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  • Coal Operators and Market Competition: The Case of West Virginia’s Smokeless Coalfields and the Fairmont Field, 1853–1933
  • Kazuko Uchimura

The literature on the history of coal mining in West Virginia has tended to concentrate on the well-publicized episodes of labor unrest in the southwestern counties during the early twentieth century—the Cabin Creek and Paint Creek Strikes, the March on Blair Mountain, the Matewan Massacre, and the Mingo War.1 This paper deals with a different type of struggle, a fierce commercial war that West Virginia’s coal operators waged against their northern rivals in the coalfields of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana from 1853 to 1933, and focuses on two coal mining regions in West Virginia, the Fairmont Field in the north and the smokeless coalfields—the New River, Pocahontas, and Winding Gulf that straddled the counties of Fayette, Raleigh, Mercer, McDowell, and Wyoming—to the south.

Bituminous coal production in the United States grew rapidly around the turn of the twentieth century in response to the country’s rising industrial demand. But the coal trade of the era was characterized by excessive competition, price fluctuations, and low profitability. Mary Beth Pudup has noted that bituminous coal operators weathered the vagaries of the coal trade through mergers and consolidations, regional trade associations, and joint sales organizations. Northern operators even turned to unionization as a way to equalize costs among producers.2 When the operators of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana tried to neutralize competition from their low-cost southern rivals by reaching an accord with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to negotiate industry-wide wage scales, West Virginia’s operators strenuously fought off this maneuver. The repeated refusals of West Virginia coal operators to recognize the union transformed West Virginia into a pariah in the eyes of its northern rivals, “a gun pointed at the heart of industrial government in the bituminous industry.”3

With coal reserves and production dispersed geographically across the country, the bituminous trade was defined by competition among regions. Railroads reinforced this regional focus: rail alignments influenced where [End Page 59] the coal settlements were sited and directed where the coal was shipped. Coal from West Virginia was transported by rail and lake steamer to the marketing centers of Chicago, Milwaukee, and Duluth Superior where it competed with coal from the fields of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. After 1910, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the nation’s two largest producers, contested for dominance in the tidewater, in select western markets like Cincinnati, and in one particular product market, coke.4 Within one region, the operators often banded together to form producing sub-districts, such as West Virginia’s Fairmont Field or smokeless coalfields, depending on transport connections, the type of coal produced, and the markets to which they shipped their products.5

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Development of the Fairmont Field

Since colonial times, significant coal reserves had been known to exist in the western part of old Virginia.6 However, it was only after the entry of railroads that the region’s rich mineral resources could be exploited. In northwestern Virginia, the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) between the Chesapeake Bay and the Ohio River in 1852 resulted in the establishment of the Fairmont Field that encompassed all or part of six northeastern counties—Monongalia, Taylor, Preston, Marion, Harrison, and Barbour.7 The Fairmont Field was blessed with ample coal resources, but it had the disadvantage of being situated close to the Connellsville and other major coalfields of Pennsylvania that supplied Pittsburgh’s iron and steel industry.8 Shut out from the lucrative Pittsburgh market, the Fairmont operators needed to ship their coal over long distances and incur high transport cost per unit of production.9

In 1853, a small quantity of coal was shipped from Fairmont to Baltimore for the first time.10 By that time, the Fairmont region was well settled. According to Michael E. Workman, an agricultural market economy had developed there with surplus farm products and livestock exported to both eastern and western markets. The region had also seen the emergence of a small but aggressive capitalist...