From Shovels to Machines

In 1935, two percent of West Virginia’s coal was loaded by machine; 20 years later, 99 percent was machine loaded.


The Mines Today

From the days of the salt industry until the 1940s, most coal was loaded using hand tools like picks and shovels. Machines were introduced gradually during the early 1900s, allowing miners to load more coal in less time. Mechanization began with undercutting machines around 1900 and advanced to loading machines in the 1920s. At first, machines helped miners load more coal; eventually, they put the majority of miners out of work.


Beginning in the late 1940s, coal companies rapidly introduced longwall and continuous mining machines. Longwall machines sheer coal from the face in a circular motion. The broken coal falls into a pan line, which leads to a conveyor belt and then to the processing plant. Longwall machines now extract more than 55 percent of all West Virginia coal mined underground. Continuous miners are used primarily in room-and-pillar mines and operate similarly to longwall machines. They account for nearly 45 percent of all underground coal mined. In 1935, two percent of West Virginia’s coal was loaded by machines; 20 years later, 99 percent was machine loaded.


Another industry development has been the increase in surface mining, particularly mountaintop mining. While forms of surface mining date back to the earliest days of the industry, it was not profitable on a large scale until the invention of massive earth-moving equipment in the mid-20th century. Statewide, surface mining comprises less than 40 percent of extracted coal. In southern West Virginia, however, surface and underground mining produce nearly equal amounts of coal.


As a result of new equipment, companies now excavate more coal with far fewer miners. Today, West Virginia produces as much coal as ever but employs less than 18,000 miners, down from a high of 125,000 in 1948.


The Railroads Today

From the 1870s until the 1920s, railroads overwhelmingly dominated the coal transportation market. Major river improvements—in the 1880s and 1930s—provided coal operators with another shipping outlet; however, the railroads were still necessary to get the coal to the rivers.


Beginning in the 1920s, coal companies increasingly relied on trucks as an alternative to the rails. To remain competitive economically with other transportation modes, the railroads began to consolidate. The N&W acquired the Virginian in 1959. The C&O merged with other companies beginning in the 1960s and formed the Chessie System in 1972. After additional consolidation, it became the CSX Corporation. In 1981, the N&W merged with Southern Railway to form Norfolk Southern.


Today, just two companies—CSX and Norfolk Southern—own all the rail lines in West Virginia and haul more freight than at any point in history—using only one-third of the track that existed in 1920. Railroads still haul 62 percent of all West Virginia coal, compared with about 20 percent by trucks, 13 percent by river barges and five percent by other means.


King Coal Today


While the steel, rail and shipping industries still rely on West Virginia coal, the most important outlet is the power industry. More than half the electricity in the United States is generated by coal; by contrast, 99 percent of the electricity used in West Virginia is produced by coal.


West Virginia ranks second nationally in coal production, trailing only Wyoming. The Mountain State leads the nation in exporting coal, producing 39 percent of all coal sent overseas. Boone County, the state’s leader in coal production, generates more coal in one year than the entire state did in 1900.


Coal mining has become a much safer industry than in the early days. In 1925, a staggering 16 percent of all miners were killed on the job; by the end of the century, the death rate was about 0.2 percent. Of the state’s 13 worst mine disasters, all occurred before 1941, except for the 1968 Farmington explosion, which killed 78 miners; however, the 2006 Sago disaster provided a stark reminder that mine safety can never be taken for granted.


The coal industry has had more influence on West Virginia history than any other. With 52 billion tons of mineable reserves beneath the state’s surface, that impact will not likely diminish in the near future.