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The existence of coal in West Virginia had been known by European colonists since the mid-1700s. Early settlers to the region were even said to have extracted ground layers of the soft rock for use in heating their homes.
Still, the first large scale mining of coal in West Virginia did not begin until the early-1830s and existed merely as a support to the region’s booming salt industry.
West Virginia’s first true coal miners were slaves who extracted the mineral for use as a fuel to fire nearby salt furnaces. These furnaces were mostly located along the Kanawha River.
According to Ronald L. Lewis, professor of history emeritus at West Virginia University, “The erection of salt furnaces in Kanawha County beginning in 1797 provided the initial stimulus to coal mining. By 1840, 90 furnaces produced a million bushels of salt annually and consumed 200,000 tons of coal.”
Prior to the American Civil War, the demand for salt began to decline; however, bituminous coal (soft coal) had proven itself as being an economic alternative to burning wood.
In the days leading up to the Lincoln Presidency, western Virginia coal was being used to power steamboats floating along the Ohio River, in coal oil lamps and in factories scattered across the northeast.
The outbreak of the Civil War severely crippled the region’s coal industry, as western Virginia soon found itself at the epicenter of a tug-of-war game being played between the ruling elite in Richmond and Wheeling. In the end, the State of West Virginia was formed in June 1863.
As the nation entered into the industrial revolution, the limitless resources of West Virginia’s coal and timber seemed irresistible to many of the nation’s wealthiest companies.
The late Matewan resident, Joseph P. Garland, stated that his grandfather, who was illiterate, was tricked into giving up 1,666 acres of the family’s land for a single shotgun.
“They’ve [southern West Virginians] been robbed, raped and cheated out of their land,” stated Garland.
Despite the state’s incredible wealth, few natives were ever able to enjoy much gain from the rich resources abounding in the area, as outside corporations quickly gobbled up much of the territory of southern West Virginia.
Aided by the natural transportation route provided by the Tug River, outside loggers moved into the area and cleared many of the county’s most valuable woodland.
The arrival of the N&W Railroad allowed for the timber to be shipped east, further accelerating the rate of the state’s deforestation.
At the turn of the century, non-residents owned over half the land in Mingo County, West Virginia; as was the case in several other coalfield counties.
Observing this problem, William MacCorkle, West Virginia Governor, warned the state legislature in his inaugural address on March 4, 1893, that “the state is rapidly passing under the control of large foreign and non-resident landowners.’’ He cautioned that ‘‘the men who are today purchasing the immense acres of the most valuable lands in the state are not citizens and have only purchased in order that they may carry to their distant homes in the North the usufruct of the lands of West Virginia.’’
MacCorkle, the son of a Confederate Major and sixth consecutive Democratic governor of West Virginia witnessed his dire warning prove true.
Within seven years, destructive logging techniques had removed half of the state’s forests. Nearly all of the state’s timber resources had been exhausted within two decades.
For the first time in history, West Virginia was viewed as an eyesore. One visiting writer described the state as, “a monotonous panorama of destruction.”
Ronald Eller, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky describes the effects of ‘absentee landownership’ in the following way:
“Because of absentee ownership of the state’s resources, the dollars that could have built better schools and better roads and better health services in the early part of the century flowed out of the region and we got what we call ‘growth without development.’ We got a short period of immense growth and expansion and boom period and jobs, but we didn’t get the development of those aspects that will sustain a community over time and provide a quality of life.”
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