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The Quest for Resources
by Ronald L. Lewis

As early as the 1870s, promoters began to draw attention to the natural resources of the mountains.  It began even earlier in West Virginia when the legislature created a Commissioner of Immigration to promote the "boundless natural resources" of the state.  The first commissioner, John H. Diss Debar, could not have dreamed of the success ultimately achieved by the private speculators who took up the call, especially former Confederate officers General John D. Imboden and Major Jedidiah Hotchkiss.  Both men knew first hand the wealth to be developed, and both invested heavily in West Virginia coal and timer lands long before the coming of the railroads.

Timber and mineral agents purchased land throughout southern West Virginia.  Some buyers offered to buy mineral rights only, others wanted only trees on the stump, still others purchased land outright.  The use of the "broad form" deed gave rights to the buyer to do whatever was necessary to extract the resources, but land owners gradually realized the disadvantages inherent in this contract and insisted on outright purchase.  Even so, the value of lands or rights sold before the railroad arrived were a small fraction of what they would be afterward.  For example, land which was purchased in the Pocahontas-Flat Top field at $1.50 to $2.00 per acre was worth over $100 per acre five years later.

Millions of acres of land, timber, and mineral rights passed out of the hands of local people in this manner and into the grasp of speculators who in turn sold them to absentee corporations.  One of the few official public positions taken by a state agency against this transfer of wealth was by the West Virginia Tax Commission in 1884.  It warned citizens that ownership of valuable resources would in the near future leave  West Virginia "despoiled of her wealth and her resident population poor, helpless, and despondent."  The warning was a less prophetic than intelligent observation to those few who took heed.

The coming of the railroads was nearly as dramatic a development as the transfer of land to private corporations.  In a relatively short period of time railroads financed by Wall Street and Fleet Street laid down an intricate web of tracks opening the way to exploitation of the natural resources.  The railroads connected the logging operations with milling centers and markets, and transformed the methods and organization of the industry.  Equipment capable of stripping mountains to the top was brought in, and the volume and size of timber hauled out grew enormously.  By 1920, West Virginia had lost a virgin forest which had covered two-thirds of the state in 1880.  In the process, larger and larger blocks of land came under control of ever larger resources companies as major corporations lined up to profit by serving the demand for forest products in urbanizing America.

In 1886, the Norfolk and Western Railroad announced an east-west line through southern West Virginia.  The decision to route this line through the Tug Valley as opposed to the Guyandotte Valley came in February 1889.  The town of Matewan, incorporated in 1897, was founded about 1893, when the railroad reached the area.  The town was named after the hometown of the engineers, Mattewan, New York; however, the locals dropped one "t" and changed the pronunciation. 

The railroads also hauled out coal.  Timber companies succeeded in denuding the mountainsides, and the coal companies filled the landscape with gob piles and finished the process of transforming the countryside beyond recognition of former mountain dwellers.  The Williamson Coalfield, comprised of Mingo and parts of McDowell and Wayne Counties, was opened shortly after the completion of the N&W mainline along the Tug Fork.  The first coal mining operations were located around Matewan.  In 1893, the Thacker Coal and Coke Company was incorporated.  In 1894, the Alma Coal and Coke Company was incorporated at Matewan and Matewan Improvement Company, a landholding corporation was organized by Philadelphia interests.

By 1900 Mercer, McDowell, and Mingo counties alone produced almost as much coal as the rest of the entire state had in 1890.  Over almost as much coal as the rest of the entire state had in 1890.  Over the next twenty years coal production in the southern counties expanded by over 300 percent.  By 1925, West Virginia produced 176,000,000 tons of coal, over two-thirds of which came from southern West Virginia.

Like the timber men, coal operators and the investors to whom they were indebted entered West Virginia to extract its rich natural resources.  Investors and operators measured their success in terms of profits, of course, rather than improvement of life for local inhabitants.  In the process, the region's destiny was turned over to absentee corporations, who in turn made West Virginia a peripheral supplier of natural resources for the nations growing urban-manufacturing centers.  The consequences of that process continues to adversely affect modern life in the Mountain State.  Now, approximately two-thirds of all privately owned land, and about four-fifths of natural wealth in West Virginia is owned by absentee resource corporations.


Ronald L. Lewis is the Chairman of History at West Virginia University and is a recognized scholar of West Virginia history.

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