"If you didn’t do it right, then they’d run you off"

Posted by | January 17, 2007

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.”


2 Responses

  • Fannie Harper Brown says:

    I lived in Montcoal in the 1930’s & 40’s. My father, Fay Harper, was principal of Marsh Fork High School. I started to school at Montcoal Elementary. We walked across Coal River on a swinging bridge, which terrified me as a young child. The Bongalis family mentioned in this post lived across the road from us. Bessie Bongalis was my best friend; I loved her family because she had lots of brothers & sisters. My sister Sara was born in Montcoal. In 2011 my sister & I visited Montcoal. Most of the houses had been torn down. The house we lived in was still standing. We took some pictures of the house. The company store was gone & also the one church we had was gone. Sad to see how deteriorated the nice community became.

  • Roger Russell says:

    I lived in Montcoal in the 1950’s. Our house was a company house on the hill across from Marsh Fork HS. My siblings also walked across the swinging bridge to attend Montcoal Elementary School. Clinton Barrett was the first principal and Dewey Bone, Jr. was the next one. My father John worked for Armco Steel at Montcoal. Our neighbors were Proctors and Hootons.

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