“Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads.”
John Denver knew what he was talking about. There are a lot of country roads in West Virginia. Beautiful country roads taking you over the Appalachian mountain range. These mountains and valleys are also home to large coal mining communities.
Coal has been mined in West Virginia since the founding of the state. There is a deep tradition of mining coal in West Virginia; nearly everyone has known someone who has worked in the mines. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fathers would bring their sons into the mines as young as ten years old. Fathers would train their sons who would continue on the tradition. Entire families have dedicated their lives to working in the coal mines which provide energy for the rest of the United States.
In order to learn more about the history of coal mining in the state, we visited the Whipple Company Store for a tour. The company store was the center of the coal mine camps back in the day. The coal miners would be paid in scrips, “money” created by the coal company, which could only be used at the company store. While the men worked in the coal mines for 12 to 18 hours, the women ran the house. They would go to the company store for household needs, such as groceries, cloth, and medicines. The men were paid 14 to 20 “cents” for a ton of coal and would mine about 2 tons of coal a day. With low wages and the lack of real money, the men and their families were not able to save money and leave the mine camps.
In the camps, their entire lives were controlled and watched over by the coal company owners and their guards. The working conditions in the mine were dangerous and harmful to the miners’ health. The miners were exposed to coal dust, resulting in black lung, as well as difficult physical labor, putting them at risk for serious accidents. Despite all this, the coal miners stayed because the mines provided food and shelter for them and their families.
After visiting the company store, we went to an exhibition coal mine. There we took a small train through an old mine and saw the conditions in which the miners worked. Low ceilings, low lighting, ventilation made for very difficult working conditions.
By visiting these two places, we saw firsthand the benefits and harms of coal mining. Although the working conditions have changed since the early 20th century and fewer people are employed by the coal companies, it is still a hugely important part of the economy and community of West Virginia.