Coal Camp Towns Surrounding Matoaka WV

Southern West Virginia was sparsely populated, mainly a farming area, in the 1880s. Land that was not being farmed was a dense wilderness with steep hillsides. This was an area inhabited by farmers and grazers, living in rough log structures, mainly self-sufficient, no electricity, either well water or water from mountain springs carried to homes. Some farms were over 1,000 acres in size. While the settlers of the area were aware of coal, it was only gathered for personal use in stoves and for blacksmiths.

Soldiers in the Civil War traveling through the area took home reports that this area of West Virginia was rich with coal. Coal and rail companies from Pennsylvania and Ohio listened to these tales and sent scouts into the area, who stopped for a night at a lighted cabin in a hollow and left a bag of gold coins the next morning in exchange for parcels of “unused ridgeland”. As railroads came into this remote region, this “ridgeland” sprang to life as coal camp towns, with their own scrip, company stores, company schools, company churches and even company ball teams. They also brought armed guards to protect their right of ways and to ensure the smooth operation of the camp. (

There was no ready population looking for work in this area of Mercer County the 1880s, therefore there was a need to import miners into the area to dig the coal. Farmers did not give up their farms and go to work in the mines. Companies advertised for workers and families to mine the 40 to 100 feet coal seams and built towns for these people to live in. These towns were usually unincorporated communities with no elected officials. Owners relied on private detective agencies to watch over the workers and their families. (

The roads in and out of areas were nonexistent, no highways or paved roads here, just rough wagon trails that were mostly impossible to travel on. With the arrival of the railroad in Mercer County came a means to bring in people, whole families of people, searching to build their futures with the hope of making a living, educating their children and creating homes. The farming continued side by side with the mining.

Bonita Hurst Sink remembers “our icon at Wenonah was Edward “Bud” Jackson Bailey. He lived on top of Modoc Mountain and everyone knew him. I can remember him walking down the mountain from Modoc Mountain coming out at the post office building and coming to the company store with his large sack. My Grandpa Bailey and I would walk up to his and his sister’s, Minerva Ann Bailey, house. She was a nurse in WWII. Bud would pick me grapes or strawberries and I would sit in a chair looking out over his fields while he visited with Grandpa Bailey.”

The C&O did not attempt to control the lands along its tracks, but the N&W and its land company purchased hundreds of thousands of acres in the Pocahontas and Flat Top fields and leased this land to mine operators. With the growing population of miners, from all over the world, came an ethnic and racial mixture of people previously unheard of in West Virginia. The number of mine employees kept pace with amount of coal exported. Services that had not existed in southern West Virginia (electric power, public schools, public libraries, stores, doctors and dentists) became widespread in the coal towns. (

These coal companies offered homes, schools, and churches. They paid in scrip that could be spent at the company store. ( Coal companies stripped forests to erect simply designed houses close to the branch lines of the C&O, N&W, and Virginian railroads. The people residing in the coal towns depended on the coal company for groceries, mining tools, goods and services. The companies often charged exorbitant prices for their wares. By 1922, most miners in the state lived in coal towns. ( As early as the 1850s, immigrants from Wales, England, Scotland, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Greece, as well as African Americans from southern states, were brought into the coal fields to work the mines. In most of the mine towns, working conditions were poor as the miners were required to work long hours in generally inferior living conditions. These poor conditions led to the first West Virginia coal mining legislation in 1883, and the development of labor unions in the 1890s. (

Between 1890 and 1912, West Virginia had a higher mine death rate than any other state. ( Coal camps were built with the intent of attracting workers. They offered a small town feel for the families of the workers. There were few opportunities for women to work, but the families could interact. Many towns had electricity. All offered consumer goods and schools close by, and entertainment through movie houses or ball parks. The company store served as the community center of the town. The store building usually contained the post office and the payroll office. People went to the store daily to chat, catch up on the news, to review the day’s work, and to get the mail. Children stared in wonder at the candy, toys and items on display in glass cases. Originally, this was the only place people had to purchase goods and wares. As companies began to consolidate into larger organizations in the 1920s, company stores could no longer prevent the delivery of goods from independent stores and lost a lot of their control over the town. Company stores began to decline in the 1950s because of mass usage of automobiles and mail order companies mass marketing strategies. (

While the towns were built in clusters for different populations or workers (white, African American, and immigrants were housed separately in clusters within most communities), interaction in the town life was mostly un-segregated. There was no racial divide between the miners, they all worked together in the mines. (¬) As people came into the region, even in the poorest of coal camps, they were involved with living their lives the best that they could, educating their children, and creating homes for their families. This was a time of “boom” for the area.

Thousands of people flooded into southern West Virginia for jobs and prosperity. Because of the two railroads crossing through Matoaka, the Norfolk and Western (N&W) with trains to bring in workers and haul coal out through their hub established in Bluefield WV, and The Virginian (VGN) bringing in people and hauling coal out through Princeton and on to Huntington WV, the area went from a few hundred people to several thousand almost overnight. But in mining, money is the name of the game, not necessarily the people or towns dependent on this money. There were not a lot of safety measures in place with mining in the early days. The idea was to get the coal out of the ground and onto rail cars as quickly as possible. Strip mining that removed mountain tops, slag heaps that overshadowed the company towns and caught fire from internal combustion, sometimes burning for years, or slid down the mountainsides erasing everything in their paths. The dumping of soil, rocks, slag and timbers blocking and damning streams, creating flooding hazards and changing the landscape forever. As safety laws were passed by the legislature and unionization entered the picture, strikes and wars broke out between mine owners and operators and the workers, many erupting in violence. The industrialization going on throughout the world brought mechanization into the mines which replaced the need for as many workers and the way mines operated. Some mines played out, and along with the drop in coal use throughout the world in favor of oil and gas, the mines were no longer as profitable and closed and the livelihood of the people became a memory.

The Pocahontas Coalfield, which is also known as the Flat Top-Pocahontas Coalfield, is located in Mercer County and McDowell County, West Virginia, and Tazewell County Virginia. The coal seams, No.3, No.4, No.6, and No.11 are some of the best coal to be found in the world. The coal mines around Matoaka mined Pocahontas No. 3 coal seam. ( The Flat Top field first shipped coal in 1883 and the growth continued as the company bought up other companies and the Pocahontas Fuel Company organized in 1907. (

Coal camp towns disappeared as quickly as they had come to life. As mines closed, people moved on, in search of their dreams. In many cases, gone is the prosperity, the happy times, and the splendor of the past. There was nothing else to fall back on, no other industries to provide for the people. With the closing of the mines, the people lost their homes in the coal camps. Now in many cases, there are just memories remaining of the long-gone glory days of coal and the active lives and cultures in the coal communities.

Discussion in this article is centered on the coal camp towns around Matoaka WV, which became a major support hub for the residents from 1900 forward.