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Raleigh County Coal Mining History

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Largely concerned with events in Raleigh County, the following "History of the Coal Industry" was written by William P. Tams, Jr. (1993-1977), president of Gulf Smokeless Coal Co., which operated in central Raleigh County, SE of Beckley, WV:

"Coal mining for shipment by railway was commenced in Raleigh County opposite Prince, WV, on New River, at the Royal mine, and the coal was carried by overhead buckets across the river to reach the railway, since at that time there was no bridge across New River at the mouth of Piney Creek.

"Afterwards Stonewall and Terry were opened by Major Terry of Lynchburg, and after the railway built up Piney Creek, Wright, Lanark, and Stanaford were opened, and in 1899 the Raleigh Coal and Coke Company began shipments. Previous to the development of Piney Creek there were some shipments at the other end of Raleigh County by McKell, who opened up Oswald, Sydney, and Graham in the late 1890s. In 1906 the New River Company built a railway from Mabscott Junction through Beckley over to Cranberry, and opened Sprague and Skelton drift mines and Cranberry and Prosperity shafts.

"The first smokeless mine opened on the Virginian was at Eccles in 1907 and Slab Fork almost at the same time. In 1908 the Virginian Railway commenced building the Winding Gulf Branch from Mullens in Wyoming County up the Gulf and over the divide to the waters of Piney Creek and up Piney Creek to Fireco. The mines opened on this branch in order from the lower end upwards were Tarns, Stotesbury, McAlpin, Woodbay, Big Stick, Hotcoal, Lynwin, Winding Gulf, Affinity, Sullivan, Woodpeck, and Fireco. All of these mines on the Winding Gulf were opened in the Beckley seam, and the mines on upper Piney in the Firecreek seam.

"In 1915 the C. & O. and Virginian built a railway line up Stonecoal, opening up the mines on that branch, among them Frances, Tommy Creek, Lego, Princewick, Killarney, East Gulf, Besoco, C. H. Mead, Lillybrook mines, and Pickshin.

"The pioneer operators in Raleigh county were the Laings, Major Terry, Luckadoux, the Guggenheims, Caperton, Dixon, E. E. White, Justus Collins, Col. Leckie, Mead, Tolliver, Prince Lilly, and E. C. Minter.

"Most of the tonnage produced in Raleigh County came from the Beckley seam in the Winding Gulf and Stonecoal, and was shipped in the beginning over the Virginian Railway, which having only an outlet to tidewater was able to return cars promptly to the mines and thus gave operators on the Virginian Railway every-day operation, when their competitors on the C. & O. Railway and the N. & W. Railway were only able to secure cars for three or four days per week.

"During World War I the Government took over all the railways and furnished sufficient capital to equip the railways with enough cars and locomotive power to furnish everyday run to the mines, which immediately resulted in supplying too much coal to the market. After World War I the succession of strikes in the organized coal fields, in the anthracite field, on the railways, and in England, resulted in a temporary boom market for coal during the 1920s until the Depression in the fall of 1929. During the Depression the mines were able to operate, but at reduced prices and under unsatisfactory reduced wage conditions.

"The coal business picked up in 1933, but was again in difficulties when World War II commenced in Europe, followed by the entry of this country into the war. During this period, and for four or five years after the World War II ended, the coal business was in good condition, but since 1950 the market and price have been unsatisfactory in the extreme.

"The mines in Raleigh County find their main market now in the metallurgical business, being used to make coke for the steel mills. The cost of coal in Raleigh county is now such that the mines can not compete successfully in the steam market which can secure low cost coal from the high volatile fields where mining conditions are more favorable. The quality of the coal in Raleigh county remains the same, but the markets have become restricted.

"The Beckley seam has been practically exhausted in Raleigh County with very little tonnage now mined from this seam. The Sewell seam is almost exhausted, and the future of the coal business in Raleigh County lies in the Pocahontas No. 4, and the Pocahontas No. 3 seams. These seams are now being operated, and it is probable that within ten years they will be the only seams operating in the county.

"Mechanization of the coal mines has become a necessity due to competition, and this, of course, has reduced the number of men required in the mines. Shrinking of the markets for coal has made a further reduction in the number of men employed and Raleigh County should now look to additional sources of employment of labor for the future.