King Coal built the company town in West Virginia. Miners worked at the company mine, shopped at the company store and lived in company houses. One of the earliest coal camps on Coal River was established at Montcoal, shown on early maps as “Hecla.” Carmel Burnside, who was born there in 1913, said the towns were peaceful and well-kept — like having strict parents and never leaving the house. “They had a remedy for (violence),” he said. “If you didn’t do it right, then they’d run you off.”
In the 1930s the Colcord Coal Company operated mines at Montcoal. John L. Lewis came to Montcoal during those years to organize the union, and had to stand, as Mae Bongalis remembers it, on the railroad tracks, because Colcord would not allow him on the property. Bongalis, who grew up in a coal camp on Montcoal Mountain, told of working in the mines as a young girl, and of riding the incline down the mountain and back in order to do business in the valley. The form of the company town was ubiquitous throughout the coalfields, and expressed the social vision of the men who were reshaping the region’s economy.
The companies provided housing for miners and their families, docking the rent from their paychecks. Food and other necessities were sold at the company store, often in exchange for “”scrip,”” a form of compensation to miners redeemable only at the company store, which many recall charged higher prices than other local retailers. Many companies also built churches, parks, ball fields, and movie theaters.
The towns were usually segregated by race and ethnicity, with the more luxurious homes of superintendents and doctors placed above the town. In Montcoal, the superintendent and doctor lived across the river on “”Cigar Hill.”