WV Coal Miners Memorial
The WV Coal Miners Memorial is located on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capitol Complex in Charleston, West Virginia. The monument was designed by Burl Jones in 2002 to honor the men and women who have dedicated their lives to mining coal in West Virginia.
Backstory and Context
This history of coal mining is deeply interwoven into the history of the Mountain State. In 1742, John Peter Salley explored the Allegheny Mountain region along the Kanawha River Valley with his team of surveyors. During his travels, he discovered an abundance of coal veins near the water way and referred to the body of water as the Coal River for this reason. In the early 1800s, coal would serve as a resource for working blacksmiths and also heated homes while fueling the furnaces for the growing salt mines in the Kanawha River region. Significant mining operations began as early as the 1840s through the 1860s and the state of Virginia responded by passing laws regulating mine operations and investments in land and mineral rights.
After the Civil War, some of the first major mining operations in the new state of West Virginia occurred in Fairmont Field near the present-day city of Fairmont. Its location on the Pittsburgh coal seam and provided most of the eastern part of the country with a steady supply coal. As the northern part of the state saw significant coal operations, the southern coal fields also grew with the establishment of the Flat-Top Pocahontas fields of Mercer and McDowell Counties. These mines began shipping would ship coal in 1883 and later grew into the Pocahontas Fuel Company in 1907. The arrival of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway made it possible to ship coal from Logan and Wyoming County in the early 1900s, triggering an explosion of coal mining in the Mountain State.
The methods of mining, and the laws surrounding the profession, have evolved over the generations. In the antebellum period, free and enslaved workers mined surface coal with shovels and pickaxes and carried away with the ore with baskets and sleds pulled by draft animals. By 1890, mechanized coal cutting, hauling, and loading became a normal sight to be seen. After the 1930s, long trains, conveyor belts, and shuttle cars became as symbiotic as the miners themselves. With rising technology West Virginia was able to see two of the largest production booms in its history: 146,088,121 tons in 1927, and 173,653,816 tons in 1947.
As the coal industry grew, mines recruited workers from other states and even other nations. Coal companies would provide these workers with not only a job, but provide a place for their families to stay known as “coal camps.” Many coal camps were centered around a company store that sold items to workers on credit using company-issued currency known as “scrip”. Each company would have its own printed scrip that signified to their workers that certain scrip could be only used for certain businesses. The system placed power in the hands of the company, leading to potential for abuse when management decided to raise prices for rent, food, and household goods at the company store but did not increase wages.
Between 1910 the early 1920s, several conflicts about between miners and management led to cals for unionization and several conflicts turned into small-scale wars between miners and hired guards known as Pinkertons. On May 20th, 1920, Agents of Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency evicted miners and their families out of their homes ofor attempting to join a union, leading to a gunfight in the town of Matewan that killed seven agents, two minors, and mayor Cabell Testerman, and injured pro-union sheriff Sid Hatfield. The following three-month conflicts would be later known to mountaineers as the infamous “Mine Wars of West Virginia”.
The “The West Virginia Coal Miner” memorial, designed by sculptor Burl Jones, features a statue of a coal miner. The base of the memorial depicts the common duties men and women performed while working in the coal mines. The memorial's plaque reads " In honor and in recognition of the men and women who have devoted a career, some a lifetime, towards providing the state, nation and world with low-cost, reliable household and industrial energy... Let it be said that “Coal” is the fuel that helped build the greatest country on earth, has protected and preserved our freedom and has enhanced our quality of life. God Bless the West Virginia Coal Miner! Dedicated this 4th day of December 2002."
It was commissioned by the West Virginia Coal Forum, and it commemorates the hard-working men and women who have toiled in the difficult work of mining coal. The memorial served as a gathering place during the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010 and continues to be the location where people come to remember the 29 men who lost their lives in that explosion, as well as countless other sacrifices West Virginia miners, have made over the years.
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