Appalachia and Coal

After completing our exploration of the New River Gorge National River area we headed southwest on a driving segment loosely following the National Coal Heritage Trail. The route took us deep into the Appalachian Mountains and through the coalfields that are so much a part of this state’s history, culture and economy. The National Coal Heritage Trail website provides a good overview of the history of coal in West Virginia.

Bluestone Coal Mine, Norfolk, West Virginia, (Pop. 429)

Since 2008, the number of active coal mines in the United States has dropped from 1435 to 671 and the number continues to decline (13 more coal-fired power plant closures have been announced during 2020). The majority of the mine closures are in the Appalachian Basin of West Virginia. Despite this massive contraction of the coal industry, West Virginia is still the second largest producer of coal in the country (Wyoming is the largest producer). Direct mine employment has decreased from 100,000 to approximately 30,000.

Starting in 2016 President Trump attempted to re-invigorate the coal industry through regulatory change. However, the combination of inexpensive natural gas, increased regulation of coal-fired plants, environmental campaigns and mandated use of renewables (at the state level) during the prior eight years almost certainly put the coal industry on a downward trajectory that will eliminate it as a fuel source for energy creation. Aside from the environmental concerns about fossil fuel, the reality today is that coal cannot compete from a cost standpoint with natural gas and government subsidized renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Sealed Coal Mine, Keystone, West Virginia (Pop. 232)

The demise of coal-fired electricity plants as a major source of power is certainly going to help improve the environment. Coal-fired plants are the largest emitters of carbon dioxide within the energy sector.

The human side of the equation is less promising at least for the short term. Coal mining was a well paying occupation and a multi-generational way of life here in the Appalachian Basin. Perhaps this statistic makes the point regarding the economic and cultural disruption that the decline of the coal industry has had on the people of West Virginia – Walmart is now the largest private employer in the state.

Below is an article regarding the town of Keystone, which we visited, that provides insight into what the demise of coal has meant for the coal towns scattered through Appalachia.

Rail Crossing, Slab Fork, West Virginia (Pop. 202)

The photographs below are from towns we visited on our tour through the coalfields of southwestern West Virginia. These towns were once thriving communities when coal was king. Many of the towns started as coal camps or coal towns where miners lived after being evicted from company housing. Some of the towns started as company towns. Today these communities are struggling to survive. Many towns have not – we drove through numerous abandoned towns.

Princewick, West Virginia (Pop. 171)

Mullens, West Virginia (Pop. 1559)

Corinne, West Virginia (Pop. 289)

You may notice that there are several churches included in the photographs. This part of Appalachia is fervently religous (See article below). It is common to drive through a town with a population of 250 people and count 10 or more churches. These churches most often have unpaid “god-called” pastors that have no formal training (see article below).

Amigo, West Virginia (Pop. 123)

Welch, West Virginia (Pop. 1715)

The dialect in Appalachia is unique. While we did not have significant exposure to the local “mountain speech” we heard a number of words and phrases during our conversations and interactions: holler (hollow), sody-pop (soda), poke (bag), buggy (shopping cart), y’all (all of you), you’ns (plural form of you). We have included below an excellent article on Appalachian English.

Millionaire’s Row, Bramwell, West Virginia (Pop. 342)

Bramwell is without a doubt the most picturesque town we visited as part of our trip through coal country. Bramwell’s proximity to the Pocohantas Coal Fields and attractive setting lured many wealthy coal mine owners and financiers to the town. These millionaires built beautiful homes along the brick streets that border the Bluestone River.

Today, the town benefits from its proximity to the trailhead of the Pocahontas Trail System which is part of the larger Hatfield McCoy Trail. This trail system provides hundreds of miles of Off Road Vehicle riding on ATVs and OHVs and draws off road enthusiasts from all over the country.

Another distressing side of life for coal miners and their families during the early 20th century relates to their struggle to obtain better wages, safer working conditions and to be paid in U.S. currency as opposed to company script.

These efforts led to violent and deadly confrontations between the miners and private security agents hired by the mining companies. The West Virginia Coal Wars, a series of labor actions and strikes went on for over nine years (1912-1921). The Mine Wars culminated with the Battle of Blair Mountain. Approximately 10,000 armed miners battled 3000 law officers and hired stike breakers. The battle went on sporadically for a week until United States Army forces arrived and put an end to the conflict.

Almost 1000 miners were tried for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to commit murder and treason. The Battle of Blair Mountain broke the back of the United Mine Workers for years to come. Union membership declined by 80% and did not recover until the 1930s.

Final Thoughts

We are glad that we took this tour through West Virginia’s southwestern coal fields. We really did not know what to expect but we felt we should see this part of America. Appalachia and coal mining are a major part of the history of our country.

This is not a place where you will find upscale eateries or four star hotels. The millionaires from Bramwell took their money and left when the coal industry began its long decline. The local folks got left behind with few options and a scarred and polluted landscape.

As we have gained perspective from our travels we have come to realize that if we only visit the beautiful and popular tourist destinations we will not have the opportunity to experience a significant part of America’s culture and history.

Be seeing you!


A Miner’s Religion

Mountain Speech

Welch, West Virginia

God and Coal

3 thoughts on “Appalachia and Coal

  1. Fantastic piece Stephen and Maria! Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in Dauphin County, PA and I know the coal miners slang well.
    Fondly, D

    Liked by 2 people

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