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The Birth of the Coal Industry

In 1894, the Macdonald Colliery Company began shipping the world-famous smokeless coal from its newly opened coal plant (shown at left) in Macdonald. At about the same time, the Turkey Knob Coal & Coke Company opened at Turkey Knob and the Dunn Loop Coal & Coke Company opened at Dunloop. A short time later, the Sugar Creek Coal & Coke Company's mining operation opened near the present-day location of Mt. Hope's football field.

Tipple of the Macdonald Coal & Coke Company, circa 1906
Click to view enlarged

With the birth of the local coal mining industry during the early-1890's, the destiny of Mount Hope would be forever changed. Almost overnight, the process of industrialization would transform the tiny farming community into a boom town suddenly filled with hundreds of new citizens. The town's boom would not be short-lived, for the sustained growth of the area's coal industry over the next several decades would continue to facilitate the development of the community.

Once the process began, the industrialization of the area surrounding Mount Hope occurred rapidly. Yet, the event itself had been millions of years in the making, dating back to the time when the great Appalachian coal field was being formed. The premise that a town's geography is its destiny, is very true in regards to the community of Mount Hope. The community's remote location isolated it from the civilized world and completely controlled its destiny for centuries, preventing almost any development from taking place. But ultimately, the area would realize it destiny through its geography, via the vast quantity of treasure that lay buried beneath its surface -- coal.

But the unlocking of the area's buried treasure was an event that was years, even decades, in the making. For it was not until the technology of the modern world could develop a reliable transportation system able to overcome the mountains of Southern West Virginia, that the development of the area simply was possible. Although some contemporary historians have implied that the development of the local region occurred only after coal was "discovered," most of the citizens and landowners of the region were aware that the region held a huge quantity of valuable coal, even as early as 1835. In nearby Kanawha County, the commercial mining of coal began in 1817. This early industrial development occurred because the Kanawha River's link to the Ohio River had provided the early industrialists of the Kanawha Valley with a means of transporting their product (salt) to market. But because the areas of "upper" Fayette County lacked any navigable steams, until the arrival of the railroads, the transportation of the area's coal was simply not possible.

In January of 1873, the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) provided the region with the long awaited transportation link. With the advent of the railroad, the development of the area's coal industry began, with several mining operations being opened in the New River Gorge along the C&O mainline. The first shipment of coal from the newly opened New River Coal Field was made by the New River Coal Company from it's Quinnimont mine in September of 1873. Afterwards, the industry began a period of slow but steady expansion. In 1876, six mining operations were shipping coal from the region, and by 1885, eleven mining operations located in the New River Gorge were shipping coal. From this point in time forward, the pace of coal industry's development quickened, reaching a dizzying pace within only a few years.

In 1888, Fayette County became the first county in West Virginia to produce more than a million tons of coal in one year. This record quite astounding when viewed from the perspective that the total amount of coal production for the entire state for that year was 5,498,800 tons. In other words, just slightly less than 1/5 of the all the coal produced in West Virginia during 1888 was coming from mines located in Fayette County, most of them located deep within in the New River Gorge along the C&O mainline.

Meanwhile, the rails of the C&O had yet to reach the coal field in the plateau regions of Fayette County. Although few contemporary writers have explained the virtues, or the importance of the coal fields of the plateau regions, the coal entrepreneurs of the era were well aware of its potential. The five-foot to six-foot tall seams of coal found in the plateau areas were almost twice as high as the typical three-foot tall coal seams found in the Gorge. In economic terms, this meant that the coal in the plateau could be mined at greater profit because the cost of extracting thicker, or higher, seams of coal is less.

Finally, in early-1894, a branch line railroad, officially known as the Loup Creek Branch, was completed from the C&O mainline to Macdonald., due to the efforts of Thomas G. McKell, who owned a vast quantity of land in the plateau region. With the completion of the necessary transportation link, a booming period of growth and development followed. Within a few short years, four mining operation were opened within walking distance of Mt. Hope employing about four-hundred men. During this period, three stores were established in Mt. Hope and dozens of new privately-owned dwelling places erected. In addition, several company stores, offices and scores of company houses were erected by the four mining companies that were opening mines. As a result of the explosive growth in the local area, Mount Hope was incorporated as a town on June 1, 1895.

Surrounded on all sides by lands owned by mining companies, the town of Mount Hope had very little available land on which businesses could be built. But despite this fact, rows of stores and businesses began to appear along the route of the old stagecoach road through the town, which became Main Street. And even though the town was lacking in expansion room, Mt. Hope was quickly on its way to becoming the major trading center in the coal fields of the region. Much of the town's success was due to the fact that the town was not controlled by a coal company. Unlike the company owned mining towns, that had only one company store, Mt. Hope offered area consumers a wide variety of many different stores and shops from which to purchase goods. By 1910, Mount Hope was the modern and up-to-date metropolis of the county, having stores, shops and other businesses that did not exist anywhere else in the surround region. The town could boast of having a movie theatre, a large hotel, a bank, a drug store, a furniture store, a hardware store, a produce company, a bakery, several saloons and numerous other businesses. The town itself was considered to be quite "modern" in every regard, with paved streets and sidewalks that lighted with electric lights.

Although the booming community of Mount Hope was experiencing its share of growing pains, the future seemed quite good. Then, on the morning of March 24, 1910 disaster struck. A fire started near the business district that quickly spread and ultimately destroyed almost every home and building in the town. A more detailed account of the fire is available under the topic the Fire of 1910. Following the fire, the community was quickly rebuilt, with rows of "modern" brick buildings replaced the old wooden storefronts. Ultimately, the fire had a positive effect on the community, as it became an opportunity for the town to be rebuilt, "better than ever before."

With the completion of the extension of the Kanawha Glen Jean & Eastern Railway (KGJ & E) between Mt. Hope to Pax in 1910, a link with the mainline of the Virginian Railway was achieved. The traveling public could now connect with mainlines trains of either the C&O Railway at Thurmond or the Virginian Railway at Pax. Making a connection with the Virginian Railway offered the traveler who wished to go to the Princeton or Bluefield area a distinct advantage. Traveling to Bluefield via the C&O to a connection with the N&W Railroad required a two-day trip, while the connection via the Virginian allowed the trip to be done in the same day.

During the 1910's and early 1920's the local coal industry continued to expand, a factor that enabled the town to continue to grow as well. In "Warner Town," located in the hills above the Mountainair Hotel, the sale of lots for the building of new homes began, not long after the Fire of 1910. Warner Town soon became home to scores of new families within a very short period of time. During future years, Warner Town would be annexed by Mt. Hope. As a result of the town's growth, in 1921 the legislature granted to Mount Hope a city charter. Not long afterwards, the community began using the motto still in use today, "The little city with the big welcome."

By the mid-1920's more than twenty coal companies had established offices in Mt. Hope. Including among the town's coal company was one of the most .influential coal companies in the state, the New River Company. Mt. Hope was the second largest community in the county during this time period, second only to Montgomery in terms of population. Although Mount Hope's population was never huge, the total population of the immediate area surround the town was impressive. The town's leaders boasted during the era that more than thirty-thousand persons lived within walking distance of Mt. Hope, among the numerous mining camps that existed around the city's boundaries. During the first two decades of the 20th Century, many different newspapers were published in Mt. Hope, including: The Mount Hope independent; The Mount Hope Leader; The Times; The Mount Hope Daily News; and The Fayette Republican.

The importance of the mining operations located in the Loup Creek Coal Field and other areas of the plateau regions during this era should not be underestimated. Although much has been written about the mining operations of the New River Gorge, by the early decades of the 1900's, the most productive coal mines of the area existed in the areas of the plateau. While the account of how the tiny town of Thurmond produced more freight than the city of Cincinnati has been repeated over and over, few writers have mentioned the fact that the bulk of the freight (coal) being shipped through Thurmond was coming from mines located along the Loup Creek Branch. In fact, 1/3 of all the coal being shipped east on the C&O mainline was coming off the Loup Creek Branch during the early years of 1900.

The peak of Mount Hope's influence and importance peaked by the end of the 1920's. The period of explosive boom was over, and with the start of the Great Depression the town, as well as the entire nation, began to feel the effects of an economy that had come to a screeching stop. Then, just as the nation seemed to be pulling out of the great economic downturn, the community was pulled, along with the entire nation, into World War II. By the end of the great war, the future of coal seemed to be greatly in doubt. The entire world, and everything in it seemed to have been changed forever. When the coal industry began to decline in the 1950's, mines began to close and the economies of most of the towns in coal counties of Southern West Virginia would never be the same. During the period of time between 1950 and 1960, the southern counties lost about one-third of their population, as people were forced to move out of the area to find work. As the world entered the decade of the 1960's, coal seemed to be something quite out of date, during the days when man was literally reaching towards the moon, and the stars.

Turkey Knob Coal & Coke Company 
On the right side of the photo shown at right, the first section of a long row of stone-faced beehive coke ovens can seen. Remains of many of the  of the Turkey Knob Coal & Coke Company's coke ovens are still visible today, however the site is located on private property. During the era of King Coal, dozens of miners' homes and a Company Store were located at Turkey Knob.

Turkey Knob Coal & Coke Company coal plant, circa 1906
Turkey Knob Coal & Coke Company coal plant, circa 1906.
Click to view enlarged

Sugar Creek Coal & Coke Company
The present-day street, Stadium Drive, was once the route used by the C&O tracks used to reach the Sugar Creek mine which was located near the present-day football stadium. The Company Store of the Sugar Creek Coal & Coke Company was located near the present-day site of the town's library. The coal firm's company houses were located where the Stadium Terrace housing development is now located.

Tipple and powerhouse of the Sugar Creek Coal & Coke Company
Tipple and powerhouse of the Sugar Creek Coal & Coke Company
Click to view enlarged

Probably few people realize that during the late-1890's, the owners of the Sugar Creek mine planned to build a railroad, known as the Sugar Creek, Packs Branch & Paint Creek Railroad, from Mount Hope to location near the mouth of Paint Creek in Kanawha County. Although the building of the line never came about, some years later the KGJ&E Railway completed a branch line that followed virtually the same route originally proposed by the Sugar Creek Railroad. Just north of the Sugar Creek mine, the KGJ&E built a large group of railroad sidings that were used as a marshalling area, where coal trains were reassembled Because of the very steep grade between Mt. Hope and the Pax Tunnel (just past the present day location of the Georgia-Pacific Plant) the KGJ&E found it necessary to "double the hill" with its trains. This required breaking the long coal trains into two sections, with the locomotive making two trips up the grade pulling half of the train's cars each trip. The KGJ&E coal trains were then reassembled on the other end of the tunnel, at a location appropriately named "Tunnel Siding." The large flat area that once contained dozens of KGJ&E tracks is the present day location of Graney Park, where the town's soccer field is located.
Chesapeake & Ohio Coal Trains

PHOTO - C&O Ry. Train at Mt. Hope
Photograph by technoart_2k@yahoo.com

During the late-1960's, as train-loads of coal continued to roll out of town each day, no one seem to pay much attention to the sight. Probably few realized that within a only a few years, the day would come when very last coal train would roll out of town. The great Era of King Coal, that once began as a roaring boom, ended forever with the fading sound of a train disappearing in the distance.



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