West Virginia History

West Virginia is one of only two American states formed during the American Civil War (1861-1865), along with Nevada, and is the only state to form by seceding from a Confederate state. It was originally part of the British Virginia Colony (1607-1776) and the western part of the state of Virginia (1776-1863), whose population became sharply divided over the issue of secession from the Union and in the separation from Virginia, formalized by admittance to the Union as a new state in 1863. West Virginia was one of the Civil War Border states.

West Virginia’s history was profoundly affected by its mountainous terrain, spectacular river valleys, and rich natural resources. These were all factors driving its economy and the lifestyles of residents, as well as drawing visitors to the “Mountain State” in the early 21st century.


The area now known as West Virginia was a favorite hunting ground of numerous Native American peoples before the arrival of European settlers. Many ancient man-made earthen mounds from various mound builder cultures survive, especially in the areas of Moundsville, South Charleston, and Romney. Although little is known about these civilizations, the artifacts uncovered in these give evidence of a complex, stratified culture that practiced metallurgy.

In summary to quote Dr. Robert F. Maslowski, “The Adena Indians used pipes for ceremonies. They were carved of stone and they were exceptional works of art. Pipes and the smoking of tobacco became more common during the Late Prehistoric period. They were often made of clay and rather plain.” “Nothing is known about Paleo-Indian and Archaic houses in the Kanawha Valley, but archeologists have found evidence of Woodland and Fort Ancient houses.” “Woodland Indians lived in wigwams…The Woodland Indians grew sunflowers, gourds, squash and several seeds such as lambsquarter, may grass, sumpweed, smartweed and little barley.” “Fort Ancient Indians lived in much larger square or rectangular houses…The Fort Ancient Indians can be considered true farmers. They cultivated large agricultural fields around their villages. They no longer grew such a variety of seeds but concentrated on growing corn, beans, sunflowers, gourds and many types of squash including the pumpkin. They also grew domestic turkeys and kept dogs as pets.”

European exploration and settlement

In 1671, General Abraham Wood, at the direction of Royal Governor William Berkeley of the Virginia Colony, sent the party of Thomas Batts and Robert Fallum into the West Virginia area. During this expedition the pair followed the New River and discovered Kanawha Falls.

On July 13, 1709, Louis Michel, George Ritter, and Baron Christoph von Graffenried petitioned the King of England for a land grant in the Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown area, Jefferson County, in order to establish a Swiss colony. Neither the land grant or the Swiss colony ever materialized.

Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood is sometimes credited with taking his 1716 “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Expedition” into what is now Pendleton County, although according to contemporary accounts, Spotwood’s trail went no farther west than Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Treaty of Albany, 1722, designated the Blue Ridge Mountains as the western boundary of white settlement, and recognized Iroquois rights on the west side of the ridge, including all of West Virginia. The Iroquois made little effort to settle these parts, but nonetheless claimed them as their hunting ground, as did other tribes, notably the Shawnee and Cherokee. Soon after this, white settlers began moving into the Greater Shenandoah-Potomac Valley making up the entire eastern portion of the State. They found it largely unoccupied, apart from Tuscaroras who had lately moved into the area around Martinsburg, WV, some Shawnee villages in the region around Moorefield, WV and Winchester, VA, and frequent passing bands of “Northern Indians” (Lenape from New Jersey) and “Southern Indians” (Catawba from South Carolina) who were engaged in a bitter long-distance war, using the Valley as a battleground.

John Van Metre, an Indian trader, penetrated into the northern portion of West Virginia in 1725. Also in 1725, Pearsall’s Flats in the South Branch Potomac River valley, present-day Romney, was settled, and later became the site of the French and Indian War stockade, Fort Pearsall. Morgan ap Morgan, a Welshman, built a cabin near present-day Bunker Hill in Berkeley County in 1727. The same year German settlers from Pennsylvania founded New Mecklenburg, the present Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River, and others soon followed.

Orange County, Virginia was formed in 1734. It included all areas west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, constituting all of present West Virginia. However, in 1736 the Iroquois Six Nations protested Virginia’s colonization beyond the demarcated Blue Ridge, and a skirmish was fought in 1743. The Iroquois were on the point of threatening all-out war against the Virginia Colony over the “Cohongoruton lands”, which would have been destructive and devastating, when Governor Gooch bought out their claim for 400 pounds at the Treaty of Lancaster (1744).

In 1661, King Charles II of England had granted a company of gentlemen the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, known as the Northern Neck. The grant eventually came into the possession of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron and in 1746 a stone was erected at the source of the North Branch Potomac River to mark the western limit of the grant. A considerable part of this land was surveyed by George Washington, especially the South Branch Potomac River valley between 1748 and 1751. The diary kept by Washington indicates that there were already many squatters, largely of German origin, along the South Branch. Christopher Gist, a surveyor for the first Ohio Company, which was composed chiefly of Virginians, explored the country along the Ohio River north of the mouth of the Kanawha River in 1751 and 1752. The company sought to have a fourteenth colony established with the name Vandalia.

Many settlers crossed the mountains after 1750, though they were hindered by Native American resistance. The 1744 Treaty of Lancaster had left ambiguous whether the Iroquois had sold only as far as the Alleghenies, or all their claim south of the Ohio, including the rest of modern West Virginia. In 1752 at the Treaty of Logstown, they acknowledged the right of English settlements south of the Ohio, but the Cherokee and Shawnee claims still remained. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the scattered settlements were almost destroyed. The Proclamation of 1763 again confirmed all land beyond the Alleghenies as Indian Territory, but the Iroqouis finally relinquished their claims south of the Ohio to Britain at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768.

Most of the Cherokee claim within West Virginia, the southwestern part of the state, was sold to Virginia in 1770 by the Treaty of Lochaber. In 1774, the Crown Governor of Virginia, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, led a force over the mountains, and a body of militia under Colonel Andrew Lewis dealt the Shawnee Indians under Cornstalk a crushing blow at the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, in the Battle of Point Pleasant. Following this conflict, known as Dunmore’s War, the Shawnee and Mingo ceded their rights south of the Ohio, that is, to West Virginia and Kentucky. But renegade Cherokee chief Dragging Canoe continued to dispute the settlers’ advance, fighting the Chickamauga Wars (1776-1794) until after the American Revolutionary War. During the war, the settlers in Western Virginia were generally active Whigs and many served in the Continental Army.

Early River traffic

By 1739, Thomas Shepherd had constructed a flour mill powered by water from the Town Run or the Falling Springs Branch of the Potomac River.

October, 1748, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act establishing a ferry across the Potomac River from the landing of Evan Watkin near the mouth of Conococheague Creek in present-day Berkeley County to the property of Edmund Wade in Maryland. Robert Harper obtained a permit to operate a ferry across the Shenandoah River at present-day Harpers Ferry, Jefferson County on March of 1761. Thus, these two ferry crossings became the earliest locations of government authorized civilian commercial crafts on what would become a part of the West Virginia Waterways.

Satisfying eastern tannery’s growing demand for beaver more often came to the ‘Point’ by canoe and raft from the Kanawha region’s tributary creeks. Isaac Vanbibber and Daniel Boone trading post was established about 1790 at the mouth of Crooked Creek at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. By this decade, the steel trap increases efficiency as beaver becomes scarce within two decades. A shift to the state’s other natural resources begins in ever increasing export quantity. Kanawha Harbor had a great amount of freight and passenger lay-over after the Old War of the 1790s. Kanawha salt production followed by coal and timber floats were moved from West Virginia streams to the populace of other regions. A number of river side locations were used for early Industrial Revolution keelboat building in the Kanawha region. Among others are at Leon, Ravenswood Murraysville and Little Kanawha River. Earlier 1800s steamboat building and machine repair were located at Wheeling and Parkersburg followed by Point Pleasant and Mason City. Wooden coal barges were built on the Monongahela River near Morgantown, Coal River and some at Elk River near Charleston before metal barge became the trend. To example as how local water works progressed, Kanawha Harbor’s boat building increased after a horse drawn logging “tram” with special block & tackle for the hill-side harvesting was brought into use and some expansion of Crooked Creek. Later, this tram and other steam machinery were used for collecting timber to be used as railroad ties in the railway construction along the Kanawha river. It was finished about 1880. This brought the small steamboat landings of the farmers along the rivers to use the railway. Many railroading spurs were built throughout West Virginia connecting mines to the river boat’s barge and coal-tipples.

Trans-Allegheny Virginia, 1776-1861

Social conditions in western Virginia were entirely unlike those existing in the eastern portion of the state. The population was not homogeneous, as a considerable part of the immigration came by way of Pennsylvania and included Germans, Protestant Ulster-Scots, and settlers from the states farther north. During the American Revolution, the movement to create a state beyond the Alleghanies was revived and, in 1776, a petition for the establishment of “Westsylvania” was presented to Congress, on the grounds that the mountains made an almost impassable barrier on the east. The rugged nature of the country made slavery unprofitable, and time only increased the social, political and economic differences between the two sections of Virginia.

The convention which met in 1829 to form a new constitution for Virginia, against the protest of the counties beyond the mountains, required a property qualification for suffrage, and gave the slave-holding counties the benefit of three-fifths of their slave population in apportioning the state’s representation in the lower Federal house. As a result, every county beyond the Alleghanies except one voted to reject the constitution, which was nevertheless carried by eastern votes. Though the Virginia constitution of 1850 provided for white manhood suffrage, the distribution of representation among the counties was such as to give control to the section east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another grievance of the West was the large expenditure for internal improvements at state expense by the Virginia Board of Public Works in the East compared with the scanty proportion allotted to the West.

For the western areas, problems included the distance from the state seat of government in Richmond and the difference of common economic interests resultant from the tobacco and food crops farming, fishing, and coastal shipping to the east of the Eastern Continental Divide (waters which drain to the Atlantic Ocean) along the Allegheny Mountains, and the interests of the western portion which drained to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Gulf of Mexico.

The western area focused its commerce on neighbors to the west, and many citizens felt that the more populous eastern areas were too dominant in the Virginia General Assembly and insensitive to their needs. Major crisis in the Virginia state government over these differences was adverted to on more than one occasion during the period before the American Civil War, but the underlying problems were fundamental and never well resolved.

Civil War and split

In 1861, as the United States itself became massively divided over regional issues, leading to the American Civil War (1861-1865), the western regions of Virginia split with the eastern portion politically, and the two were never reconciled as a single state again. In 1863, the western region was admitted to the Union as a new separate state, initially planned to be called the State of Kanawha, but ultimately named West Virginia.


In Richmond on April 17, 1861, the 49 delegates from the future state of West Virginia voted 17 in favor of the Ordinance of Secession, 30 against, and 2 abstentions. Almost immediately after the adoption of the ordinance a mass meeting at Clarksburg recommended that each county in north-western Virginia send delegates to a convention to meet in Wheeling on May 13, 1861.

When the First Wheeling Convention met, four hundred and twenty-five delegates from twenty-five counties were present, but soon there was a division of sentiment. Some delegates favored the immediate formation of a new state, while others argued that, as Virginia’s secession had not yet been voted upon or become effective, such action would constitute revolution against the United States. It was decided that if the ordinance were adopted (of which there was little doubt) another convention including the members-elect of the legislature should meet at Wheeling in June.

At the election (May 23, 1861), secession was ratified by a large majority in the state as a whole, in the western counties that would form the state of West Virginia the vote was approximately 34,677 against and 19,121 for ratification of the Ordinance of Secession.

The Second Wheeling Convention met as agreed on June 11 and declared that, since the Secession Convention had been called without the consent of the people, all its acts were void, and that all who adhered to it had vacated their offices. An act for the reorganization of the government was passed on June 19. The next day Francis H. Pierpont was chosen governor of Virginia, other officers were elected and the convention adjourned. The legislature, composed of the members from the western counties who had been elected on May 23 and some of the holdover senators who had been elected in 1859, met at Wheeling on July 1, filled the remainder of the state offices, organized a state government and elected two United States senators who were recognized at Washington, D.C. There were, therefore, two governments claiming to represent all of Virginia, one owing allegiance to the United States and one to the Confederacy. The pro-northern government authorized the creation of the state of Kanawha, consisting of most of the counties that now comprise West Virginia. A little over one month later, Kanawha was renamed West Virginia. The Wheeling Convention, which had taken a recess until August 6, reassembled on August 20 and called for a popular vote on the formation of a new state and for a convention to frame a constitution if the vote should be favorable.

At the election (October 24, 1861), 18,408 votes were cast for the new state and only 781 against. At this time West Virginia had nearly 70,000 qualified voters, and the May 23 vote on secession had drawn nearly 54,000 voters. Votes from the secessionist counties in the October 24 vote on statehood were mostly cast by refugees in the area around Wheeling, not in the counties themselves. In secessionist counties where a poll was conducted it was by military intervention. Even in some counties that had voted against secession, such as Wayne and Cabell, it was necessary to send in Union soldiers.

Returns from some counties were as low as 5%, e.g. Raleigh County 32-0 in favor of statehood, Clay 76-0, Braxton 22-0, and some gave no returns at all. The Constitutional Convention began on November 26, 1861 and finished its work on February 18, 1862, and the instrument was ratified (18,162 for and 514 against) on April 11, 1862.

The composition of the members of all three Wheeling Conventions, the May (First) Convention, the June (Second) Convention, and the Constitutional Convention, was of an irregular nature. The members of the May Convention were chosen by groups of Unionists, mostly in the far Northwestern counties. Over one-third came from the counties around the northern panhandle. The May Convention resolved to meet again in June should the Ordinance of Secession be ratified by public poll on May 23, 1861, which it was. The June Convention consisted of 104 members, 35 of which were members of the General Assembly in Richmond, some elected in the May 23rd vote, and some hold-over State Senators. Arthur Laidley, elected to the General Assembly from Cabell County, attended the June Convention but refused to take part. The other delegates to the June Convention were “chosen even more irregularly-some in mass meetings, others by county committee, and still others were seemingly self-appointed”. It was this June Convention which drafted the Statehood resolution. The Constitutional Convention met in November 1861, and consisted of 61 members. Its composition was just as irregular. A delegate representing Logan County was accepted as a member of this body, though he did not live in Logan County, and his “credentials consisted of a petition signed by fifteen persons representing six families”. The large number of Northerners at this convention caused great distrust over the new Constitution during Reconstruction years. In 1872, under the leadership of Samuel Price, former Lt. Governor of Virginia, the Wheeling constitution was discarded, and an entirely new one was written along ante-bellum principles.

The Wheeling politicians controlled only a small part of West Virginia. On September 20, 1862, Arthur Boreman wrote to Francis Pierpoint from Parkersburg: “The whole country South and East of us is abandoned to the Southern Confederacy—Men are here from the counties above named–[Wirt, Jackson, Roane] and indeed from Clay, Nicholas, &c &c,–who have been run off from their homes—Indeed the Ohio border is lined with refugees from Western Virginia. We are in worse condition than we were a year ago—These people come to me every day and say they can’t stay at home…They must either have protection or abandon the country entirely… If they attempt to stay at home—they must keep their horses hid—and they dare not sleep at home but in the woods—and when at home in the day time they are in constant fear of their lives… The secessionists remain at home & are safe & now claim they are in the Southern Confederacy—which is practically the fact…”

On May 13, the state legislature of the reorganized government approved the formation of the new state. An application for admission to the Union was made to Congress, and on December 31, 1862 an enabling act was approved by President Lincoln admitting West Virginia on the condition that a provision for the gradual abolition of slavery be inserted in the Constitution. The Convention was reconvened on February 12, 1863, and the demand was met. The revised constitution was adopted on March 26, 1863, and on April 20, 1863 President Lincoln issued a proclamation admitting the state at the end of sixty days (June 20, 1863). Meanwhile officers for the new state were chosen, and Governor Pierpont moved his capital to Alexandria from which he asserted jurisdiction over the counties of Virginia within the Federal lines.


The question of the constitutionality of the formation of the new state was eventually brought before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Virginia v. West Virginia, 78 U.S. 39 (1870). Berkeley and Jefferson counties lying on the Potomac east of the mountains, in 1863, with the consent of the Reorganized government of Virginia voted in favor of annexation to West Virginia. Many voters absent in the Confederate army when the vote was taken refused to acknowledge the transfer upon their return. The Virginia General Assembly repealed the act of cession and in 1866 brought suit against West Virginia asking the court to declare the counties a part of Virginia which would have in essence made West Virginia’s admission as a state unconstitutional. Meanwhile Congress on March 10, 1866 passed a joint resolution recognizing the transfer. The Supreme Court decided in favor of West Virginia, and there has been no further question.

Civil War

During the American Civil War, West Virginia suffered comparatively little. Union General George B. McClellan’s forces gained possession of the greater part of the territory in the summer of 1861. Following Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Cheat Mountain in the same year, Union supremacy in western Virginia was never again seriously challenged. In 1863, General John D. Imboden, with 5,000 Confederates, overran a considerable portion of the state. Bands of guerrillas burned and plundered in some sections, and were not entirely suppressed until after the war was ended. Estimates of the numbers of soldiers from the state, Union and Confederate, have varied widely, but recent studies have placed the numbers about equal, from 22,000-25,000 each. The low vote turnout for the statehood referendum was due to many factors. On June 19, 1861 the Wheeling convention enacted a bill entitled “Ordinance to Authorize the Apprehending of Suspicious Persons in Time of War” which stated that anyone who supported Richmond or the Confederacy “shall be deemed…subjects or citizens of a foreign State or power at war with the United States.”. Many private citizens were arrested by Federal authorities at the request of Wheeling and interred in prison camps, most notably Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. Camp Chase Civil Prisoners. Soldiers were also stationed at the polls to discourage secessionists and their supporters. In addition, a large portion of the state was secessionist, and any polls there had to be conducted under military intervention. The vote was further compromised by the presence of an undetermined number of non-resident soldier votes.

At the Constitutional Convention on December 14, 1861 the issue of slavery was raised by Rev. Gordon Battelle, an Ohio native, who wished to introduce a resolution for gradual emancipation. Granville Parker, originally from Massachusetts and a member of the convention, described the scene-“I discovered on that occasion as I never had before, the mysterious and over-powering influence ‘the peculiar institution’ had on men otherwise sane and reliable. Why, when Mr. Battelle submitted his resolutions, a kind of tremor-a holy horror, was visible throughout the house!” Instead of Rev. Battelle’s resolution a policy of “Negro exclusion” for the new state was adopted to keep any new slaves, or freemen, from taking up residence, in the hope that this would satisfy abolitionist sentiment in Congress. When the statehood bill reached Congress, however, the lack of an emancipation clause prompted opposition from Senator Charles Sumner and Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. A compromise was reached known as the Willey Amendment, which was approved by Unionist voters in the state on March 26, 1863. It called for the gradual emancipation of slaves based on age after July 4, 1863. Slavery was officially abolished by West Virginia on February 3, 1865. (It took the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution accomplished on December 6, 1865 to abolish slavery nationwide).

During the war and for years afterwards, partisan feeling ran high. The property of Confederates might be confiscated, and, in 1866, a constitutional amendment disfranchising all who had given aid and comfort to the Confederacy was adopted. The addition of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution caused a reaction, the Democratic Party secured control in 1870, and in 1871 the constitutional amendment of 1866 was abrogated. The first steps toward this change had been taken, however, by the Republicans in 1870. In 1872, an entirely new constitution was adopted (August 22).

Following the war, Virginia unsuccessfully brought a case to the Supreme Court challenging the secession of Berkeley County and Jefferson County to West Virginia. (Five more counties were formed later, to result in the current 55).

President Lincoln was in a close campaign when he won reelection in 1864. However, the act that allowed the state to be created was signed in 1862, two years before Lincoln’s re-election would have been an issue in any real way.

Enduring disputes

Beginning in Reconstruction, and for several decades thereafter, the two states disputed the new state’s share of the pre-war Virginia government’s debt, which had mostly been incurred to finance public infrastructure improvements, such as canals, roads, and railroads under the Virginia Board of Public Works. Virginians led by former Confederate General William Mahone formed a political coalition based upon this theory, the Readjuster Party. Although West Virginia’s first constitution provided for the assumption of a part of the Virginia debt, negotiations opened by Virginia in 1870 were fruitless, and in 1871 that state funded two-thirds of the debt and arbitrarily assigned the remainder to West Virginia. The issue was finally settled in 1915, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that West Virginia owed Virginia $12,393,929.50. The final installment of this sum was paid off in 1939.

Disputes about the exact location of the border in some of the northern mountain reaches between Loudoun County, Virginia and Jefferson County, West Virginia continued well into the 20th century. In 1991, both state legislatures appropriated money for a boundary commission to look into 15 miles (24 km) of the border area.

Hidden resources

Salt, coal: the rock that burns

The new state benefited from development of its mineral resources more than any other single economic activity after Reconstruction. Much of the northern panhandle and north-central portion of the State are underlain by bedded salt deposits over 50 feet (15 m) thick. Salt mining had been underway since the 18th century, though that which could be easily obtained had largely played out by the time of the American Civil War, when the red salt of Kanawha County was a valued commodity of first Confederate, and later Union forces. Newer technology has since proved that West Virginia has enough salt resources to supply the nation’s needs for an estimated 2,000 years. During recent years, production has been about 600,000 to 1,000,000 tons per year.

However, after the American Civil War, there was a greater treasure not yet developed, that would fuel much of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. and steamships of many of the world’s navies. The residents (both Native Americans and early European settlers) had long-known of the underlying coal, and the fact that it could be used for heating and fuel. However, very small “personal” mines were the only practical development.

In the 1850s, geologists such as British expert Dr. David T. Ansted (1814-1880), surveyed potential coal fields and invested in land and early mining projects. After the War, with the new railroads came a practical method to transport large quantities of coal to expanding U.S. and export markets. Among the numerous investors were Charles Pratt and New York City mayor Abram S. Hewitt, whose father-in law, Peter Cooper, had been a key man in earlier development of the anthracite coal regions centered in eastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey. As those mines were playing out by the end of the 19th century, these men were among investors and industrialists who focused new interest on the largely untapped coal resources of West Virginia.

Early railroads, shipping to East Coast and Great Lakes

The completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) westerly across the state from Richmond, Virginia to the new city of Huntington on the Ohio River in 1872 opened access to the New River Coalfield. Within 10 years, the C&O was building tracks east from Richmond down the Virginia Peninsula to reach its huge coal pier at the new city of Newport News, Virginia on the large harbor of Hampton Roads. There, city founder Collis P. Huntington also developed what would become the largest shipbuilder in the world, Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Among its many products, the shipyard began building ocean-going ships, known as colliers, to transport coal to other eastern ports (notably in New England) and overseas.

In 1881, the new Philadelphia-based owners of William Mahone’s former Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (AM&O) which stretched across Virginia’s southern tier from Norfolk, had sights clearly set on the Mountain State, where the owners had large land holdings. Their railroad was renamed Norfolk and Western (N&W), and a new railroad city was developed at Roanoke to handle planned expansion. After its new President Frederick J. Kimball and a small party journeyed by horseback and saw firsthand the rich bituminous coal seam (which Kimball’s wife named “Pocahontas,” the N&W redirected its planned westward expansion to reach it. Soon, the N&W was also shipping from its own new coal piers on Hampton Roads at Lamberts Point outside Norfolk. In 1889, in the southern part of the state, along the Norfolk and Western rail lines, the important coal center of Bluefield, West Virginia was founded. The “capital” of the Pocahontas coalfield, this city would remain the largest city in the southern portion of the state for several decades. It shares a sister city with the same name, Bluefield, in Virginia.

In the northern portion of the state and elsewhere, the older Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) and other lines also expanded to take advantage of coal opportunities as well. The B&O developed coal piers in Baltimore and at several points on the Great Lakes. Other significant rail carriers of coal were the Western Maryland Railway (WM), particularly notable was a latecomer, the Virginian Railway (VGN), built in an extraordinary manner to the latest and highest standards and completed in 1909.

New competitor helps open “Billion Dollar Coalfield”

By 1900, only a large area of the most rugged terrain of southern West Virginia was any distance from the existing railroads and mining activity. Within this area west of the New River Coalfield in Raleigh and Wyoming counties lay the Winding Gulf Coalfield, later promoted as the “Billion Dollar Coalfield.”

A protégé of Dr. Ansted was William Nelson Page (1854-1932), a civil engineer and mining manager based at Ansted in Fayette County. Former West Virginia Governor William A. MacCorkle described him as a man who knew the land “as a farmer knows a field.” Beginning in 1898, Page teamed with northern and European-based investors to take advantage of the undeveloped area. They acquired large tracts of land in the area, and Page began the Deepwater Railway, a short-line railroad which was chartered to stretch between the C&O at its line along the Kanawha River and the N&W at Matoaka, a distance of about 80 miles (130 km).

Although the Deepwater plan should have provided a competitive shipping market via either railroad, leaders of the two large railroads did not appreciate the scheme and sought to discourage competition in an area they considered theirs for expansion plans. In secret, but lawful collusion (in an era before U.S. anti-trust laws were enacted), each declined to negotiate favorable rates with Page, nor did they offer to purchase his railroad, as they had many other short-lines. However, if the C&O and N&W presidents thought they could thus kill the Page project, they were to be proved mistaken. One of the silent partner investors Page had enlisted was millionaire industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers, a principal in John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust and an old hand at developing natural resources, transportation. A master at competitive “warfare”, Henry Rogers did not like to lose in his endeavors, and also had “deep pockets”.

Instead of giving up, Page (and Rogers) secretly planned and had surveyed a route provide to provide a new, third major railroad, all the way to new coal pier facilities at Sewell’s Point on the harbor of Hampton Roads, fully 440 miles (710 km) away from the railhead on the Kanawha River. In early 1904, the Tidewater Railway, a new railroad, was quietly formed in Virginia by a Rogers attorney. The necessary sections of right-of way and land were acquired before the large railroads realized what was happening. Efforts to block Page and Rogers through many legal tactics and even several violent confrontations ultimately failed.

With Page as its first president, and largely financed from Rogers’ personal fortune, and the two railroads were merged in 1907 to form the Virginian Railway (VGN). Building the Virginian Railway cost $40 million by the time it was completed in 1909. Well-engineered and highly efficient with all new infrastructure, it operated very profitably. The Class 1 railroad came to be known as the “Richest Little Railroad in the World.”

Nothwithstanding the competitive fears of the C&O and N&W, soon, all three railroads were shipping ever-increasing volumes of coal to export from Hampton Roads. (The VGN and the N&W) ultimately became parts of the modern Norfolk Southern system, and the VGN’s well-engineered 20th century tracks continue to offer a favorable gradient to Hampton Roads). In the early 20th century, West Virginia coal was also under high demand at Great Lakes ports on Lake Erie. Coal transloading facilities were developed at several points, notably Toledo, Ohio.

Labor, ecology issues

As coal mining and related work became a major employment activities in the state, there was considerable labor strife as working conditions and safety issues, as well as economic ones arose. Even in the 21st century, mining safety and ecological concerns were challenging to the state whose coal continued to power electrical generating plants in many other states.