Between 1880 and 1920, southern West Virginia’s population grew from 93,000 to 446,000, due almost entirely to the coal industry.
The region’s first coal miners primarily were African Americans, both enslaved and free. By 1850, approximately half of Kanawha County’s slaves worked in the salt industry—many mined coal to fuel the furnaces. Salt operators eventually hired more white or free-black laborers due to the risk of investing money in bondsmen, who frequently were killed or injured in the mines. Other enslaved African Americans escaped from the salt works to Ohio, a free state only 60 miles away.
The coal industry required more labor than southern West Virginia could supply. Coal operators enticed workers—many African American—to move to West Virginia from Virginia and the Deep South. During the first three decades of the 20th century, African Americans comprised about 25 percent of all southern West Virginia miners. Coal companies also recruited in Europe. In 1907, West Virginia appointed John Nugent as superintendent of immigration. His salary was paid entirely by coal companies. By 1910, more Italian immigrants lived in McDowell County than anywhere else in the state. Immigrants in southern West Virginia comprised some 25 nationalities, including Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Austrians and Russians. Ukrainian immigrant Nick Gurski began working in the Boone County coal mines in the 1920s. Eventually, his sons and grandsons also worked in the mines. Meanwhile, his wife Mary operated the Nellis boarding house for foreign-born miners.
Coal mining is a dangerous job requiring skill and judgment. In the hand-loading era, an underground miner’s workplace, usually called a “room,” was only as high as the coal seam. A room in the Pocahontas seam could be more than 10 feet high, while workplaces in the Kanawha and New River seams often were no taller than four feet.
Before the 1930s, many boys worked in mines. Boys younger than 12 often worked beside their fathers underground because, in many communities, it was the only paying job available. Boys learned the mining craft from their fathers and later passed this knowledge on to their own sons. Boys frequently were assigned the most-dangerous jobs. Some picked slate and other debris out of the coal on fast-moving conveyor belts. Others opened large wooden doors just before speeding cars passed through. Some stopped the cars by jamming pieces of wood into the spokes. Before the days of electric cars, many boys served as mule drivers.