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Historic Coalwood

By Stuart McGehee

Downtown Coalwood as it appeared in 1936. On the left is the clubhouse and doctors' and nurses' quarters. Across the street are the coal company headquarters and company store. Most of these structures still stand in Coalwood today. Photograph courtesy of ERCA.

Coalwood, 1936

"There was a breeze coming down the hollow. The dogwoods low on the mountain waved as if asking me to look at their glory. They were like white bouquets God had stuck in the stands of ancient oaks and hickories, glistening green in their own new growth. I heard something and looked up and down the road for its source. It wasn't just a single sound. It was Coalwood, moving, talking, humming its eternal symphony of life, work, duty, and job. I stood alone on the side of the road and listened to my town play its industrial song." -from Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, Jr., copyright 1998 by Delacorte Press.

The phenomenal success of author Homer Hickam, Jr.'s, autobiographical Rocket Boys, and its subsequent film version "October Sky," has drawn renewed attention to the southern West Virginia coalfields. Fans of the popular coming-of-age book and movie enthusiastically make the arduous trek down Routes 52 and 16 to visit the McDowell County hollow where the remarkable story took place. This new interest invites a closer look into the unique and fascinating world of Coalwood, a historic West Virginia coal company town.

Coalwood was the proud product of George LaFayette Carter, one of the few natives of Appalachia to strike it rich when industrialization came to the mountains shortly after the Civil War. Carter was born in 1857 in Hillsville, Carroll County, Virginia, the eldest of nine children of a disabled Confederate veteran. Young Carter learned the bookkeepers' trade. He married well, as they say, wedding his storekeeper boss' daughter. A shrewd, natural businessman, Carter invested wisely and became a conduit for New York capital eager to develop the booming turn-of-the-century Appalachian industrial economy. Holdings in timber, coal, iron, and railroad stock soon made Carter a key player in the evolving industrial development of the rugged and remote mountains. From his Johnson City, Tennessee, base, the private and unpretentious entrepreneur expanded into Kentucky and southwest Virginia, purchasing banks, newspapers, mills, and factories. His charitable and philanthropic contributions helped build East Tennessee Normal School, now East Tennessee State University.

In 1905, Carter bought some 20,000 acres in McDowell County's "smokeless" coalfields, and began constructing an industrial community out of the wilderness. He named it Coalwood. The low-volatile, low-sulphur #4 Pocahontas coal seam there was the world standard for metallurgical and steam fuel. The seam stood some six feet high, but required a heroic, 600-foot deep shaft to reach the heart of the mineable reserves.

You can read the rest of this article in the Summer 2001 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.