The history of coal mining in Montgomery County will be celebrated in a downtown Blacksburg exhibit titled “A Way of Life” that opens Jan. 16 and runs through May at the Alexander Black House & Cultural Center.
The exhibit highlights coal mining history in and around Blacksburg with a focus on long inactive coalmines around Price and Brush Mountains. These mines operated for many years, but evidence of their existence and the communities that grew up around them is not easily found.
The accompanying map shows the principal commercial coal seams in Montgomery County labeled “anthracite coal outcrop.” This map is based on one originally published in the magazine “Engineering News” in 1904 and has Blacksburg added.
The exhibit features historic coal mining artifacts such as pick axes, shovels, augers, oil lamps, carbide lamps and canary cages, from the collections of local people interested in preserving coal-mining history such as Bill Deemer, Larry Linkous, and the Rev. Jimmie Price.
Historically, Virginia coal has come from three widely separated and entirely dissimilar areas.
The earliest Virginia coal came from two small coalfields near Richmond and Farmville in the eastern part of the state. By about 1750 exploitation had begun in the Valley Fields, a series of long, narrow coal-bearing regions first opened in Augusta County and worked commercially in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Montgomery and Pulaski Counties. Today, Virginia’s Southwest coal field, consisting of all or parts of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise Counties holds 97 percent of the state’s coal reserves and has been the only Virginia region in production since the 1950s.
In 2016 Virginia coal production ranked twelfth among the 25 coal producing states with about 1.8 percent of total US coal production that year.
Author Garland Proco in his 1994 book “Merrimac Mines: A Personal History” provides a detailed account of the coal mines in the Merrimac section of Montgomery County that lies to the west of Route 460 between the town limits of Blacksburg and Christiansburg. Proco’s grandfather, “Old Man Mike,” emigrated to Pennsylvania from Austria around 1900 at the age of about 32, moved with his family to Virginia a couple of years later, and worked in the Merrimac Mine until 1926 when he was badly burned and nearly killed in a mine fire.
According to Proco, small-scale mining of coal outcrops in Montgomery County was begun around 1790 by a Hessian German named Jacob or Frederick Broce who had been imprisoned in the county after fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War. Such coal was for many decades sold locally by the bushel for heating and for use by iron smelters and blacksmiths. Carrying coal on horse-drawn wagons was costly. Montgomery County coal could find a wider market only after the railroad reached Christiansburg in 1854.
There seems to be good reason to believe that the Merrimac community took its name from the ironclad Confederate warship. Proco quotes a 1942 letter written by Guy Ellett of the Brush Mountain Coal Company that states that I. H. Adams, a prominent Lynchburg businessman, told Ellett in 1902 that during the Civil War he (Adams) supervised coal taken from Montgomery County “to Christiansburg by mule teams to be loaded on the cars and sent to Norfolk” and that this coal fueled the ironclad.
In 1902, the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railroad Company opened a large commercial mine near Blacksburg and named it in honor of the ironclad. A railroad link to Christiansburg was quickly established and soon the Merrimac community had a hotel and a 150 miners.
Rail service was extended from Merrimac into Blacksburg in 1904 with the train being called the Huckleberry because Proco says it “ran so slowly that that passengers would step off on one of the long curves, pick huckleberries (blueberries), and reboard the train on the other side of the curve.”
In retrospect, the decline and end of coal mining in Virginia’s Valley Fields can be attributed mainly to economic factors. Mining in these fields was always difficult because of the steep angles of the coal seams, the numerous rock bands in the seams, and the presence of explosive methane gas. In the marketplace, its high ash content worked against the coal.
Six miners were killed in a methane explosion in January 1932 at the Parrott Mine in Pulaski County (just across the New River from McCoy), and twelve were killed in an explosion in April 1946 at the Great Valley Mine in McCoy itself.
For more information visit the Blacksburg exhibit and look at the Facebook page of the Coal Mining Heritage Association of Montgomery County at www.facebook.com/CMHAMontCo. The Heritage Association began in 1994 and seeks local friends and supporters to join in its goal of telling the story of the local mines, the miners and their families.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.