Coal Camps of Early Southwest Virginia

 

 

Coal Industry Boom

In the 1880's, men with high ambitions and money came to invest in the rich coal deposits of Southwest Virginia. The Stonega Coke and Coal Company (SC&C) was formed and nine coal camps were built near the town of Appalachia, Virginia. These coal camps are representative of the more than 500 coal towns built from the late 1800's to the early 1900's in the Nation's coalfields.

Economic conditions, both locally and nationally, attracted many people to jobs in the mines with a steady paycheck. Coal production peaked at over three million tons in 1918. During the boom periods, the workforce was composed of native Appalachians, African-Americans, and recent immigrants to America -- Irish, Polish, Italians, and Hungarians.

 

Building Company Towns

 

The building of company towns, or coal camps began in the 1880's and peaked in the early 1920's. Coal operations and their associated towns consisted of company-built houses, churches, schools, theatres, dance halls, and even graveyards.

The Stonega Coke and Coal Company, later called Westmoreland Coal Company, built its first coal camp, Pioneer. It's name was changed to Stonega in 1896. The name Stonega comes from the combination of Stone and Gap, by dropping the "p." Other coal camps were named for English villages and coal officials. The coal camps were developed as follows:

1902 - Osaka, 1902 - Imboden, 1903 - Roda, 1907 - Arno, 1910 - Keokee, 1917 - Exeter, 1918 - Dunbar, and 1923 - Derby.

Stonega Hospital

The company provided each camp with a doctor, nurse, and hospital. The company doctor was responsible for the miners and their families. He did routine examinations, coughs and colds, childhood diseases such as chicken pox, orthopedic corrections, as well as surgeries. In providing these necessities for the workers, the company was able to maintain the overall health of the residents of each camp.

The Unions Came

Workers formed associations and unions to give them more rights, assure safety, and for the miners in the camps to have better living conditions. In the 1930's, miners began organizing such unions. The organization of unions did not come without conflict.

Despite the companies' objections, unions were formed and many programs were developed. These programs included: The Derby burial fund to help to pay for funeral expenses of miners, strike funds to help miners when on strike, improved safety which led to the formation of the Occupation Safety and Health, equal paying jobs for all miners, and many other benefits for belonging to the union. This area of Southwest Virginia had large amounts of union members. After the organization of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the company began to negotiate contracts, treat employees as specified in the contracts, and work with the unions for the betterment of the company and the workers.

 

 

Derby Coal Camp

 

Life Changed
 

During the 1950's, after the World Wars, life changed dramatically for the residents of the coal camps. Economic troubles began and many of the company facilities were dismantled. With more automobiles in use, the need to live closer to work was not a big issue. As machinery increased, the number of workers needed decreased, Many moved to Ohio and Indiana to work in the automotive industry. With workers leaving the coal camps, stores, theatres, and everything else began to close. Many of the immigrants had left the area just prior to this time. Most of the coal camps are still in existence, except for Pardee. Where houses and stores once stood is now open fields or part of a local lumber and strip mine company. The remaining camps are now small communities with maybe a church and a small post office. The stores, hotels, theatres, recreation halls, and the like are all but memories.

 

For more information on Coal Camps visit R.W. Duncan's Coal Camp Index
 

 

THANK YOU
 

The Southwest Virginia Museum would like to thank Garnett Gilliam, The Harry Meador Coal Museum, Daisey Lambert, Paul Hylton, Sr., Howard Cummins, Carliss Early, Ralph Early, Carroll Sharpe, Deborah and George Polly, Betty Williamson, Vivian Hall, and Beecher Powers for their contributions toward this exhibit. We extend a very "special thank you" to each of them.
 

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The Southwest Virginia Museum is a member of the American
Association of Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.

The Company School

Each camp had its own schools. The company built the schools, and the Wise County School Board hired the teachers, and provided a principal to oversee each school. There were no cafeterias, so many of the school children either brought their lunch, or went home to eat. Once the student was old enough to attend high school, he or she rode a bus to the closest town, Appalachia, to the high school.

The Company Church
(Rhoda Church, pictured)

The Methodist and Baptist faiths became the chief denominations in the coal towns. The company had an organization of Methodist ministers, who were employed by the company, then rotated between the camps. Many of the coal camps had both Lutheran and Catholic churches. When the Hungarians and Italians left the area, then the Baptist denomination came to the camps, using the churches left by the Catholics and Lutherans. The Baptist churches were more independent from the coal companies and their ministers were not employed by the company.

Leisure in the Coal Camps

Dunbar Baseball Team

During the early years of the camps, leisure and relaxation were a big part of everyone's life. As families moved to the area, residents spent their spare time in theatres, billiard parlors, bowling alleys, or in more familiar activities like baseball, picnics, and visiting. Sports played a leading role in the area during the early development of the area. Baseball was the miner's sport. Between 1920 and 1950, each camp had their own baseball team. The Sunday afternoon baseball game was a major social event. Camp versus camp games were taken very seriously. Many rivalries sprang up. The company officials also became part of the competition and began recruiting workers who were good ball players in hopes of helping their camp's team.

Roda Band

 

Other popular forms of leisure for the coal camp residents were music, dances, church celebrations, and working bees. Men gathered to play guitars, banjos and fiddles. At Rhoda, thirty miners formed an active, uniformed band that gave concerts in homes and in different camps. Card parties in homes were occasions for gathering to sit around, drink coffee, play cards, and talk. Working bees included such things as apple-pickings, bean-stringings, and a host of other work-sharing sessions were held in many camps. Men, and sometimes women, also found relaxation in hunting and fishing.

Sometimes, leisure came to the coal towns. Stonega, for example, sponsored an African-American gospel quartet that went from town to town and sang at union and company get-togethers. Sometimes Vaudeville shows came out of Washington, D.C. to the Virginia coalfields.