N & W

A collection of information and personal research

(This is from the August 22, 1907, edition of the Manufacturers' Record, Vol. LIL, No. 6, pg. 147.)

A Center of West Virginia Coal Development.

Welch, W. Va., August 9.

McDowell county is the storm center of the coal development of West Virginia, being illustrative alike of the tremendous productive power of this greatest of coal states and of the unrivaled rapidity with which it has sprung into prominence. In the last 18 years, during which the production of coal in West Virginia has increased just about 900 per cent.—from 4,663,857 in 1889 to more than forty million tons in 1907 -- McDowell county jumped from sixth place, with 245,760 tons, to first place, with 7,806,524 tons. In 1888 McDowell county had not produced a ton of commercial coal. A tour of inspection through this county now presents to the observant tourist such scenes of enterprise and activity, such evidences of progress and development as to almost overwhelm his powers of assimilation and paralyize his ability to digest and describe. Possibly no other section of the country—certainly none outside the gold fields—has showed such remarkable strides in the path of progress in the past decade as has McDowell county, from the county seat of which this letter is being written. The Government census of 1900 gave McDowell county a population of 18,747; today there is a population living within its borders of close to 75,000. Wilder, rougher country it would be hard fo to find, yet the entire stretch of the Norfolk & Western Railroad through the county is a veritable hive of industry. The narrow valleys of the Elkhorn and Tug, and the gorges through the mountains cut by their various tributaries, are the scenes of a continual industrial activity almost unrivaled, certainly unsurpassed. So many are the coal plants, and so close together along the railroad, that the traveler as he passes through is unable to discern where one coal town ends and another begins, and if he rides on a local train the stops are so many that he feels that he is making no progress.

Nor is the carrying of passengers and freight the only work in which the railroad itself is engaged. With the intention to put its road in the best possible condition to handle the immense traffic now offered and continually and persistently increasing, the Norfolk & Western Company is digging tunnels, straightening track, improving grades, laying steel, putting in sidings, and in every way improving its line and adding to its ability to furnish transportation for everything offered. The policy of this road is a broad and liberal one, and the consequence is that the mines along its line are furnished facilities for shipping coal more nearly equal to their possible output than those of any other general section of the State.

The coal mined in this county is for the most part from the famous Pocahontas seam No. 3, which, while not as thick here as further to the southeast, where it reaches 13 feet in clean coal, is still of good workable size, and of the same unsurpassed quality that has made it famous throughout the world. The No. 3 seam dips under the water level near this place, and the operations west of here are working in the upper measures.

There are more than sixty operations in this county, and the number is being continually increased. The largest number of operations belonging to a single company are those of the United States Coal & Coke Co., a branch of the United States Steel Corporation. This company has headquarters at Gary, a town of its own building, which lies southwest of this place about seven miles. The company now has eight operations within a few miles of Gary, with 16 different mines. It is increasing the number of operations, and will soon have 30 mines running.

Most persons, unaccustomed to thinking in millions of tons, will find it somewhat difficult to grasp the amount of coal mentioned as being mined in McDowell in a year's time. For the better understanding let us reduce it to days. The total number of tons mined, adding the 7,806,524 shipped and the 2,656,050 made into coke, is 10,462,580. For 312 working days this means 33,540 tons daily. To move this amount of coal requires 670 50-ton cars each day. It takes more than four miles of loaded 50-ton cars out and more than four miles of empties in each day to carry this output.

But it is in the matter of coke production that McDowell county is destined to stand pre-eminent among West Virginia counties. The coke business, largely dependent upon the iron and steel industry, must, in the nature of things, increase largely in importance with the increase in the production of those articles. The growth of the iron and steel business in this country in the last few years has been phenomenal, even for a country of remarkable growth in all lines of human endeavor, and it is felt by those who study such questions that the industry is hardly more than in its infancy. Sir Lowthan Bell, the great English ironmaker, said of the importance of the ironmaking industry in America:

"With the exception of air and water it is open to the question whether there is any form of matter which the human race could less easily spare than iron. Short of going the length of asserting that without this metal for an anchor, or steel for a compass, the adverturous navigator could never have crossed the Atlantic, we may credit the locomotive, the steamer and hence the iron for the sequence of events which has peopled North America with the Anglo-Saxon race. The result has been to raise a vast territory to a position without parallel in the progress of the world."

Charcoal was the fuel first used iu the making of iron in this country, and it held its place of supremacy until 1855. In that year it was overtaken by anthracite coal, and never again challenged for first place. Twenty years later coke went to the front, and has since been the fuel for the iron furnaces. The first coke was shipped from McDowell county in 1889, but the record of the annual output is not now available beyond 1897. From that time on it is shown by the following table:

Year.Tons at 2000 lbs.
1897567,070
1898731,681
1899923.166
19001,070,033
1901953,702
1902929,433
19031,016,988
19041,170,200
19051,380,805
19061,699,426

The coal mined here is made into coke with great profit because of its high percentage in fixed carbon and the correspondingly low percentage in volatile matter, sulphur and phosphorus. The analysis made for the British Government by John Pattison, F. I. C., F. C. S., showed the following:

Carbon86.51
Hydrogen4.44
Oxygen4.95
Nitrogen0.66
Sulphur0.61
Ash1.54
Water1.29
--
Total100.00

From this it will be plainly seen that the process of making coke, which is merely the application of sufficient heat to release the volatile matter, is a very simple and easy one; much easier than that necessary in the reduction of coal in which the volatile matter runs up to 40 per cent. or more. Of the coke itself claim is made that it is without a rival in the making of steel by the Bessel process and for general furnace purposes. Following is the analysis of the coke:

Water.347
Volatile matter.757
Fixed carbon92.552
Ash5.743
Sulphur.597
Phosphorus.007
Total100.000

For the year past the number of coke ovens employed in McDowell county was 9592, and they were in use an average 298 days each. This number has been increased during the past few months, and the tonnage of the product will show an increase the present year, for while the coke business is falling away in other portions of the State the demand is such that it is increasing here, and this county's lead will be increased as the years go on.

The labor employed in McDowell is largely colored, and the negro citizen outnumbers the white by a large majority. The office employes, clerks in the stores and those engaged in such like other capacities are white, of course, and are drawn for the most part from Virginia and other Southern States.

GEORGE BYRNE