Scotts Run: An Introduction
By Ronald L. Lewis
In this issue, West Virginia History focuses on Scotts Run, America's symbol of the Great Depression in the coalfields and a major philanthropic concern of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. As a case study, the rise and fall of King Coal in this Monongalia County hollow condenses the life cycle of coal communities from birth to death as well as the perennial booms and busts which convulse this industry. Scotts Run's history is a reminder that the unrestrained capitalist development of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to explosive growth but also to unrelenting human misery.
Coal companies and speculators began to accumulate mineral rights on Scotts Run in the late nineteenth century, but the transition from agricultural to industrial economy did not make any significant headway until World War I stimulated the demand for coal to fuel the national war machine. Monongalia County produced a mere 57,000 tons of coal in 1899 and only 400,000 tons in 1914, but by 1921, tonnage soared to nearly 4.4 million. Most of this expansion is attributable to the development of Scotts Run where, during its peak in the mid-1920s, coal companies owned 75 percent of the taxable acres, and between thirty-six and forty-two mines were shipping coal.
As in southern West Virginia, development of the coalfields required more workers than available in the local labor market, forcing companies to rely on imported immigrants and blacks. In fact, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the population of Scotts Run during the boom years was its diverse composition. An exact calculation of the population is not possible because the Run is a geographical rather than a political subdivision of Cass District, and the census does not always indicate the exact location of residents. Also, the decennial census for 1920 and 1930 did not record the surge in population, which peaked at about four thousand during the 1920s. That does not tell the whole story, however, as the number of workers who commuted to jobs at Scotts Run mines remains unknown, but it represented a significant proportion of the work force.
As in other West Virginia coalfields, the importation of workers produced a racially and ethnically diverse population. The 1920 manuscript census identified the following foreign-born nationalities among the adult (voting age) residents of Scotts Run: Austrian, Bohemian, Canadian, Croatian, English, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, Polish, Rumanian, Russian, Scottish, Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and Welsh. Ninety-three percent of these immigrants were from southern or eastern Europe, and approximately 60 percent of Scotts Run's population was foreign born, with native whites and blacks divided about equally for the remaining 40 percent.
The coal boom beginning during World War I and continuing into the early 1920s was the first and last high mark for the industry on Scotts Run. By the late 1920s, coal entered the downward spiral which ultimately led to the depopulation of the hollow. During the economic collapse of the 1930s, Scotts Run became America's symbol of the Depression in the coalfields, setting the standard measurement for human suffering among miners. A writer for the Atlantic Monthly declared that Scotts Run was "the damndest cesspool of human misery I have ever seen in America." To what degree life was worse here than in other coal hollows is difficult to determine, but there was plenty of misery to go around. Scotts Run received so much attention because it was far more accessible to the outside photographers, reporters, social workers, and government officials who aimed the media spotlight into this particular corner of the coalfields.
This begs the question of just how "isolated" Scotts Run actually was in the 1920s and 1930s, a perspective closely associated to the Run's public identity. It should be noted that the Run was easily accessible by bus, auto, trolley, or train durng this period, and it was only a few miles from the county seat of Morgantown. The commercial center of the county, Morgantown itself was linked to national transportation centers. Even though outside observers usually portrayed Scotts Run as "isolated," its spatial relationship to the rest of the world is more accurately understood as "stranded," a term most frequently employed by professional workers to describe conditions there. Most of the people were trapped not by geography but by the lack of resources, employment options, and by their culture -- many could not speak English and had customs which imposed a social distance between them and native-born residents. A significant percentage were African Americans, and racism must be added to culture as an explanation of the "stranded" condition of the people.
Undoubtedly, the personal attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did more than anything else to focus national attention on Scotts Run. In 1933, early in her husband's first term, Roosevelt toured the mine camps of Scotts Run and elsewhere in the county. She returned several times during the 1930s to commiserate with residents and developed long-lasting relationships with both residents and social workers on Scotts Run. Even before she threw her considerable influence into the struggle to improve living conditions on the Run, others had long been busy in that same enterprise. The Coal Relief campaign of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) already was on the scene when the first lady called Clarence E. Pickett, Executive Secretary of the AFSC, about inspecting conditions in the coalfields firsthand. Pickett and Alice O. Davis, Director of the Morgantown District, met with Roosevelt and helped to establish the itinerary which brought her to Monongalia County and Scotts Run. With her came the inevitable corps of newspaper reporters, soon followed by some of America's most famous photographers, such as Walker Evans (who spent months on Scotts Run), Marion Post Wolcott, and Ben Shahn (subsequently a famous painter and sculptor).
Their images captured the human face of poverty which heightened the nation's consciousness about Scotts Run, making it much easier for social workers to justify their work and to raise scarce resources for the relief effort.
The AFSC and various federal relief agencies brought a strong presence to Scotts Run, but it would be a mistake to interpret the appearance of these national organizations as the first demonstrations of interest in the miners' plight. In fact, local agencies, particularly the Council of Social Agencies and the County Welfare Board, had struggled for years to improve the human conditions on Scotts Run. The burden proved too great for local agencies alone, and Monongalia County was virtually bankrupt.
The earliest relief efforts drew their inspiration from the Bible School Movement and the Settlement House Movement. The Bible School Movement depended on trained lay workers and volunteers to teach the principles of Christianity to the "religiously needy" but gave primary attention to the children. Most of the workers were young women who followed this avenue to leadership roles unavailable to them within the conventional structure of the church. Young women also played a major role in the Settlement House Movement, the best known example being Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago. Settlement houses attempted to assist in the "Americanization" of newly arrived immigrant workers independently of mainstream charities by promoting English literacy, citizenship, hygiene, and other basic social and life skills.
The goals of both movements converged on Scotts Run during the 1920s when Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Morgantown undertook to deliver assistance to the mining families on the Run. The Scotts Run Settlement House began in 1922, when the Woman's Home Missionary Society of Wesley Methodist Church established a Bible school for children under the direction of Deaconess Edna L. Muir and Mrs. Frank Shriver. In addition to Bible school and Sunday school, the Settlement House gradually expanded its programs to include classes on naturalization, cooking, motherhood, and other life skills. A permanent building for the Settlement House in Osage was competed in 1927 and continues to this day to offer community assistance to those in need.
Morgantown's First Presbyterian Church also sent a Christian worker, Mary Behner, to establish its own missionary project on Scotts Run. She began her work at Pursglove in 1928, almost exactly one year after the Methodist Settlement House was completed. Programs similar to those at the Settlement House were initiated in a local school, but in 1931, a mine building was converted into a community center for Behners work. Local residents called it "The Shack" and the name stuck.
In 1938, the Reverend Frank Trubee, the first ordained Presbyterian missionary to be stationed on Scotts Run, became director of The Shack. He built a new and larger Shack and readily adopted the methods and philosophical approach of the AFSC in developing local leadership and promoting rehabilitation through cooperative exchanges of labor and goods. The unemployed needed no cash to participate in the Scotts Run Reciprocal Economy, The Shack's co-op. Most residents could not practice
supplemental farming or extensive gardening as they did elsewhere in the coalfields because acrid fumes from the smoldering "gob" piles killed all vegetation in the hollow, and congestion from overdevelopment precluded other uses of the land. However, through the co-op, they exchanged their labor for produce raised in cooperative gardens which were planted on the hilltops or for reconditioned clothing from the recycled clothing shop. Now in its third building, The Shack, like the Settlement House, has adapted to modern problems and continues to serve people who are in need.
The residents of Scotts Run survived the Great Depression through such imaginative coping strategies, but the 1930s marks the beginning of a long slide into historical obscurity for this once teeming hollow. A number of explanations account for Scotts Run's short life and long, slow demise. The Great Depression, of course, was a national calamity, and Scotts Run residents probably suffered more than most Americans from the maladies of unemployment, ignorance, ethnic and racial prejudice, and the other corollaries of abject poverty. Many left the area in search of a better life, and a number of families were chosen for the new resettlement community of Arthurdale in neighboring Preston County. Spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthurdale was the first of over one hundred experimental communities established by the federal Rural Resettlement Commission to relocate redundant industrial workers into the countryside. As elsewhere in rural America, World War II took many of the young men from Scotts Run, and most of them did not return after the war.
Technological change also played a role in the decline of Scotts Run. The development of diesel engines for locomotives eliminated one major market for Scotts Run's famous steam coal, and competition from other sources of energy also helped to insure that most of these mines would not be reopened. In the face of changes in the markets, the entire industry began a long process of restructuring. By the 1950s, the numerous coal tracts on the Run had been consolidated into a few large parcels, most notably those controlled by Consolidation Coal Company. Mechanization of the mines took a heavy toll on the labor force everywhere, and Scotts Run was no exception. With little chance of employment, miners and their families moved on, the exodus facilitated by the construction of better roads, and with widespread automobile ownership after World War II, workers no longer needed to live next to their place of employment. Finally, the construction of Interstate 79, which was opened in Monongalia County in 1974, wrapped around the once crowded Connellsville Hill, eliminating the remaining company housing before dissecting Scotts Run above Pursglove.
Not much physical evidence remains of Scotts Run's former prominence as a coal-producing community. Nevertheless, for West Virginia historians it provides an excellent mirror of the larger processes which transformed the state's economic forces and have been restructuring the coal industry since the 1950s. Scotts Run also helps illuminate many of the dark corners of the state's history. As a field of research, for example, women's history in West Virginia is in its infancy even after two decades of maturity nationally. Similarly, the history of immigrants and African Americans in the
Mountain State is still rudimentary, granting a few exceptional studies. The New Deal is a cottage industry in the historical discipline, but there is no single study of the period in West Virginia. Other subjects, such as health care and local versus absentee ownership, also are important but neglected state topics reflected in the history of Scotts Run. Intensive local studies should be encouraged throughout the state and, when taken cumulatively, could provide a basis for a much needed statewide synthesis of these neglected subjects. The essays on Scotts Run in this volume of West Virginia History represent one small step toward achieving this larger undertaking.
Ronald L. Lewis is a professor of history and chair of the department at West Virginia University.
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