A Workers Concentration Camp

A chapter from Damn Yankee Buttons a book of short stories I am working on.

A Workers Concentration Camp[1]

West Virginia has always been a sort of worker’s concentration camp. Big-city folks from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, etc. owned and still own most of the minerals under the land.

Desperately poor people were brought in to work the mines. Immigrants off the ships in New York were loaded on trains with covered windows. They took them to company-owned houses. The company deducted from the workers’ paychecks, the price of the train trip, rent on the houses, mining tools and blasting powder.

Former slaves and the children of slaves were brought from the south to revive the Roman Empire’s practice of working slaves in mines. Sometimes, the European immigrants and African-Americans were brought in as strike breakers, that is what the covered windows would hide from view.

The new miners were paid in “scrip,” coal-company money 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 was often 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 up hollers to get all the coal, wood, limestone, oil, and gas out as quickly as possible. Surely most of the owners must have known 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.

Unlike Washington, poor people cobbled a living off the land. They hunted, trapped, fished, and raised a few head of cattle and hogs and some chickens. They raised gardens on steep hillsides in three inches of top soil.

Ron Lewis[2] wrote that between 1880 and 1920, the land was timbered right down to the nubs. Trees, some thirteen feet in diameter that grew for six hundred to a thousand years fell to greed. The whole state of West Virginia was clear-cut.

Sunlight was no longer blocked from the forest floor. Sparks from log hauling trains set fire to the sun-dried duff, made of a collection of centuries old leaves and trees. In some areas, like Dolly Sods, the fires lowered the forest floor by three and four feet—the much photographed Bear Rocks were once out of sight under the duff.

A family couldn’t make a living off the land anymore. The great depression of 1929 hit soon after the state was devastated by the clear-cutting and the horrendous forest fires. West Virginia never recovered.

Farmers’ sons became industrial workers in the mines. These were called public jobs. It was near shame for a mountaineer to take a public job. It was humiliating to work for another man and be told when to take a break from work, when to drink water, when to eat, when to start the day’s work, and when it would end. It was degrading to lose control of one’s comings and goings.

From the beginning of statehood in 1863, the end could be foreseen. Investors from the rich 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 Cleveland’s Shaker Heights.

Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins presided over the beginning of the clear-cutting in 1880 and controlled both sides of the political spectrum. Davis was chairman of the state Democratic Party and Elkins was chairman of the Republicans.

Davis was from Maryland and Elkins, his son-in-law, slithered in from New Mexico. Davis represented West Virginia in the United States Senate, even 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 had been 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—no matter which party was in charge, the higher court would inevitably rule in favor of the company.

West Virginia had retained the Virginia law that if a railroad wanted to avoid paying fines and reimbursement for dead cows, it had to build a fence to keep cattle off the tracks. Davis and Elkins’ judges ruled that the farmer had to build the fence. The direct parallels are uncanny between the plight of the farmers under the Davis and Elkins judges and the current plight of West Virginians whose land and lives are being devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining—the judges rule for the corporations.

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


[2] Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia.

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.
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