Coal Camps of
Early Southwest Virginia
Building Company Towns
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 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
1902 - Osaka,
1902 - Imboden, 1903 - Roda, 1907
- Arno, 1910 - Keokee, 1917 - Exeter, 1918 - Dunbar, and 1923 - Derby.
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
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
Derby Coal Camp
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
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.
The Southwest Virginia Museum is a
member of the American
Alliance of Museums, the American Association of State and
Local History, and the Virginia Association of Museums.
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 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
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.
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.