At the turn of the century, when 4,000 people lived here, at least 14 millionaires called Bramwell, WV home, making it the richest town per capita in the United States.
The “Home of the Millionaires,” incorporated in 1889, was the business and residential community for Pocahontas coalfield owners and operators such as J.H. Bramwell, I.T. Mann, Edward Cooper, Philip Goodwill, John Hewitt and William Thomas until the Great Depression ruined the economy.
Bramwell is extremely significant to the history of West Virginia and to the nation because it represents the opulence of the era at the turn of the century when an individual, often an immigrant to the U.S., could obtain large fortunes through his own wit and the long hours of the laboring class.
As a town planned by coal land investors and coal mining operators, Bramwell was the only location specifically designed to be a residential area inhabited by the elite populace of the Pocahontas Coalfield.
Whereas nearby Bluefield basically began as a supply center for the mining operations of the coalfield, Bramwell became a place where coal operators could be near their mining operations without actually living in the mining camps they originated.
The operators chose the finest materials to build grand homes, which combined with the beautiful trees and surrounding hills make the Bramwell historic district a very striking location even today.
The story of the Pocahontas Coalfield, renowned nationwide for its ten-foot seams and high quality coal, began in 1883 when the first carload of coal was shipped by the Norfolk and Western Railroad from Pocahontas, VA (located a few miles southwest of Bramwell) to Norfolk, VA.
In 1884 a group of Philadelphia financiers began buying great quantities of coal lands along the Bluestone River in Mercer County under the name of the Bluestone Coal Company. This organization, under its local manager O.H. Duhring, planned the town of Bramwell and established its headquarters there in 1885.
Duhring, in fact, built the first house there, which no longer stands. Many of the company’s engineers and draftsmen soon moved into Bramwell, directing the company’s leases to coal operators.
The Bluestone Coal Company became part of the Flat Top Coal Land Association, the largest holder of coal lands in the Pocahontas Coalfield. The Land Association maintained its office in Bramwell for many years even after it was reorganized and changed its name to the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company.
Bramwell was named for another coal land investor, J.H. Bramwell, probably because he was the town’s first postmaster. After the mining towns of Coopers and Freeman were incorporated into Bramwell, it had the distinction of having three separate post offices within its corporate limits, unusual for a town of its size.
Bramwell was a spur stop on the railroad; trains had to make special trips to it because it was not on the main line of the railroad. Even so, there are reports of up to fourteen trains a day going in and out of Bramwell during its heyday.
In addition to the Land offices, several other coal companies maintained offices in Bramwell, including the Pocahontas Company, the marketing organization for Pocahontas Coal, located in the Masonic Hall.
Dry good and grocery stores also appeared in the business block on Main Street, and the Bryant and Newbold Pharmacy at the corner of Main and Bloch Streets carried the distinction of being the third drugstore in the U.S. to sell the exotic perfume Chanel No. 5, probably prompted by its wealthy clientele.
There almost seems to have been an attempt on the part of the operators to overcompensate for the lack of “society” in southern West Virginia at the time by building large homes with the finest materials available and the most modern conveniences.
Women in Bramwell in effect attempted to recreate Philadelphia’s social life by hosting many elaborate parties. It was almost essential, in a town such as Bramwell, to establish a controlled social atmosphere amid luxury in order to satisfy a transplanted managerial class.
When, for example, the Philip Goodwill family sold their mines and Goodwill became president of the Pocahontas Company in 1905, he enlarged their house by adding a third floor ballroom and a Queen Anne turret. His wife Phoebe had a perfect view of the town from her semicircular bedroom windows.
Phoebe was the prime example of a former Pennsylvanian who adored parties and an active social life; she kept a daily journal on the local comings & goings. She was one of several hostesses in Bramwell who often imported special foods and caterers from cities as far away as Cincinnati by train.
Yet Bramwell was remote from urban America. Phoebe Goodwill’s family worried she had left Pennsylvania for “the wilderness.” They insisted she return home for the birth of her children. Other wives and daughters who went East were embarrassed to find their dress years behind the fashion.
The Bank of Bramwell, famous because it supposedly was at one time the richest bank of its size in the United States, was chartered in 1889. The bank was located one block from the railroad station; several Bramwell residents recall that the black janitor of the bank used to roll money in a wheelbarrow down the street with an armed guard by his side, to board it on a train.
The Bank of Bramwell financed local enterprises and those far from the coalfields. It funded two projects in Washington — the Burning Tree Country Club, where President Eisenhower played golf, and the National Woman’s Golf Club. During World War I, the first liberty bonds were sold here.
As coal grew into a big business, independent operators were forced to merge or sell out to large corporations. And the nationwide depression and subsequent closing of the Bank of Bramwell in the early 1930’s signaled the end of an era in Bramwell. Many families and proprietors moved away from Bramwell.
Philip Goodwill’s three sons had trouble finding steady work and took to drinking. Their mother Phoebe feared no one would hire such “society boys.” The Goodwill family fortune, like that of so many other pioneer operators, dwindled away.
sources: National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form for Bramwell, online at http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/nr/pdf/mercer/83003244.pdf
Restoring women’s history through historic preservation, Volume 2002, By Gail Lee Dubrow, Jennifer B. Goodman, JHU Press, 2003
“Bramwell, The Diary of a Millionaire Coal Town,” By Martha Jane Williams Becker, self-published, 1988