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Coal & History of Coal 

A few Coal History facts:

1701 Coal discovered in Virginia.
1748 First recorded U.S. coal production.


In the seventeenth century,  Southwest Virginia was the hunting ground of the Cherokee Indians.  The Shawnees  sometimes hunted there also, and battles broke out from time to time.  The Indians still considered this their land when the Europeans came.  Daniel Boone's 16 year old son, James was killed by Indians in 1773 in what is now Powell Valley.  Boone and his family lived for a time near present-day St. Paul.

    In 1749 Dr. Thomas Walker made a complete circuit of what became known as Wise County.  With him was Ambrose Powell, who carved his name on a beech tree along a small river.  That river became know as Powell River.  Captain Christopher Gist, a scout for George Washington, came to southwest Virginia in 1750 to examine the lands for the Ohio Land Company of Virginia which had offices in Williamsburg.

    Starting in  the 1750's, pioneers sought out this region for their homes, lured by the hope of owning their own land.  By the 1850's numerous people lived in the towns and "hollows" of this region. 

    Gist found lumps of coal when he was in this area in 1749, but it was not until 1880 that interest in coal became intense.  The growing industry in the north, particularly Pennsylvania ,created  the demand for this commodity.  Two mines were started by P. J. Millet in 1885 in what became Dorchester, Virginia.   Dorchester was built in 1890 by John A. Esser.  A M. S. Kemmerer sent his agent, J. C. Haskell to Dorchester to buy all the property he could from the people living there. 

    In 1905 Kemmerer bought the Colonial Coal and Coke Company and then combined it with Little Wise Coal and Coke Company, which he already owned, forming Wise Coal and Coke Company.  Wise Coal and Coke mined coal and made coke until it ceased mining coal on March 28, 1963.  The company continued to make coke until February 28, 1967 when it stopped all operations.  Wise Coal and Coke was sold to Greater Wise, Inc. on January 1, 1972.

Life in the camp

  "The coal camp is named appropriately - a "camp" - a temporary community whose very spirit betrays the sense of its limited and uncertain existence, even though a mine may have worked steadily for a generation or more.  A person who has lived more than twenty years in such a camp still speaks of "home" as the place where he or she grew up.  Since the camp's existence is entirely dependent upon the mine, its whole life revolves around the routine of the whistles, the shifts, the trains, and the tipple." (Fawbush, 1976)

   The company owned the entire community, and the community was beholden to the company for its existence.  The church and the school buildings were provided and maintained by the company.  Water, electricity, coal were provided by the company at token cost.  Any improvements - recreation fields, road maintenance, etc - were usually initiated and done by the company.  

System of Scrip:

The store or commissary, was a company store and bound the miners to it through a system of scrip, which was really an advance of the next payday.  The use of script was began as a service to families, but resulted over time in trapping the unwary in deep debt.  A $1 book of scrip continued 5 dimes, 5 nickels, ten two-cent pieces, and five pennies.  Books of scrip could be sold for cash at $.75 on the dollar.  Each denomination had a different color. Each camp had different scrip so a camp's scrip was only good at the commissary in that location.


   Many jobs were created by the building of Dorchester, and people came from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia to find work.  Many Hungarian immigrants came from New York, making up 90% of the miners in the early 1900's.   The Hungarians had a governor who often came to Dorchester to see how his people were doing, making sure they got their own beer and whiskey.  Many black people found work in the mines and coke yards of Dorchester and lived in the camp.  The section of the camp inhabited by the Hungarians was called "Hunk Town".  The blacks lived in "Stable Row", "Kentucky Hill", and "Kentucky Flat."

    The miners had to buy their own supplies, including powder, fuses, picks, shovels, and lamps.  They were paid by the the number of two-ton cars they loaded with coal.  When a miner filled a car, he would hang on a nail on the car a round piece of metal with his number stamped on it, called a "check."  At the tipple, the "checks' were hung on a board.  The number of "checks" represented the number of carloads of coal each miner had filled that day.  Miners did their own blasting in the mines, used their own picks to break up the coal, and shoveled the coal into the car.  According to Clifford Stallard, a man could shovel two tons of coal into a car in twenty minutes.  

   This is Walter Courtney standing outside a mine near Dorchester.  He has on a carbide lamp and is holding a large wrench.  This is a typical miner in the 1920's.  Later the miners wore electric lamps with a battery pack carried on their hip.  

   There were company police who were bonded by the judge at the courthouse in Wise, Virginia.  These men were responsible for law and order in the camp.

  The company owned all the house in Dorchester.  A salaried worker did not pay rent, but most workers were not salaried.  These workers paid $6 a month rent for a typical three room house.  Coal was used to heat these houses and it cost between $.75 and $1.25 a ton.  Before 1915, when electric meters were installed, workers paid a flat price for electricity.  The workers paid their electric bill directly to the company.

  Around 1915-1916, D. Terpstra, a well known electrical engineer, originally from Holland, was brought to Dorchester to supervise the building of a power plant on the Powell River just below Dorchester.  A dam was constructed at the plant and water was used to produce steam for turbines to produce electricity.  Power lines carried the electricity to Dorchester, and the houses had electric meters placed on them.

Mining Town Store

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