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Transcript of interview with Stuart McGehee, May 6, 1993, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project

Take 1, Camera Roll 304, Sound Roll 136.

Time Code: 04:08:37:00
Question: Stuart, tell me about Jed Hotchkiss.
McGehee: Jed Hotchkiss was a promoter. There's an irony in it. Jed Hotchkiss was Stonewall Jackson's map maker in the Civil War. His job was to confuse Yankee efforts to invade Virginia. As soon as the war was over, he began desperately trying to attract northern capital into the southern coalfields. He purchased land. He incessantly trumpeted the value of this. He fervently believed that the South would be transformed by northern capital. His job was to promote, to lobby, to publicize. He had a magazine called The Virginias he published from his Staunton headquarters. From that he sent out letters, everything he could do to attract northerners to the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

Time Code: 04:09:33:00
Question: (inaudible)
McGehee: He spent many hard years. He spent much of his own money in a failed effort. The economy, the American economy was not receptive in the early 1870s, the Panic of 1873, the post-Civil War industrial slump, frustrated his efforts. Ultimately, he did manage, by virtue of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, to burn some of his coal in front of a northern audience that finally did attract large northern capital to the southern West Virginia coalfields.

Time Code: 04:10:07:00
Question: Do you have any sense of how he felt about those years (inaudible)?
McGehee: I think he just felt if he worked harder, if he concocted a better vision, if he promoted it better, that he would sooner or later find people who shared his dream. And part of his dream was to make money. He was very good at it. He himself personally ultimately sold thousands of acres of coal bearing land to large Philadelphia capitalists.

Time Code: 04:10:34:00
Question: (insufficiently audible, about Frederick Kimball, president of the N&W Railroad)
McGehee: Kimball was really an engineer but he was a sharp dresser, equally at home in corporate boardroom or with railroad workers. He could talk to gandy dancers or corporate executives with equal facility. He was a dreamer, and yet he was a man who rode on horseback through the southern West Virginia mountains when it was a total wilderness. When he died at the turn of the century, southern West Virginia was one of the leading industrial complexes in all of America. His life spans the transformation of southern West Virginia from a wilderness into a modern industrial, coal producing empire.

Roll 304, Take 2

Time Code: 04:11:34:00
Question: Stuart tell me about the decision Frederick Kimball made (inaudible).
McGehee: Kimball's decision was to turn a freight railroad into a coal bearing railroad. His decision was to turn the Norfolk and Western from its original intention to run up the New River to join the C&O at Hinton. Instead to take a sharp left at the East River at Glen Lynn and go straight to the heart of what became the Pocahontas coalfield. His decision to do that took two years and two million dollars of work, but it ultimately provided the transportation lifeline that allowed the coal from the southern West Virginia coalfields to reach the markets in the Northeast.

Time Code: 04:12:16:00
Question: (insufficiently audible, mentions Kimball, 1,500 miles of railroad)
McGehee: He was a practical engineer and he liked putting things together. He had put together three small railroads to form the Norfolk and Western and then he put that railroad together with the existing coal resources. He was a man who liked to see things work. He was a practical person. At the same time, he was a man of some vision. He was a man of some idealism. He could see what would happen if the proper capital could be applied in the proper place to get the coal to the market. His job was: he was the facilitator of what became, ultimately, the billion dollar coalfield.

Time Code: 04:13:04:00
Question: But he didn't personally speculate.
McGehee: No. This was his job. He was not a capitalist in that sense. No. He was always an employee of the large Philadelphia concerns that owned the Norfolk and Western. He was strictly a practical man.

Time Code: 04:13:22:00
Question: Give me your opinion in a complete sentence starting with "Kimball decided not to." Why did he decide not to gain personally?
McGehee: I'm not certain that he didn't.

Time Code: 04:13:34:00
Question: (Laughs.) Okay, let's go on.
McGehee: I'm not certain that he didn't. Most of those guys did.

Time Code: 04:13:41:00
Question: Hotckhiss offers him a deal to become a partner. He says, "No, I can't."
McGehee: He should have. He'd have made a lot of money. I'm not certain about that.

Time Code: 04:13:53:00
Question: Someone else did speculate and make a lot of money: Edward Clark.
McGehee. The Clarks were old Philadelphia money. The Clarks were a private accounting house. They were financiers.

Time Code: 04:14:06:00
Question: Start over again.
McGehee: The Clark family was old Philadelphia money. They had a private accounting house. They speculated wildly in shipping concerns, railroad, large business in the Northeast. They were extremely shrewd businessmen who made a fortune. Ed Clark and his two sons shared Kimball and Hotchkiss' vision that a railroad could connect through the roughest terrain. People believed the Norfolk and Western could not be built. The terrain was too rough to get to the coalfields to get the coal out. The Clarks, however, had enough money that through the two years and the seventy-five miles it took to run the railroad, they could sustain that project. Ultimately, they controlled southern West Virginia. E. W. Clark and Company, they owned the Norfolk and Western Railroad, they owned the first coal company, and they owned the leasehold company that, ultimately, sold leases to private, independent coal operators who did most of the work of mining the coal, guys like Cooper.

Time Code: 04:15:11:16
Question: Talk about the guys who mined. What about John Cooper (inaudible)
McGehee: John Cooper's story is what nineteenth- century America is all about. A penniless orphaned child in the English coalfields, he immigrates to America during the Civil War, goes to work as a coal miner, ultimately becomes a mine manager. He was a practical engineer. He mined coal by hand, by himself, by hand in the New River coalfield. When the southern West Virginia Pocahontas coalfield begin to open, men like Cooper were immediately attracted to the richness of the seem, the demand for coal. They were the link between the actual mineral and the railroad that allowed the coal to get to market. Cooper's story is what the robber baron era is all about. Men who literally, by their own hard work, were able to become wealthy and powerful, sensing America's need for cheap energy, understanding the nature of the industry that they were involved in.

Time Code: 04:16:22:00
Question: Describe what it must have been like in the 1880s to open up a coal ?
McGehee: Supposedly, Cooper and Jenkin Jones hauled their tools by hand over the mountain, which we call Coaldale Mountain, by hand themselves. They went to work with a couple of mules and some borrowed shovels. They dug coal by hand themselves. The early coal operators - there's been some research done on them - they tended to be of English extract, having worked in Pennsylvania. Most of them came south and borrowed the money to obtain the lease. Therefore, they were in debt for most of their career. Most of them lived on the mine site. They were not agents of huge corporations. They tended to be bold men who were willing to take risks, both physically and personally as well as financially. They were speculators; they were capitalists. But mostly they were coal mining engineers and coal operators. Their, their role and the work that they did really is what made the coalfields happen. That's a shitty sentence right there.

Time Code: 04:17:27:00
Question: Tell me, describe to me what happened after they expanded (inaudible)
McGehee: Well, the, coal mining back then was a labor intensive industry and very few people lived in southern West Virginia, and so most of the labor had to be brought in from the outside. The coal operator himself was responsible for creating a community, for finding the labor to supply it, for continuing to meet the orders of the large corporation that owned the railroad and the coal that he leased. Men like Cooper were trapped in a sense between the huge industrial conglomerate on one side and the teeming multi- racial/ethnic labor force on the other side. Most of those coal operators never intended on running a company town and dealing with all of the aspects - they were mayor, troubleshooter, engineer, landlord, storekeeper. They had to literally be a self- sufficient management team. Many of them were trained to mine coal but not to build communities and construct civilization. Added to this, every ton of coal that they shipped out, they paid a royalty to the company who owned the lease, five cents a ton or ten cents for coal, sometimes fifteen cents a ton for coke, regardless of the market price or the labor price. There was very little give in an operation set up like that. Those men were literally operating in a very, very narrow industrial environment.

Time Code: 04:19:04:00
Question: Clear this structure up for us. Describe for me (inaudible)
McGehee: The way that a coal operator opened up a mine in southern West Virginia a hundred years ago was: he obtained a lease from a land company which was wholly owned by the railroad. The lease was usually to one thousand acres of coal bearing land along a creek bed, in our area Elkhorn or the Bluestone rivers.

[End of Roll 304]

Take 3, Camera Roll 305

Time Code: 04:19:36:20
Question: (inaudible)
McGehee: Because each of them secured an independent lease from the land holding company which also owned the railroad, they tended to be [interrupted by inaudible comments from questioner]. Yeah, yeah, right, right. Early coal operators were completely independent, usually small companies spaced a half a mile or so up and down the railroad. Each of them was a self-sufficient coal producing operation. Each of them paid an enormous amount of money to the land holding company through royalty leases for the privilege of mining coal. The land holding company also owned the railroad, which set the freight rates, which was the only way to get the coal out of the [break in tape] .... powerful industrial forces of railroad, land holding company and lease company. In a sense, the miner and the coal operator were allied in a never-ending effort to ship coal. You must, must mine coal, ship it and sell it to make money. Each independent coal operator, as a result, was wholly at the mercy of forces often beyond his control. He could attract labor; he could have a market for his coal, but he still had to pay the same prevailing freight rates and the same royalty and lease rates that everybody else did.

Time Code: 04:21:02:00
Question: Describe for me once again (incompletely audible, regarding establishing early coal mines)
McGehee: When John Cooper moved [break in tape] .... processing plant, no tipple. He had no track workings. He had no labor force. He had no town. All he had was a piece of paper that gave him the right to mine coal on a particular piece of land. He thus had to construct an entire civilization in some of the roughest terrain America had, where the local people refused to go underground and work. He had to bring in labor; he had to negotiate sales contracts; he had to deal with the railroad; he had to physically construct a sawmill to build a house to live in. He literally, with his hands, had to build a coal mining operation.

Time Code: 04:22:03:00
Question: Let's go back. Who was Jed Hotchkiss?
McGehee: Jed Hotchkiss was a promoter. There's a certain irony in it. He was Stonewall Jackson's map maker during the Civil War. As such, his job was to use his knowledge of the land to frustrate northern efforts to invade the South. After the Civil War, with equal skill, he turned his knowledge of the land to attract northern capital and investors to exploit southern resources. He believed that he could change the South by means of northern capital. As a result, he lobbied incessantly. He journeyed to industrial expositions. He wrote articles for newspapers. He published his own journal called The Virginias, designed specifically to sell southern resources to northern capital.

Time Code: 04:22:57:00
Question: That's a regional issue.
McGehee: Right.

Time Code: 04:23:00:00
Question: Tell me what his vision for southern West Virginia was. What did he see that others didn't?
McGehee: Hotchkiss saw, first and foremost, the opportunity to make money. But he also understood that the markets for that coal were up North, and he believed the land could be obtained cheaply. The locals did not understand or appreciate the value of the coal and the land, and he believed that if he lobbied hard enough, he could attract a railroad to get to that coal and make money for the land that he personally, himself, speculated in. Self-interest was a powerful motive for men like Hotchkiss.

Time Code: 04:23:34:00
McGehee: Me? No.

Time Code: 04:23:36:00
Question: Tell me about Frederick Kimball.
McGehee: Frederick Kimball was the [inaudible comment by questioner]. Frederick Kimball was the architect of the Norfolk and Western Railroad. He was a sharp dresser, equally at home in corporate boardrooms or talking to gandy dancer railroad workers. He was a man who rode on horseback personally through a total wilderness and conceived the idea of bringing the Norfolk and Western Railroad to connect the North to the coalfields of the South. Kimball was a practical man who put together three bankrupt railroads into the Norfolk and Western and turned it from a freight-bearing railroad along the New River to the world's foremost carrier of fuel satisfaction.

Time Code: 04:24:21:00
Question: Say that last part again. Say he took those railroads.
McGehee: Right. Kimball took three bankrupt railroads and forged them into the Norfolk and Western, turned them sharply westward along the East River to the coalfields. It took two years, two million dollars, and seventy-five miles of some of the roughest terrain that possibly a railroad could traverse to reach the coalfields.

Time Code: 04:24:47:00
Question: (inaudible)
McGehee: The technology of running a railroad along creek beds in steep, mountainous terrain was very new. It had been pioneered by the United State military railroads during the Civil War - steam shovels, power steam shovels. The terrain was so rough many people believed no railroad could ever reach the coalfields. Barges used to transport the coal on rivers for that very reason. The terrain was simply too tough, too rugged and too steep. Ultimately, the Norfolk and Western built its own locomotives, which were the most powerful freight locomotives the world has ever seen.

Time Code: 04:25:28:00
Question: One last question. What do you think the future holds for West Virginia?
McGehee: It may be that just as the pre-industrial inhabitants did not appreciate or understand the value of the coal which was beneath their very feet, there may be other resources that we don't understand either, that, nevertheless, if we can effectively harness and challenge, can provide us with another opportunity to make West Virginia a wealthy state. And if so, we may be able, may be able, if our politicians and our people can work hard and sense the winds of change, we may be able this time to control the process ourselves.

Time Code: 04:26:06:00
Question: (inaudible)
McGehee: I'm a historian Mark, and I have a hard enough time understanding the past without speculating about the future.

Time Code: 04:26:17:00
Question: (inaudible)
McGehee: Okay. I can do that. West Virginia is a place of opportunity. West Virginia was a place of opportunity for Hotchkiss and Kimball. It's been an opportunity for myself as well. West Virginia is a very fertile place for people who understand the opportunities that it provides. Because West Virginia, in many respects, is such a wide open place, if you have vision and energy you can construct a meaningful existence in West Virginia. West Virginia has given people opportunities to be writers, film makers, historians. In a sense, the development of West Virginia has been successive waves of people who had different visions, who had different challenges, and West Virginia gave them the opportunity to meet that challenge. Me as well.

Time Code: 04:27:14:00
Good. Hold thirty seconds for room tone.