End of an Era

Southern West Virginia mines closed in record numbers in the 1950s


Tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs to machines in the 1950s. Within just a few years, automatic loading machines eliminated most West Virginia mining jobs.   Machines generally made mines safer; however, large loading machines had the unexpected side effect of generating more coal dust than hand-loading tools. Existing mine ventilation had been established for lower coal dust levels. As a result, miners began developing black lung, a deadly breathing disorder.


Machines required different skills than those needed in the pick-and-shovel era, and college-trained mechanical engineers began replacing hand-loading miners. On a positive note, wages in the late 20th century were much better than in early mining days.   

In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of unemployed miners left the state in search of work. Houses were abandoned and once-bustling communities became ghost towns. For some towns, like Dehue and Edwight, all that remains are a few houses. Some of the model company towns have survived but not at their earlier prosperous levels. When the Nellis mine shut down in the 1950s, the company sold the entire town to a real estate company, which sold the houses back to the miners.


The population decline also has taken its toll on non-company towns, which traditionally provided support services to miners’ families. In addition, interstates and highways bypassed many towns, further depleting their economies. Today, Mullens, Bluefield, Beckley, Logan, Madison, Welch, Williamson and other coalfield service towns are trying to redefine themselves.