A Worker’s Concentration Camp

My Gazette op-ed with a different title.

A Workers Concentration Camp

The Charleston Gazette

May 27, 2012

Much of this is based on information from Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia. By Ronald Lewis.


West Virginia has always been a sort of worker’s concentration camp. Big-city folks from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Philadelphia owned and still own most of the minerals under the land. They once brought in desperately poor people to work the mines. They met immigrants off the ships in New York, loaded them on trains with covered windows, and took them to company-owned houses. Former slaves and the children of slaves were brought from the south to imitate the Roman Empire’s practice of working slaves in their mines.

Sometimes, the European immigrants and African-Americans were brought in as strike breakers. They were paid in “scrip,” coal-company money which was honored only at the overpriced company store. It was a prison, lacking only walls and barbed wire. Coal company guards called “rousters” patrolled in the mornings looking for dark-windowed houses. They knocked on the doors of the sleeping homes and roused the miners for work. If the miner claimed sickness the rouster sent him to the company doctor who most often was more sympathetic to who paid his wages than to the miners. Widows of miners killed in the mines were sometimes evicted from the company-owned houses shortly after the accident.

Cut it up, dig it up, and move on to the next job. Railroads were built all over the place to get all the coal, wood, limestone, oil, and gas out as quickly as possible. They knew then that in the long run no one they cared about would ever live here.

In the earliest days of English settlement, George Washington’s Ohio Company claimed the fertile bottomland along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. The founding father was a land speculator. The poor people were relegated to the steep hillsides with about three inches of topsoil. They cobbled a living off the land, hunting, trapping, fishing, and raising a few head of cattle and pigs, some chickens, and a large garden on the side of a hill.

Ron Lewis wrote that between 1880 and 1920, the land was timbered right down to the nubs, and horrible forest fires swept through the centuries old dried leaves. The fires lowered the forest floor by three and four feet in some areas. Trees thirteen feet in diameter that took six hundred to a thousand years to grow fell to greed. The whole state was clear-cut. A man couldn’t make a living off the land anymore. Soon after the state was devastated by the clear-cutting and the horrendous forest fires, the great depression of 1929 hit and West Virginia never recovered.

Farmers’ sons became industrial workers in the mines. These were called public jobs. It was near shame to a mountaineer to take a public job. It was humiliating to work for another man and be told when to start the day’s work and when it would end and when to take a break from work, to drink water, to use the toilet. It was a loss of freedom to admit defeat with the land and have to join the worker’s concentration camp.

From the beginning of statehood in 1863, the end could be foreseen. Investors from the Northeast bought up the timber and mineral rights for a song from unsuspecting farmers. The investors lived in places like the swell mainline of Philadelphia and Shaker Heights in Cleveland. They controlled politics coming and going.

Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins presided over the beginning of the clear-cutting in 1880 and both sides of the political spectrum. Davis was chairman of the state Republican Party and Elkins was chairman of the Democrats. Davis was from Maryland and Elkins, his son-in-law, was from New Mexico. Davis even represented West Virginia in the United States Senate, while a resident of Maryland.

Laws were changed to benefit the investors. A farmer went to court if a train hit his cow. The local jury of his peers found the railroad company liable for the damage. The company then appealed to a higher court, to which the judges were appointed by the governor. If the Democrats were in power, Davis was consulted on court appointments. If the Republicans were in control, son-in-law Elkins was the man. So, no matter who was in charge, the higher court would inevitably rule in favor of the company.

West Virginia had retained the Virginia law that if a company wanted to avoid paying fines and reimbursement for dead cows, it had to build a fence to keep cattle off the tracks. Now the farmer had to build the fence. The direct parallels are uncanny between this situation and the current plight of West Virginians whose land and lives are being devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining and the miners who’ve seen their union busted by the coal barons.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
This entry was posted in West Virginia and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s