Past Lives: Rediscovering the Forgotten Coal Mining Towns of Appalachia

coal-miners (Image: Hine, Lewis Wickes, public domain)

Dozens and dozens of small, once-thriving villages sit throughout the mountains of Appalachia, abandoned or nearly so. When coal mining was big, entire towns were built to support the industry. But when the mines had outlived their usefulness – and when gas and oil became more popular – people moved on. We’re at a turning point for many of these towns; most began to grow in the years around World War One, meaning that those who remember these towns as they were in their heyday are slowly declining. With them goes the memory of a different life, a different world.

10. The Strange Murder of Centralia’s Founder

There’s no way that we could, in good faith, leave Centralia, Pennsylvania out of an article on the mining towns of the United States. While everyone knows the story of what happened to Centralia and everyone’s seen the photos of the perpetually burning town, the settlement’s history is no less fascinating.

centralia-pa-1971 (Image: USDA; Centralia, PA in 1971)

Centralia was founded by a mining engineer named Alexander Rea. Rea worked for the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, and in 1842, he was sent to Pennsylvania to oversee the development of some land they’d recently purchased. He laid out the town and called it Centreville – when it came time to build a post office, though, he found that the country already had a Centreville and the town became Centralia. By 1866, the little town was incorporated, and it was home to about 1,300 people.

Unfortunately, Rea was murdered in 1868 on his way home from a neighboring town. It was nearly ten years before his killers were arrested, tried, and hanged, after one of them finally confessed.

centralia-pennsylvania-stay-out (Images: Peter & Laila, cc-4.0)

All four were linked to a group called the Molly Maguires. According to the popular story, the group took their name from an Irish widow who refused to leave her home when an unspecified authority attempted to seize it. The ‘Mollies’, which operated in a time before the laws that would later be put in place to protect workers’ rights, were something of an upstart vigilante force. Most were Irish and most were Catholic, and when they immigrated to the United States, they found some of the same brutal conditions – and discrimination – that they were fleeing from.

Just why the four men had killed Rea has never been accurately determined. The official reason, given at the trial, was that they’d heard he’d been carrying a considerable amount of money that they’d hoped to make off with, but given the group’s background, it’s often thought that there were even darker reasons for the murder.

9. The Molly Maguires

There’s plenty about the Molly Maguires that isn’t known, as they’re one of those secret societies that has, over the years, managed to remain pretty secret. To a certain degree, they operated within the larger (and much more legal) organization, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, which, at the time, rivaled the size and reach of the Freemasons.

the-pinkertons (Image: via Wikipedia)

The organization was an odd combination of civilized and brutal. Throughout the region, there were smaller groups of members that met to discuss issues and vote on what to do about them. Members would bring things to the table, often unfair working conditions like supervisors who cheated their employees of pay or wrongfully fired them. Once it was decided what would be done, members from another area would be called in to do the deed (which could range from beatings to murder), as a ‘favour’. Local group members would all have alibis, and, down the road, they would repay the favour.

After two decades of inflicting their own sort of vigilante justice, the infamous Alan Pinkerton hired a man named James McParlan in 1873. Adopting a new identity, he spent five years infiltrating the organization and doing what he needed to do to rise through the ranks. Eventually, it led to the downfall of the Mollies, a trial in court, and the hanging of 20 men for their crimes.

They did, however, leave a lasting legacy – labour unions. The Molly Maguires were responsible for establishing a series of labour unions to combat their big business overseers, and even after the organisation came to an end, the unions would remain.

8. “I Owed My Soul to the Company Store”

It’s an iconic line in a song that sums up the life of the coal miner with eerie soulfulness.

company-store-scrip (Image: Russell Lee, public domain)

Part of a coal miner’s pay was usually in scrip, which acted as a sort of credit card that was only good at the store that belonged to the company that owned the the town, the mine and, effectively, the workers. While there was some practicality to the company store – mines were often out in the middle of nowhere, and they gave people access to goods and commodities they otherwise might not have been able to get – there were also some pretty shady dealings going on.

Company stores weren’t small affairs. They would carry everything that those in the town could possibly need, from flour and sugar to tools. They usually had a post office within them, along with offices for those who ran the mines and the towns. At the height of the coal mining town, around 20,000 company stores existed to supply them. They were often the heart of the settlement, too, where kids would go to buy food for their dinner table or candy as a treat, where women would meet friends and where men would play cards.

company-store-scrip-2 (Image: Russell Lee, public domain)

But, they had an incredibly bad reputation that increased as time went on. Goods were usually more expensive at the company store than they were at a normal retail outlet, and the idea that miners were forced to earn their pay in a form that could only be spent at their owners’ stores didn’t sit well with many. An attempt to create a transferable form of scrip didn’t go over well, either, and companies continued their choke hold on commerce. On the flip side, though, was the convenience of the supplies, the cost of having them shipped to the remote mining towns, and the fact that they were often some of the most high-quality goods available.

7. The Cherry Mine Disaster

Tragedy was a way of life, and the 1909 disaster at Cherry, Illinois provided a terrifying image at what it was like to be trapped inside a collapsed mine. On the morning of November 13, around 500 men and children reported for work, as usual. By the end of the day, 259 of them would be dead and 21 would spend the next agonizing eight days trapped underground, fighting to survive.

cherry-mine-disaster (Image: Wikipedia, public domain)

The electrical system for the mine was down, so workers were forced to light kerosene torches to line the walls. Almost predictably, a fire started. There were mules stabled underground in the mines, and one of the torches lit their hay on fire. The fire spread, and the signal was given to evacuate. The signal also summoned rescue teams, which worked to bring more and more of the miners to the surface. On their 12th trip, the rescue team didn’t return.

In order to put out the fire that was raging underground, the company sealed off the mine’s entrance. They returned to it a week later, and the next day, they found survivors. Trapped around 170 meters (550 feet) underground, 21 men (one of whom later died of complications) emerged from the mine eight days after its collapse.

Thomas White recounted that terrible eight day period for a magazine interview two years later. According to White, his own memory of the incident in turn stands out in brilliant flashes then fades into the darkness of despair. Some of his most vivid memories include finding his fellow miners unresponsive, forced to leave them behind. He recounts losing track of one man and his son, who were later found dead, clinging to each other in the darkness.

cherry-mine-disaster-2 (Image: Library of Congress, public domain)

The men fled the smoke and the fire, taking shelter down another tunnel. Attempts at finding a way out failed, and again and again they retreated. Despair alternated with hope at first, and then, there was only despair. They each vowed to themselves that they would welcome death and die honorably when it came for them, and with each passing day, it seemed less and less likely that they would be rescued. Gas had spread through the entire mine, making them weaker by the hour.

Finally, as a last-ditch effort, they walled themselves up in a portion of the tunnel – and it saved their lives.

And, perhaps White’s own words can say it best: “Such inky darkness as now enveloped us I have never before seen or hope to know again. A sense of solitude and loneliness took the place of the comfort of companionship which we had had when we could see each other by means of the light, and gloom and despair reigned supreme in that underground chamber of misery.”

6. The Disappearing Villages of the Potomac River

At the height of the coal mining boom, there were around eleven villages and mines in the area around the mouth of the Potomac River alone. Now, they’re all abandoned and many aren’t there at all any more.

vindex-md (Image: via Vindex, MD)

For some, walking through the overgrown woods and the ruins reclaimed by nature is a walk down memory lane. Some of those who grew up at the tail end of the villages’ habitation are still alive today, and they remember the normality of everyday life in what are now the ruins. They remember being hired as kids to play lookout for an adulterous woman, they remember going to dances, going to the general store, going to school. Some had their own baseball teams – baseball was a cornerstone of life for the towns.

Most of the towns are on privately held property, and there’s a huge number that are no longer there – unless you know where to look for the odd foundation or staircase. And it’s for an odd reason – they really weren’t abandoned that long ago, but if you look for the remains of Vindex, MD (above), all you’ll find are a few foundations.

That’s largely because when the company-owned towns closed their mines, they tore down many of the largest buildings in town. Now, what little is left has become completely overgrown – streets, many of which never had names even while they were home to hundreds of people – are simply gone.

Local historians are working desperately to preserve their stories – all of their stories, even the ones of the store that sold a little boy his first radio, or the church that everyone gathered at on Sundays. Because, there’s little left of the towns now, and when the last of the residents of those towns are gone, no one will remember they were once there.

5. The Tommyknockers and Other Coal Miners’ Ta

Coal mining is an extraordinarily dangerous job, as we’ve seen, and it’s no wonder that those that were working in the deepest, darkest mines – some of whom only saw the light of day on a Sunday – came up with their own stories and mythology about just who was down in there with them.

dwarf-folklore (Image: Wikipedia, public domain. From ‘The Black Dwarf’, illustration purposes only)

The belief in the tommyknockers came to the United States with miners originally from Cornwall. According to the belief, the tommyknockers were small, dwarf-like people who lived deep in the mines – deeper than any human would ever see. Some people thought that they were the spirits of slaves the Romans had put to work in the mines of Cornwall, while others told stories of the tommyknockers as souls of the dead, trapped between heaven and hell. Wherever they came from, they brought with them the idea that it was unlucky to whistle in a mine, because it would annoy them. Miners that ate their lunches underground would often leave a bit for the tommyknockers, otherwise, they might become angry.

Women also played a huge role in the superstitions of the miners. While there were, later, female miners, typically the only time women would be near a mine was if something bad had already happened – they became seen as harbingers of tragedy. Red-headed women in particular were dangerous, to the point where it was said that, if you met one on the way to work in the morning, you’d better not go into the mines.

mule-mine (Image: Clark, W. B., public domain)

While the presence of some women would curse a mine, there were others that could heal a sick child with their breath.

Animals were a source of superstitions, too, especially when it came to their powers of seeing the supernatural. Mules, who often worked in the mines hauling heavy carts, were said to be able to see the spirits of the dead, and so could rats – so when the rats started running, you’d better run, too.

4. Thurmond, West Virginia

thurmond west virginia (Image: John Morris, cc-nc-sa-4.0)

Thurmond wasn’t a mining town, per se, but the coal mines were its lifeline. Founded in the 1870s by a surveyor who took his wages in the form of the 73-acre plot of land that would become Thurmond, Captain Thurmond turned his little plot of land into the heart of the surrounding coal mining industry. Large towers were built for the purpose of storing coal, and it was accessible by one means – the train. More than a dozen small mining towns would send their coal into Thurmond, West Virginia to be then shipped on its way to other parts of the country, making it the beating heart of the region.

And its success was as massive as it was short-lived; at one time, Thurmond was responsible for more freight than any other depot between Cincinnati, Ohio and Richmond, Virginia, and nearly 100,000 people passed through the town each year. It was officially incorporated in 1900, and which time it was being fed by 26 mines.

thurmond west virginia-2 (Image: Brian M. Powell, cc-sa-3.0)

The decline was a slow one, in part because of competition from other railways, in part because Prohibition made it impossible to head into town after working the mines for a drink, and partially because of a fire that destroyed a large part of the city in 1922. Then, the town’s trademark building, the Dunglen Hotel, was torched by an arsonist in 1930.

As of 2013, the town had 3 permanent residents. It’s still there, though, and it’s still a popular place for people to meet in the heart of some amazing white-water rafting country. The buildings that survive are eerie, offering a glimpse into what was once a popular destination from coal miners from around the area, a major, bustling railroad depot, and a place to go, kick back, and get some enjoyment out of life.

3. The Strange Failure of Concrete City

The idea of miners and their families living in housing developments built, owned and maintained by the company that they worked for isn’t a new one. In 1916, a federally-conducted survey found that about 34 percent of mining families lived in homes that were classified by government standings as ‘shanties’. But Concrete City, located in Pennsylvania, was a failed attempt at creating something special.

concrete-city-abandoned (Image: Forsaken Fotos, cc-4.0)

Opened in 1915, the development was established to provide state-of-the-art housing for 40 of the DL&W and Truesdale workers and their families. In order to be selected for the special housing, employees had to have a ‘high value’ position within the company, and they needed to speak English fluently.

Each building was divided in half, with space for two families and rooms that included a living room, kitchen, dining room and four bedrooms. Each home had their own personal outhouses, and they were heated by coal stoves. And, they had access to amenities, like playgrounds, baseball fields, tennis courts and a swimming pool.

concrete-city-abandoned-2 (Image: Forsaken Fotos, cc-4.0)

It must have sounded absolutely divine. But, as the families who moved there found, it didn’t quite live up to their expectations – and the resulting memories we have from people who lived in Concrete City are rather dismal. The concrete walls absorbed and held moisture, meaning that they were constantly dripping – and freezing. According to one woman, their clothes would be frozen solid in the morning, and would need to be ironed in order to soften them enough so that they could be worn.

Conditions were so bad that the whole place was abandoned in 1924, less than 10 years after it had been opened to the coal mining elite. The abandoned village still stands – because it was very well built, at least in terms of durability. The only planned demolition was called to an abrupt end when 100 sticks of dynamite were used, unsuccessfully, to blow up one of the homes.

concrete-city-abandoned-3 (Image: Forsaken Fotos, cc-4.0)

Today, it’s a home for graffiti and vandalism, and serves as an occasional training center for area fire departments.

2. The Downward Spiral

The coal mining industry hit its peak during the World Wars. It was a booming industry from around 1912 to 1927, when many of the coal mining towns were built. Far from just ramshackle homes, they included everything that other towns did – hospitals, schools, and stores. By the early 1920s, miners were making an incredibly good living, with many even able to afford luxury goods that they’d never previously thought of.

kentucky-coal-mining (Image: Russell Lee, public domain. A coal mining community in Kentucky)

But, the towns were owned by the mining companies. When the Great War ended and the need for coal declined, the price it fetched went down, as did the workers’ wages. In 1927, the entire system crashed, and those on the bottom were not prepared for it.

The same thing happened in the years around World War Two. This time, with the end of the war, it wasn’t just a decreased demand for coal. People were also finding other sources of fuel. As a result the slow, steady decline left huge areas of Appalachia hungry.

1. Black Lung

Working in a mine is physically challenging work under any condition, and there are many things that make it a grueling lifestyle.

black-lung (Image: Yale Rosen, cc-sa-4.0)

Thousands of miners have suffered from – and ultimately die due to – black lung. Also called miner’s asthma or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, it occurs when miners are constantly exposed to and breathing coal dust. The disease blackens the lungs and makes it all but impossible to be able to breathe; according to one recent sufferer, Mark McCowan, “Breathing has become a conscious effort…. it seems like I give up a little bit of my world each day, and it gets smaller and smaller.”

Black lung has always been around, but McCowan’s testimony is terrifyingly recent – September of 2014. Even though it’s completely preventable and, at one time, it was almost non-existent, it’s on the rise again. In 1968, the problem was so rampant that sufferers and their families organized the West Virginia Black Lung Association, which, within a year, succeeded in getting legislation passed in the state that not only brought the whole problem to light, but required companies to compensate those who were diagnosed.

black-lung-2 (Image: Museomed, cc-sa-3.0)

It wasn’t without opposition from the companies, and it led to a massive strike involving 40,000 miners who left the mines and headed to West Virginia’s capitol – an event that made for the largest, longest-running strikes ever conducted due to a health issue.

Just why it’s back is still being debated, and part of the problem is the ever-present clash between the coal mining companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the workers themselves.

Keep Reading – Lives Once Lived: 10 Abandoned (Crofting) Communities of Scotland


About the author: Debra Kelly




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