide.

By 1902, workers in the Kanawha-New River Coalfield were organized, and almost as quickly the mine owners formed the Kanawha County Coal Operators Association. In spite of laws designed to protect miners’ rights to unionize, the Operators Association began active harassment of organizers.

Tensions escalated, culminating in the massacre at Matewan and then the battle of Blair Mountain, which I’ll tell you more about once we approach Matewan.

THE ABOVE ARTICLES is an excerpt from the book Chasing the Powhatan Arrow, a Travelogue in Economic Geography by Michael Abraham. In it, Abraham traces the route of the famous Norfolk & Western passenger train from Norfolk through Roanoke and across the southern reach of West Virginia from Oakvale (Mercer County) through stops in Bluefield, Welch, Williamson, and Kenova into Ohio and terminating in Cincinnati, discussing the history, culture, geography, and especially the economy of this fascinating, varied corridor.  Chasing the Powhatan Arrow, a Travelogue in Economic Geography is published by Pocahontas Press and is available on the author’s website at http://bikemike.squarespace.com/chasing-the-powhatan-arrow/ and on Amazon.com.