Chapter 29

Coal I

I have previously mentioned the deep mining on both farms. What follows is detail about the strip mining on the two farms as I can recall it. The money we got from coal has been very important; in fact, it kept the Lost Creek farm in the family. But it has been valuable for the education and stories it has given me, too.

The first stripping on the Lost Creek farm was done by L. E. Cleghorn shortly after WWII. He had just come down from Zelenople, Pennsylvania. I think it was his first job in the area. They had a diesel “steam shovel,” and one bulldozer, about a D-6 caterpillar. They were able to take off all the knob on the left as you face the farm (it now makes a conspicuous U shape on the aerial photo and topo maps). They also went around the front of the hill and left a highwall perhaps thirty feet high. The coal was hauled away in six wheel trucks six to eight tons at a time.

The cemetery had been separated from the farm many years before for the Seventh Day Baptist church. Dad opened a road through it, next to the Maxwell, later Lowther, place for the coal road. He knew there were no graves there because it was swampy. But later he saw to it that Tony Petito paid a small wheelage fee to the church for driving across the cemetery property on the other side of the road with coal from the big job across the road. Dad was a trustee of the church.

As I remember, things went smoothly the first time coal was sold. The older Cleghorn was a reputable man in a rough business. A lot of people came to Dad all his life for free advice on selling their coal. He was better educated that most people then and could study things out very well.

The public roads were terrible. They were the “farm to market” roads of the depression era, a layer of gravel, a coat of tar, a layer of gravel, a coat of tar with very little stone for a base. Adequate for cars, they broke up almost the first time a coal truck ran over them after rain. The road supervisors saw little sense of putting money into roads for coal trucks. In those days their principal interest was lining their own pockets – a judgment any one who has studied West Virginia history will agree with. What little money they spent went to roads that did not have coal trucks running over them.

(Illustration 29-1)

This is the Tasa coal tipple at Righter where some of our coal was shipped, and also where the coal I helped mine was shipped. Notice the “rubber tired bulldozer” used to pull loaded coal cars up hill.

The trucks started at two or three in the morning and ran all day. They were paid by the ton and some could pass others to get in an extra trip. The term of contempt was “cowboy.” If a driver was too fast and foolish he was a “cowboy.” This term has been used to show contempt in the East from colonial times, I have read. It was adopted as a term of honor in the West.

“ June” Smith (Carlo Smith Jr.) had several trucks and made some money hauling coal. I particularly remember two green GMCs he had. They were among the first “double dual” trucks, that is, ten wheelers, and had very large engines. He had large grill protectors built on the front of each one, and the cowboys who drove them were known to PUSH each other up hills.

(Illustration 29-2)

Another view of the tipple, with a truck ready to dump a load of coal in the hopper. There was some picking refuse from the coal along the ascending conveyer in the middle, but not much.

One winter when I was in high school, the low point in the road beside what is now South Harrison High School became almost impassable. A coal company put a dozer there to push coal trucks and the school bus through, They would help passenger cars, and small trucks, too, if you were willing to take the risk (or had to have help to get through).

The second time coal was taken out by Don Harrold . Harrold had the opposite reputation. Harrold hired Byron Construction Company, which was operated by Tony Petitto, do the stripping for them. Byron had a huge strip job across the creek situated between Duck Creek, Lost Creek and Davisson Run. Tony once told me that Don Harrold wanted to wait until Dad went broke and buy the farm to get the coal they mined, but Tony didn’t want to do it.

I knew Dad had a lot of trouble getting paid. He would go up to Righter where the coal was loaded, and take down the serial number of each coal car and the number of tons capacity. Fortunately these numbers were stenciled on each car. The last winter they decided not to haul coal until spring because of the bad roads. They mined it out and made a huge pile directly behind our house. This was a quarter of a mile away but in sight of the house, close enough Dad could keep an eye on it. Later in the winter they weren’t doing much, and Dad noticed small clouds coming up. He told Tony that it was heating and Tony told him that the pile was too small to burn from spontaneous combustion.

It did catch fire, a slow smoldering fire from inside. Dad had Horner Brothers Engineers measure the pile and estimate its tonnage, and got the value of the coal. He was working with lawyer Sunny Rogers at the time, and I don’t know if the measurement was Sunny’s idea or Dad’s. Anyway it was considered somewhat of a coup in the neighborhood, to get one up on Don Harrold. The high wall was now 60 or 70 feet high.

There were also two little deep mines going at the same time which continued after stripping. Both were on Louie Stenger’s place adjacent to ours, but one went in only a short distance before it came to our farm. Dad had to have that one surveyed regularly to be sure he got paid properly. Of course, the surveyor and the lawyer had to be paid out of receipts, but that was the way it had to be done. Sunny Rogers kept the file until he died, and his widow, Ruth Rogers, very kindly sent Mom the file. It proved very important later. It also showed Sunny had to write letters threatening to take Harrold to court to get each payment.

I want to digress a little here to tell about a man who lived at one of the mines on Louie Stenger’s place. These mines were called “gopher hole” mines. They utilized a few men who did brutally hard work with essentially the same technology used in the deep mine after WWI. In turn, this was much the same as had been used since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The main difference was these miners had electricity, supplied by a generator. They used wood mine props, bored holes in the coal, possibly with electrical drills (instead of by hand as they did earlier), “shot” the coal with explosive, shoveled it into cars by hand and hauled it out with a starving horse.

There wasn’t much need for a “night watchman,” but this mine had one. He was a man who had had the misfortune to have the explosive in the coal face go off when he was near it. It had blown fine particles of coal into his face. Pockmarked with black dots at the base of each pock, he was so ugly he couldn’t face people. He stayed at the mine, and the others brought food and what ever he needed.

When I came back from the Army (1954), I almost cried to see how poorly the backfilling had been done. There were two terraces, and spots that held water. Dad thought farming had come to an end because I was getting an education, and it was the conventional wisdom that West Virginia had no prospects for farming. It was the time of the great surplus production in the midwest and far west, and few young men showed any interest in farming. Much of the land around was growing up. I think he expected me to get a job and ignore the farm. Wrong!

Several years later we were approached by Grafton Coal (owned by Jimmy Compton) to strip the Lost Creek farm for the third and final round of stripping. They had purchased the deep coal from the successors of Hutchinson Coal Company. Fred Kunzelman was their landman. He was a large, handsome man, with a winning way. They paid $10,000 earnest money to Mom and paid me $2000 to build a fence around the area they needed to strip. They did core drilling to see how thick the coal was, and to make sure Hutchinson’s mine map was accurate. They were very “scientific,” with experts for each separate part of the operation, including a reclamation man who had previously worked for the Soil Conservation Service. And they all drove expensive, four wheel drive vehicles.

This must have been about the time they saw they were getting into financial trouble. Either that or they got a more profitable opportunity to mine elsewhere, because they just pulled out and left us with some very easy money, taking no coal. I hadn’t spent anything on the fence, just split and set some posts.

In later years I remember seeing a dozen or more ‘dozers , the biggest ones made at the time, in a row at their facility near Jackson Mills, along with, literally, millions of dollars worth of other big equipment, just rusting out. It remained this way for a decade or more, until the late “90s.

Their lawyer, Jim Christie, caused me an immense amount of trouble. The Pittsburgh coal had been sold to Don Harrold and wound up leased to Compton, who intended to mine it. It was clear that we owned the surface rights. Christie decided after a title search, that the Redstone Coal did not belong to our family, but to the Hutchinson heir. As mentioned above, Hutchinson was the company that bought the Pittsburgh coal which was mined shortly after WWI.

The Hutchinson assets were first bought by a Colonel Ritchie, who was married to Florence, a daughter of the original Hutchinson. They got all remaining assets of the Hutchinson company, coal cars, mined out coal, etc, all over Harrison County. Ritchie died before Florence, and she married another man whose name was Meyers, who also had a “Colonel” title. Kunzelman told me that he thought it was an assumed title, in the Southern manner, perhaps to keep up with the first husband. Florence Hutchinson Ritchie Meyers died first, and the second Colonel was the heir, according to Jim Christie. Kunzelman went down and got him signed up for the Redstone coal. More of that in the next section, which brings things up to 2000, and almost to the last lump of coal that could be sold.

Aside At the peak of coal stripping in Central West Virginia, International bulldozers were sold by Rish Equipment Company, and Caterpillar bulldozers were sold by Beckwith Equipment, both of Bridgeport. Each of these dealers had citations from the manufacturers for selling the greatest number anywhere in the world of the largest size bulldozers the manufacturers made in certain years.

Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at