Scott's Run: A Coal Culture in American History


Arthurdale's 60th anniversary slogan proclaims that "The Dream Lives On." The story of this New Deal community is affirmative and inspiring, a tale of triumph against the odds, the kind of story Americans embrace. The dream of Arthurdale was born out of the chronic despair that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt found upon personal investigation into the living conditions along Scotts Run in 1933. But the nightmare of poverty on Scotts Run, which spurred New Deal reformers in the first place, has faded during the last half-century of relative prosperity. Nevertheless, the dream and the nightmare are interdependent, and so, as a preface to the chapters which follow in this volume, it is appropriate to reflect briefly on the historical significance of Scotts Run. The rapid rise and dramatic fall of King Coal in this five-mile-long coal hollow located in Monongalia County, West Virginia, is a case study of how the unrestrained capitalist development of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries triggered explosive economic growth, on the one hand, and unrelenting human misery on the other.

Poverty was not always associated with the Scotts Run coal field. Coal companies and speculators began to accumulate mineral rights there in the late-nineteenth century. However, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy did not make any significant headway until World War I stimulated the demand for coal to fuel the national war machine. Monongalia County produced a mere 57,000 tons of coal in 1899, and only 400,000 tons in 1914, but by 1921, tonnage soared to nearly 4.4 million tons.(1) Most of this expansion was attributable to the development of Scotts Run where, during its peak years in the mid-1920s, coal companies owned 75 percent of the taxable acres and thirty-six mines extracted coal from underground. In fact, the narrow five-mile hollow was one of the most intensively developed coal districts in the United States, with a minimum of seventy-three coal companies in operation between 1917, when the field opened, and 1942, a period of intense coal company consolidation.(2)

Scotts Run coal was developed against a background of unrestrained boosterism. I. C. White, the state geologist and Morgantown resident, was unabashed in his writing of the potential for the coal industry in the Morgantown field. In a 1923 issue of Black Diamond, a leading coal trade publication, White observed that in the four commercial coal seams of Scotts Run, located on the west side of the Monongahela River across from Morgantown, were found twenty-five feet of coal; on the east side of the river were another four seams of fifteen feet, totaling forty feet of coal. "These eight seams of minable commercial coal, all being operated from Morgantown as a center, give this favored region the unique distinction of having more coal in its immediate vicinity than any other city of the world," White proclaimed.

While boosterism helped, it does not fully explain the rapid development of Scotts Run. There were several important strands of economic reality which converged at this moment in this previously obscure rural hollow. Most importantly, geology determined that Scotts Run would be the place that provided easy entry into the Pittsburgh seam, considered by many experts to be the most valuable mineral deposit in the world. At Scotts Run, the seam was exposed at 170 feet above the Monongahela River. The Sewickley seam, located about ninety feet above the Pittsburgh, was considered the best quality locomotive coal in the nation.(4) While less economically important, two other minable seams added to the value of coal properties along the run.

Nature played an important role in capturing the attention of coal producers, but World War I unleashed the pivotal chain of human events which made development possible. Coal prices in the national market doubled under wartime stimulation, and it is significant that the first commercial mine on the run dates from 1917. Transportation was another key factor. Scotts Run flows into the Monongahela River, which already carried more freight originating along its banks than any other.river in the hemisphere.(5)

With the rapid development of railroads, the transportation infrastructure for shipping coal to market was in place. In 1910, the Morgantown and Dunkard Valley Railway, an electric trolley line, was completed from Morgantown to the mouth of Scotts Run, and up the run to Cassville in 1911.(6) The Morgantown and Wheeling Railway took over the line in 1913 with plans to complete the line to Blacksville, in the western part of the county, to connect with steam trains, and then to continue on to Wheeling. The following year, the Buckhannon and Northern Railroad, built south from Brownsville, Pennsylvania, connected with the Morgantown and Wheeling at Randall at the confluence of the run and the Monongahela River. Between 1915 and 1925, and after a complicated financial history, these various lines were purchased by the Monongahela Railway. In 1921, 175 coal cars per day originated from Scotts Run mines and were transported over two sets of double tracks; by 1924, that number had reached an average of two hundred cars a day and the markets reportedly were slow.(7)

Finally, Morgantown, whose businessmen were deeply engaged in Scotts Run, was a full-fledged service center for industrial development. The Monongalia County seat, Morgantown had a well established and diversified business community serving 16,000 people in the early 1920s. Moreover, it was the hub of an emerging transportation nexus of road, river, and railroad traffic with power plants to supply electricity for coal mines. According to I. C. White, however, the greatest advantage offered by Morgantown was the proximity of six excellent banks which helped to finance the development of Scotts Run and assisted in "the growth of Morgantown as the greatest coal center in northern West Virginia."(8)