The Twentieth Century

            Southwestern Virginia’s industrial developments in the twentieth century are marked by the sharp growth and decline of the coal mining industry, the World Wars, and the development of state and national parks. The completion of the L&N railway line through Lee County around the year 1886 hastened the development of industry in the area (Lee County History Book 1992). Post-Civil War economies of both the North and South sharply diverged, and Appalachia straddled the line between them (Williams 2002:251). The Appalachian industrial movement merged northern industrial opportunities, creating coal mines, and southern agricultural labor practices (Williams 2002:252). Appalachian industry was concentrated on three resources: iron, timber and coal. The rapid development of all three industries was essential to the advancement of Lee County. The mountainous northeastern part of the county was heavily involved in coal mining and exploiting the mineral resources first noted by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1749. William (2002:242) notes, “These resources -- especially wood and coal-- were essential to the expansion of American cities and industry that took place between 1880 and 1930.” By contrast, the southwestern part of the county remained an agricultural center and by the end of the twentieth century included recreational tourism with the development of both national and state parks. Most information from this time is found in newspaper archives. The Big Stone Gap Post in Wise County began printing news in 1890, another indicator of growth in the region.

            Timber, coal’s predecessor as an economic giant, fueled the local iron foundries. Middlesboro, Kentucky was a primary location for many foundries that developed at the turn of the century, providing a high demand for initially timber and later coal and coke. Timber was a simple and consistent resource for much of Appalachia’s subsistence economy (Williams 2002:247). Foundries used huge amounts of timber which resulted in the creation of sawmill towns. These were a precursor to later company towns (Williams 2002:247). In 1901 a sawmill opened in Big Stone Gap by R. L. Brown and is noted as being only the second of its kind in the region (Cox 2007:18). Williams (2002:252) notes “one mill was at Appalachia and the other in the Valley below the town. It took about fifty men to supply the mills with logs. When running at full capacity, the two mills could cut about 30,000 feet of lumber per day” (Cox 2007:18). However, the subsequent consequences of deforestation on the landscape were devastating. In nearby West Virginia, “as late as 1870, two-thirds of West Virginia was covered by old-growth forest, amounting to at least 10,000,000 acres. By 1900 this figure was reduced by half; in 1910 by more than four-fifths” (Williams 2002:250). Sawmills and the timber industry were significant precursors to coal mines.

            Coal mining was the primary energy source and economic industry for Appalachia throughout the Iron Age (Williams 2002:252).  Coal and coke fueled the American industries’ ever-expanding desire for iron and eventually steel (Williams 2002: 253). The production of these important resources built the skyscrapers and the ships in large cities, placing the bedrock of such technological advances in the hands of Appalachian miners and loggers. Investment companies, and other businesses flocked to places such as Big Stone Gap, where rich deposits were quickly found and development plans implemented in a few short years (Southwestern Virginia Museum 2015). This growth was spurred by the late nineteenth-century development of the railroad. As Williams states (2002:257), “the ease with which Appalachia coal could be mined once rail connections were established, along with the region’s lower wage scales, compensated for the operators’ greater distance from northern and Midwestern industry” (Williams 2002:257). Lee County, located on the southern edge of what was known as the Southwest Virginia coal fields, was in an ideal location to service this industry (Cox 2007:18). Coal investors and land speculators arrived in Big Stone Gap in 1882-1883, starting a variety of coal and coke companies that would eventually spread into Lee County (Williams 2002:256). Lee County however, as noted in the previous section, did not gain the appropriate rail and transportation accommodations until relatively late in the 1880s and early 1890s. This lack of development prevented many of the investors from further developing mining interests until after 1900 and even then company owners had already bought land (Cox 2007:22). Though the Louisville and Nashville railway had been completed and passed through the heart of Lee County, the rail line did not reach the coal-rich settlements. Development plans therefore, especially for Lee County, were made with the understanding that railway lines would have to be developed (Cox 2007:22).

The small mountain community of Crab Orchard came to the forefront of this development in Lee County through the surveys and purchases of  mineral-rich lands by the Inter-State Investment Company in 1894 (Cox 2007:16). The lands purchased by the Inter-State Investment Company were leased after years of negotiations with and to Charles Page Perin, a New York investor, for the purposes of coal mining and coke making (Cox 2007:22). Perin’s development plans according to Cox came to fruition in 1907 (Cox 2007:22).


This agreement resulted in the further development of rail lines in Lee County. The new line arranged by Perin were built by Black Mountain Railroad and later became a part of the Virginia and Southwestern Railroad Company completion in October 1907 (Cox 2007:31). Crab Orchard was renamed Keokee, after the name of Perin’s new Lee County Coal and Coke Company (Cox 2007:29).  The two main mining operations in Lee County were centered out of Keokee and St. Charles.

            In 1914, the Southern Rail Road Company presented a committee report of the transportation of coal in Southwestern Virginia; this included Lee County. Coal production for Lee County in 1910 was, according to a congressional report, 797,096 tons but by 1913 this had decreased to 763,315 tons, a decrease of 4.4% over the three-year period (United States Congress Senate Committee on Naval Affairs 1914:665). A special note was made in the year 1910, stating that the “Virginia and Southwestern Railway (Southern Railway) advanced its coal rates from Lee County to the southeast in 1910” (United States Congress Senate Committee on Naval Affairs 1914:665). Such large amounts of coal from Lee County were produced by the many mines in the area; however, mines like Keokee would eventually slow in output and the mines closed in the following decades. Keokee was a part of what is commonly known as the Big Stone Gap Coalfield. The coal company that has been the most successful in the Lee County area coalfields was the Stonega Coke and Coal Company. The company was absorbed into Westmoreland Coal Company in the 1960s; however, Westmoreland removed themselves from the Southwestern Coalfield in 1995 after relocating to Colorado (Westmoreland Coal Company 2016).

For Lee County-specific mines, such as Keokee, Cox notes that, “defining a closing date for the Keokee mines is not easy. The last date a large tonnage of coal was profitably produced was in 1927, but through 1932 the company mined “domestic coal” for heating the homes of the Keokee residents. No coal was mined after 1933” (Cox 2007:48). Despite the decrease in coal production by the 1930s, a culture associated with coal mining developed and flourished. Learned through familial traditions, it “…inspired an extraordinary volume of occupational lore and music, a culture that continues to flourish and adapt, even though the technology and the formalized system of training for new miners have changed drastically over the last fifty years” (Williams 2002:259).

The remote nature of these work forces continued the Appalachian tradition of autonomy; however, it was also open to exploitation by outside investors. Labor reforms grew to be the industry’s biggest problem, brought about by the determination of the inhabitants of the small settlements through the issue of unionization, which, “in central Appalachia, lasted from the 1890s to the 1940s, to be revived anew in 1978 and 1999” (Williams 2002:259). In particular, 1912 was a year filled with mining strikes, especially in West Virginia. Mining companies used local media to combat stories of unfair labor practices. The Wise County newspaper The Big Stone Gap Post, records a different story for the mines around Big Stone Gap in May of 1912. An article on the front page of the May 8, 1912 edition entitled Miners and Operators Are Always Together in Southwestern Virginia by W. D. Roberts reported no such problems. As it states “after studying labor conditions in many mining districts in this county, and with strikes prevailing in many sections it is refreshing to find as I have here, perfect agreement and concord between the operators and the men” (The Big Stone Gap Post [TBSGP], May 8, 1912: page 1). The article quotes the Vice-President and General Manager of the Stonega Coke and Coal Company that the company currently employed about four thousand people and wanted to take on more. The reliability of W. D. Roberts in his assessment of happy mountain folk may not have been fully credible and is evidence of the bias local newspapers showed towards the mining operations during the early twentieth century. Entire communities were company towns and the remote nature of these communities allowed the companies to, “lower overhead costs at the mines by exploiting these captive communities” (Williams 2002:259). Company towns were places where the majority of resources and assets were owned by the company. Designed to keep individuals continually in the low-paid workforce, company towns worked as a system of perpetual debt (Southwest Virginia Museum 2015). The poor living conditions and wages resulted in strikes, the most successful and arduous of which were organized by labor unions. Union strikes across Appalachia were most strongly felt in the four coal wars in West Virginia (Williams 2002:270). The raising of wages, living conditions, and other important community needs were advocated for across the region by union workers; however, the results were always mixed and often negative for workers (Williams 2002:270).

            National events were also affecting the mountain communities during this time. In 1902 a new constitution was adopted by the newly-elected majority Democratic Virginia government, ensuring public and private segregation, which lasted until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (Holt 1968:904). As the country entered World War I, a military company was established in Big Stone Gap. The local paper suggested that locals who wished to serve with friends should seriously consider the remaining forty open spots in Company H (TBSGP, June 13, 1917:1). A highlight of joining listed in the article was the “increased pay from $15.00 to $30.00 per month…with room board and clothing free, amounts to practically $75.00 per month…” (TBSGP, June 13, 1917:1). The financial benefits both of payment and potential pensions were positive incentives that provided opportunities beyond coal mining for workers in the area. These incentives in southwestern Virginia encouraged many to join; as a result, many people from Lee County served in both the first and second world wars (Lee County Pictorial History).

            By the 1930s, the Great Depression was nationwide. So-called “work-make” programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were started to stimulate the economy. Of these programs, the CCC had the largest direct effect on Lee County. People from Lee County area were organized through Jonesville into a CCC work group and were used throughout the country. 

Similarly, the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Forestry Service (USFS), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) have had a large impact on the region (Williams 2002:289).  In Lee County the creation of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, approved by Congress in 1940, is probably the best example of the impact such programs have had on the region (Luckett 1964:317). The approval stipulated that park lands would come from Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky, and would encompass no more than 50,000 acres (Luckett 1964:318). As Luckett (1964:318) states, “accordingly, the three states began purchasing lands which at the time of acceptance by the Federal Government, September 14, 1955, amounted to 20,184 acres. Of this acreage, Kentucky had contributed 10,679; Virginia, 7,478; and Tennessee, 2,027.” In Lee County this land was located just west of Ewing, Virginia to Middlesboro, Kentucky and parts of Harrogate, Tennessee (Luckett 1964:318).

The landscape that Thomas Walker had first written about was almost nonexistent by 1920 as a result of the logging and coal industries (Williams 2002:250). Large tracts of land were bought from residents to create the national parks and forests of today. The people who occupied the land slated for the national park were multigenerational landowners who were using the land to provide for their families. The acquisition of land, albeit with the intention of landscape conservation and preservation, did not adequately account for those living on the land (Williams 2002:289).  The lands were sold willingly and unwillingly at low prices, putting families at an economic disadvantage and incurring deep resentments that continued for a long time. Landowners who opposed the sale of land to the state “faced the condemnation of their property in the courts” (Wiley 2014:29). Despite this resistance, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was officially dedicated on July 4, 1959 and was the largest unit of its kind at the time (Luckett 1964:318).  The feelings surrounding the acquisition of park lands in Lee County were not adequately resolved; it wasn’t until the 50th anniversary of the park that it began interviewing surrounding communities about their history and ties to the land (Wiley 2014:29).

             Later developments by the park system would prove less traumatic and were welcomed and supported by the community in the 1990s. Wilderness Road State Park located in Ewing, VA was purchased in 1993 by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and included the purchase of the Karlan estate (1870s antebellum home) and two hundred additional acres (Friends of Wilderness Road State Park 2015). Grants and public support help boost the tourism industry in the county providing reenactments of Martin Station and retelling the history of the area to locals and visitors alike (Tennis 2014:238).

© 2017

Martha Grace Lowry Mize