Birth of the Industry

Birth of the Coal Industry


On the eve of the Civil War, 200,000 tons of coal were floated down the Coal River annually.The names of the coalfields are familiar. Kanawha. New River. Winding Gulf. Flat Top-Pocahontas. Logan. Williamson. Southern West Virginia’s mountains have produced some of the richest and most-valuable bituminous coal the world has ever known. The story of the region’s coal industry begins much earlier than most people realize.

The Beginning

In 1742, English explorer John Peter Salley navigated along the Coal River near what is now Peytona in Boone County and wrote about a “great plenty of coals.” Salley was the first European to write about the mineral that would define the region’s future. Thomas Jefferson later wrote about western Virginia coal in his Notes on the State of Virginia.


The West Virginia coal industry dates to the western Virginia frontier of the early 1800s. The region’s first industry was salt, an essential mineral for preserving and shipping meat before refrigeration. Salt was produced by boiling brine, found abundantly along the banks of the Kanawha River. To boil the brine, salt manufacturers initially used wood to fire the furnaces; however, in 1817, when the timber supply dwindled, salt maker David Ruffner turned to coal.


Ruffner’s success prompted other salt makers to open small coal mines. By the mid-1800s, salt furnaces lined the Kanawha River, with narrow-gauge railroads hauling coal from the nearby mountains. Other salt makers used flatboats to transport coal to the furnaces. In 1850, more than 250,000 tons of coal were supplied to the salt furnaces at Kanawha Salines (now Malden).


The Kanawha Valley salt industry peaked about that time and then began a rapid decline in both salt production and in the amount of coal mined for the salt furnaces. Union and Confederate troops devastated most of the remaining salt works during the Civil War. Fortunately, the coal industry was about to catch fire . . . literally.

The First Coal Boom

Before the 1840s, many indoor lamps were fueled by oil from animal fat. Although the flames burned brightly, the oil produced a pungent odor. The 1840s and 1850s saw a flood of innovative lamps that relied on an alternative cleaner-burning fuel known as kerosene, which often was produced from coal oil. Steam engines, which were becoming increasingly popular, also relied heavily on coal oil as a lubricant.


All coal produces oil when distilled. One of the cleanest-burning types is cannel coal, which was discovered in large quantities at present day Cannelton in Kanawha County in the winter of 1847. Kanawha Valley cannel coal quickly became the lighting fuel of choice for wealthy residents and shopkeepers in Boston, New York, Baltimore and other East Coast markets.


Over the next 10 years, large cannel coal mines were opened along Paint Creek and Elk River in Kanawha County, and Peytona in Boone County. These early mines launched the careers of some of the region’s first coal moguls—Aaron Stockton, William H. Edwards, Allen T. Caperton and Christopher Q. Tompkins.


Cannel coal had to be distilled—much like moonshine—to burn off the impurities and produce oil. Charleston, which was located in close proximity to the cannel coal mines, became a major refining center, manufacturing about 5,000 gallons of coal oil daily.


The region’s principal industrial hurdle was transportation. Major railroads had not yet been carved into southern West Virginia; the Kanawha and other rivers generally were unnavigable six months of the year. In the early 1860s, these transportation problems would serve as the primary motivation for the West Virginia statehood movement.


Under the leadership of William Madison Peyton and William S. Rosecrans, the Coal River Navigation Company addressed part of the transportation problem by constructing a series of eight locks and dams—actually log post-and-beam sluices. After the improvements were in place, coal was floated down the Coal River to Coalsmouth (now St. Albans), then down the Kanawha River to Point Pleasant, and then either sent down the Ohio River to Cincinnati or transferred by steamboat up to Wheeling, Pittsburgh and Eastern markets.


Several companies acquired vast land holdings along the Coal River. The Western Mining and Manufacturing Company built the first significant railroad in Boone County—two miles of track along Drawdy Creek from the mines to Peytona. The company also built what might be considered the region’s first substantial coal company town at Peytona, including houses for the miners, an elegant company store, and a steam sawmill and gristmill.  By 1858, the company had invested a staggering $110,000 at Peytona.


The coal was shipped down the river at great cost . . . and occasional risk due to pirates who hijacked the barges. On the eve of the Civil War, approximately 200,000 tons of coal were floated down the Coal River annually. During the winter of 1861, a devastating flood severely damaged the sluices, and the Civil War prevented their repair. After the Civil War, the growth of the oil industry persuaded entrepreneurs to shift their investments from coal oil to petroleum.


Even at its height, the region’s pre-Civil War coal industry was just a foreshadowing of the boom that was about to occur.