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McComas, WV

A small town located in Mercer County in southern WV which began as a farming hamlet in the mid 1800s. Around 1890 coal was discovered and the area grew rapidly. Norfolk and Western railroad laid tracks into this remote mountainous area. Crane Creek, Sagamore, Pinnacle and Thomas Collories established tipples and coal was mined.

Mannering[edit]

In a valley southeast of Windmill Gap, Mercer County, WV existed a small mountain hamlet in the mid to late 1800s/early 1900s. Farmers, trappers, and settlers lived in crude log cabins in this remote backwoods place called Mannering, VA/WV. One family was named "Manning".. Other families such as Martha and Harvey Peters, Wilson and Elizabeth A. "Lizzy" McComas Bailey, Rufus Allen McComas, James and Rebecca Bailey McComas, Eli McComas (in 1859 owned 100 acres on Crane Creek Branch of the Bluestone) Samuel Taylor, George W. and Sarah M. Taylor, N. F. Heslep, Reece and Sarah Lusk, James Walker, Thomas Crane, Thornhill, and Conner also lived here. In 1904 newly elected Congressman John Kee granted a petition to have the name changed from Mannering to McComas.


Coal[edit]

Although coal was known to exist throughout much of West Virginia, no extensive mining took place until the mid-1800s. Due to its remote location Mannering/McComas was not developed until a transportation system (mainly the railroad) was incorporated. West Virginia's southern coal fields were not opened until about 1870, though they were known to exist much earlier. One of the major southern coal fields was the Flat Top-Pocahontas Field, located primarily in Mercer and McDowell counties. The Flat Top Field first shipped coal in 1883 and grew quickly from that time. Operations were consolidated into large companies, and Pocahontas Fuel Company, organized in 1907, soon dominated the other companies.

Beginning[edit]

William H. McQuail opened Crane Creek and Pinnacle Coal & Coke Companies. Calvin Shockey was the first Superintendent for both mines. The first year they produced 48,146 tons of coal at Crane Creek, and 39,121 tons at Pinnacle. By 1903 96,353 tons of coal was shipped from Crane Creek and 71,419 tons from Pinnacle.

While the miners were preparing the mine sites and waiting for the railroad to arrive they ate and slept anywhere they could. Some lived in tents and the lucky ones managed to rent rooms from the pioneer families. As soon as the kegs of nails arrived from Pittsburg they built shanties that were cheap and quickly thrown together with clapboard from Hamlets Mill. Upon the completion of the railroad at Mannering building materials and carpenters began to arrive and they were able to build fine homes. A combined total of 321 dwellings were built at Crane Creek and Pinnacle. Each house contained three and five rooms each. The carpenter crews of Lace Honaker, Mathew Jessup, George Hurst built a major portion of the houses and kept them in repair.

At the same time the houses were under construction fire brick and construction crews began to arrive from Connelsville, Pennsylvania for the construction of 150 beehive coke ovens at Crane Creek and 150 at Pinnacle. Pinnacle produced 835 tons of coke in 1902 with their first shipment in October of that year. No coke was produced at Crane Creek in 1902. In 1903 7,915 tons of coke were shipped from Crane Creek and 12,508 tons from Pinnacle. Coke production Coke production continued to increase each year and when the coke ovens were shut down in the 1920s half a million tons had been shipped from Crane Creek and 300,000 from Pinnacle. The reason for the short life span of coke production at Crane Creek and in the coal fields in general was due to the development of an improved method for making coke in a by-product type oven that was faster and salvaged all of the volatile chemicals that had been wasted by the beehive type ovens.

Under the American Coal Company, Crane Creek became one of the largest operations and the heaviest tonnage operations in the Pocahontas field. In 1926, Crane Creek produced 662,682 tons of coal, while Pinnacle produced another 332,595 tons. In January 1930, 101,000 tons of coal was processed through the Crane Creek tipple. It was a record for the American Coal Company and a record monthly production for one mine in the entire Pocahontas-Flat Top coal field.

The American Coal Company was one of the most progressive energy companies in the Pocahontas field. Appliachian Power Company first installed one of the electric marvels of the time at the Pinnacle plant. It was an automatic substation that converted high voltage electricity to the voltage required for home power and lighting.

Crane Creek and Pinnacle always operated at the highest degree of safety efficiency. Every precaution was taken by Superintendent Richard Cole and the mine foremen James Hughes, Matt Lowem, Abe Maurice, and George Law to safeguard the men in the mine and at the tipple. The number of accidents usually from unforeseen and unpreventable causes were always held at the lower possible number. There was never a mine disaster at these mines. The inside bosses such as Charlie Saunders, Edgar Watkins, Eli Basconi, and Wattie Sparks, who worked over fifty years at Pinnacle, made sure the coal recovered with ample rock-cust barriers to minimize the danger of dust explosions and Crane Creek and Pinnacle were perhaps the least gassy mines in the area. They were so free of methane gas that brakemen like Roy Albert, Porter Davis, Frank Conlee, Porter Carver, S.W. Foy and Clifford Kingrea sometimes used oil torches inside the mines.

Tragedy Strikes[edit]

On June 10, 1924 a tragedy without parallel occurred near the Pinnacle tipple where thousands of tons of burning ash, slate and rock were hurled down the mountainside by several explosions. For two days a deluge occurred in that section of Mercer County, making Crane Creek a raging river. Loaded coal cars were pushed off the tracks by walls of water at Sagamore and Crane Creek. The old grist mill at Thornhill was washed away and houses at Crystal, Godfrey, Cephas, and Montcalm were seen floating down the Bluestone River. As the hollow behind the smoldering slate dump filled with water it seeped into the hot ash and slate producing a tremendous explosion when the hydrogen gases from the water mixed with the hot coal gases.

The first explosion sent thousands of tons of hot ash and slate down on the home of Mrs Shellman C. Vest pushing the house down the hill about 100 feet and leaving only part of the roof exposed. Superintendent H.D. Smith of Pinnacle and Luke Graham, Mine Foreman at Thomas quickly organized a rescue party. Amelio Primiveno, John Vest, Pete Double, John Cockran, Amelio Massaroni and other Italians ran toward the house to rescue anyone who may have been left alive.

The second explosion came about fifteen minutes after the first. Three members of the rescue party had cut a hole in the roof with an ax and lowered themselves inside the house when the dump exploded like a volcano throwing half the mountain on the house crusing the people inside. All the rescuers ran for their lives receiving severe burns as they fled and narrowly escaped the avalanche of hot debris.

A third explosion occurred only minutes later. It brought down ton after ton of refuse completely filling in the hollow, choking off the creek and buried the railroad tracks to a depth of fifteen to twenty feet.

The victims of the explosion were Mrs Shellman C. Vest and her five year old son, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher Dewese, Mrs Toy Dewese, and her two daughters, Amelio Primiveno, Amelio Massaroni, and an unidentified Italian stone mason. Their charred bodies were recovered two weeks later.

In 1925 Crane Creek exteneded their main haulage way through the mountain to the Pinnacle mine. While a trestle was being constructed R. W. Wirt, Abe Lawrence and Bill Cox installed motor wire and Leo Shrader laid track to connect the two mines. When the work was completed, Pete Bailey, Rupert Whittaker, Rex Hurst, Trig Graham and the other motormen hauled the coal mined at Pinnacle through the mountain to the Crane Creek tipple. The Pinnacle tipple was torn down and removed under the supervision of foremen Jack Hurst and Harry Gillespie and the shops were combined at Crane Creek.

A new system was introduced at Crane Creek after the discontinued the Pinnacle tipple. The day shift at the tipple were men of the original Crane Creek crew while the night shift was composed of men from the Pinnacle tipple crew. The payroll office was left in the company store at Pinnacle where Mrs Annie, John Saunders, Jim Evans, J. A. Graham and Herman Hill took care of the company auditing and bookkeeping.

In 1929 the tipple at Crane Creek was completely remodeled with the latest equipment for the preparation of coal and its loading. The new preparation plant was equipped with Menzies Hydro-Separators for washing large lump coal. The dry cleaning plant was equipped with twelve air-tables and filters that were constructed by the American Coal Cleaning Corporation of Welch in McDowell County. These air-tables were the first of their kind to be used for dry cleaning coal in the United States. Other new equipment put in the updated tipple were shaker screens, picking tables and the latest type of loading booms, When the new tipple was completed it could clean and load 100,000 tons of coal each month. The tipple foremen at Crane Creek were Billy Mills, L.W. Marshall, Oscar Hurst and Leonard Bailey was foreman from 1947 to 1957. Some other men that worked several years at the tipple were Ed Kendrick, Charlie Eanes, Ed Bowling, Harry Lee Harvey, Doc Hurst, Nick Kendrick, Frankie Ferrante, Jonah Glass, and the Shrader boys, Clayton, Woodrow, Dow, and Preston. Frank Barlow was in charge of the lamp house from the time Crane Creek started using battery lights.

Since the coal camps were isolated the coal pioneers added recreational facilities in the mining communities to make life for the miners and their families as pleasant as possible. McComas had a theatre with Glenn Scott showing the latest films nightly for ten cents in script and it was at this theatre that Tom Mix and Buck Jones once made a personal appearance many years ago. The theatre burned to the ground along with the Catholic Church in 1948. The church was rebuilt by the members but the theatre was lost forever.

Each year the company officials would invite a carnival and circus to their communities. They came to Pocahontas on the train where they staged shows before moving on to Coopers. From there they would parade down the river in their bright red and yellow wagons. Clarence Whittaker remembers watching the circus as performers and animals marched along the road like a medieval theatre troupe led by frolicking clowns to put on a show in the "Y" at Goodwill, before performing a field at Montcalm behind where the Church of God is located today. From there they would march up Crane Creek to the ballfield at Thornhill.

There were five elementary schools and one high school at McComas. The elementary schools were at Sagamore, Crane Creek, and Pinnacle with one black and one white school at Mora. These two schools were only a short distance around the hill from McComas High School. There was no black high school at McComas so the students were bused to Bluestone in Bramwell.

The teachers that were remembered by their pupils were James Bailey, Mrs. Vaughter, Mrs. Jude, Mrs Auville, Mr. Anderson, Evelyn Beggs, Mrs. Penland, Mrs Pete Rooney, Mrs. Gad. John Holston was the first Principal at Mora Elementary School. At Pinnacle there was John Bird, Margaret Spencer, Mrs. Sheldon, Mr. Cook and Robert Lacy was Principal at Pinnacle in the 1930s.

In early school days at Mora and Pinnacle, the school at Mora had very small rooms. There was no inside plumbing and buckets of drinking water had to be carried in the school from a pump in front of the school. Students had to bring their own drinking glass from home. The rest rooms were outhouses on the hill, far away from the school making it very rough in winter. Pinnacle on the other hand had large spacious rooms, a cafeteria on the first floor, drinking fountains and inside toilets.

B. F. Pinkard and Charlie Bird were Store Managers at Crane Creek Juanita Byrd was Clerk and Mr. Huffman was the teamster. Some of the staff that served the public at the Pinnacle store were Douglas Short, J. L. Sutphin, Fred Hankins, Charlie Bird, Matoaka Marshall and Pauline Powers. Americo Marotti also opened a store near the Crane Creek School. His store was very similar to small stores some coal companies opened only at night called junk stands.


History[edit]

At the headwaters of the "Crane Creek" in the mid to late 1800s settlers came to build a new life. Reference was made (by Barty Whitt a very public spirited citizen of Wyoming and Mercer Counties in the 1900s) of the old "Mercer Camp Meeting Shed" which was build in the 1830s or 40s. This Shed was constructed as a gathering place and was used for old fashioned revival meetings, which could last for a week when they occured. This structure was located in a gap on the mountain above Giatto separating the headwaters of Crane Creek from that of Widemouth Creek and being located near a spring on a farm owned by RUFUS ALLEN MCCOMAS. In 1904 newly elected Congressman John Kee granted a petition to have the name changed from Mannering to McComas.

Before the coal mining industry took a foot hold in this tiny community several families had settled here. Around 1870 the Crane, Manning, Thornhill, Taylor and Conner families had arrived. They settled along the Crane and Pinnacle Creeks. A few cabins were scattered around. The families farmed, hunted and trapped to exist. Mail delivery came from Princeton several times a week by horseback. The wind powered gristmill built by Thomas Crane around this time was not successful. It had been built on Windmill Gap and when there was no wind they could not grind their grain. Later the Thornhill family build a mill powered by water and it was successful. Around 1902 W. H. Thomas started his Thomas Coal & Coke Company. A coal tipple, 127 houses, a company store, church, payroll and a doctors office were build at THOMAS, WV. Mr. Thomas later started his Crystal Coal & Coke operations at Crystal, WV. Crystal was a pet name Thomas called his wife Annie. Thomas and his wife build a house and lived at Crystal until they eventually build their "mansion" at Bramwell. Thomas died in 1918 and his only son 2 years later - Thomas was well liked by everyone who knew him. His family continued on with his operations having partnerships with the Coopers and Bill Buery. The name was changed in 1940 to the Virginia B. Coal Company (the name of the wife of Mr. Beury) which it remained for the last 12 years it operated. The Company Store closed at Thomas in 1957. Virginia Sigmon Gills was the store manager. She had been there many years. The store had remained open several years after the Thomas mine closed. The company had coal operations in another location and it remained open to support them. A large porch wrapped around 2 sides of the building with a large expanse of stairs you had to climb up to get onto that porch. Once a day the train would come up to the tipple to gather the loaded coal cars. The train also went to the tipples at Sagamore and Crane Creek before leaving the hollow to return to its destination which was probably Bluefield. Trying to travel the highway during this time could cause major delays. The roadway was blocked for long periods of time by the train collecting his "black gold". A train stop would occur at the Thomas Company Store to unload freight or whatever else they carried. To the rear of Thomas Company Store was a large office. This is where the doctor's office was located. There were apartments located on the upper floor of the Thomas Company Store. The store itself contained a deli section, meat cutting, weighing scales (infants were also weighted on them), and bakery items were located to the right when you first walked in. Canned goods and other grocery items followed down that wall. To the rear of this room was a section containing shoes. To the left side of the room was merchandise such as clothing and other items. At christmas time toys would line all areas around the tops of these shelves. The U.S. mail would be delivered each day around 1 p.m. at the Thomas Company Store from the Post Office which was located about a mile down the road at "McComas". The area known as McComas was home to the Post Office (this building also had a doctors office), Methodist and Catholic Churches, Movie Theater, Shoe Shop, Rail Road Station, and the Community Center (containing several shops in its lifetime) - among those were Mr. Harrington's soda shop, and a barber shop but in earlier days other stores were also there. Mora Elementary and McComas High School were also located here. Houses dotted the hillside around the area and were intermingled with all these shops.


Around the turn of the century according to statistics Mannering (later McComas) had a population of about 6000 people making it the second largest town in Mercer County. Access into the area was still difficult at this time. It could literally take days to travel by train, vehicle, wagon or horseback to neighboring towns or cities. The owners of the coal mines supplied all items their workers should need through the "company store". These stores were built at Thomas, Pinnacle, Sagamore, and Crane Creek. These areas were "company towns," where the houses, stores, and recreational buildings all belonged to whichever coal company operated the mine. The miners were often paid in script, redeemable only at the company store. Wages were low and the work was hard - primarily pick and shovel. Miners used "script" as cash at the "company store"

Along with building homes, churches, and stores the coal operators also provided entertainment through a variety of methods. A chain of movie theatres were scattered throughtout all the coal mining communities. Early admission to the McComas theatre would be 10 cents in script. When the theatre was destroyed by fire in 1948 it was never rebuilt.


McComas Historical Timeline of Events[edit]

1870 Community of Mannering established One room log school house, scattered cabins and a few farms existed.

1897 Will Hamlet relocated his sawmill from Spanishburg to Crystal, WV.

1898 Hamlet began construction of a wooden rail tramway so that he could transport his lumber to During, WV.

March 6, 1901 Railroad construction began between During and Crane Creek (Mannering), WV. In order to build its Crane Creek line Norfolk & Western Railroad used much of the same right of way (or in close proximity to it) that Will Hamlet had cleared previously for his tramway.

Coal Operators W.H. Thomas, William McQuail and Issac T. Mann agreed to buy lumber from Will Hamlet in exchange for him hauling supplies to his sawmill at Crystal. These same coal operators later hired a crew to clear the land and build the first wagon road into Mannering.

Transportation into McComas is now open and coal operations rapidly start.

SAGAMORE COLLIERY

1902 The Pocahontas Sagamore Colliery owned by W.H. Thomas, William McQuail, and Issac T. Mann start coal production. Sagamore owned all the property around the McComas Community Center and built all structures in that area. A total of 133 homes, a tipple, power plant, shops, company store and school were built.

December 1904 Sagamore Tipple explodes from unknown causes Workers transported across Windmill Gap to Cherokee to provide work for them.

December 1909: Sagamore Tipple rebuilt

1923: Disaster struck again Cherokee Tipple destroyed by fire This time workers were transported to Sagamore to proide work for them.

1910 Pocahontas Fuel Company started which contributed to the Sagamore Tipple being so successful.

Sagamore Statistics:

1910-1921: 2 million tons of coal cleaned and shipped

1921-1929: Over a million tons of coal were shipped

1930s - depression years: Production of coal almost halted.

1940-1952: WWI years saw growth again.

1952: Crane Creek was purchased by Pocahontas Fuel Company of Sagamore. The mine saw continued growth. The tipple was remodeled and had a capacity to process two million tons of coal annually - which was accomplished on several occasions as their records indicate.

1980: Coal production dropped - layoffs started occuring - another mass exodus from McComas occurred.

December 1984: Drift mouth to the mine was permanently sealed.

THOMAS COAL & COKE COMPANY 1902 W.H. Thomas opened Thomas Coal & Coke Company Superintendant Eugene Powell supervised building 127 houses, store, payroll and doctor's office, and a coal tipple for Mr. Thomas.

Thomas Coal & Coke Company Statistics: 85,00 tons of coal produced in first three years

1903: Coke production began(6,871 tons produced)


CRANE CREEK and PINNACLE COAL & COKE COMPANIES

Before 1903 William H. McQuail's Crane Creek and Pinnacle Coal & Coke Companies were opened Crane Creek & Pinnacle Coal & Coke Co. Statistics Superintendent Calvin Shockey oversaw both operations 321 houses were built at Crane Creek and Pinnacle

150 coke ovens built at Pinnacle 1902: 835 tons of coke produced at Pinnacle

150 coke ovens built at Crane Creek 1903: 7,915 tons of coke produced at Crane Creek

1920: Coke ovens shut down at Pinnacle and Crane Creek-better productions methods came along in essence outdating the coke ovens being used at McComas.

1902/3-1920: Total Coke Production

            300,000 tons for Pinnacle
            500,000 tons for Crane Creek 

1904 Petition circulated to have name changed from Mannering to McComas

1905: Petition to request a Post Office for McComas submitted Post Office was moved from Mora to McComas Postal records show that 2,100 residents received mail at McComas

1908 McQuail goes into partnership with American Coal Company which was owned by the Atwater intrests of New York.

Crane Creek & Pinnacle Statistics after the merger: Crane Creek became largest operation in Pocahontas-Flat Top Coal Fields

1926: Crane Creek Production was 662,682 tons of coal

1926: Pinnacle Production was 332,595 tons of coal

1930: Crane Creek Tipple processed 101,000 tons of coal

June 10, 1924 Pinnacle Explosion Disaster and torrential rainstorm which caused physical and property losses.

1925 McComas High School opened its doors

1925 Crane Creek & Pinnacle combine operations: Crane Creek operations/tunnel broke through mountain to Pinnacle Tram Track Tressle was build across highway between Pinnacle and Thomas Pinnacle Tipple torn down and operations combined with Crane Creek using the new tunnel and tram tracks The Crane Creek crew ran the day shift while the Pinnacle crew ran the night shift at the Crane Creek Tipple.

1929 Crane Creek Tipple remodeled The Nation's first air separation coal cleaning plant was build at Crane Creek. This new preparation plant could clean and load 100,000 tons of coal per month.


1940 Thomas Coal & Coke name changed to Virginia B. Coal Company a partnership in the company was started.

1947-1960 Richard O. Cole was Superintendent of the American Coal Company

1948 McComas Theatre and Catholic Church burned

1951 First classes held at the new Pinnacle Elementary School Children from Sagamore, Crane Creek, Windmill Gap, Mora, Conner Mountain eventually came to Pinnacle when their schools (they were reassigned to Mora) and Mora was closed. McComas Elementary School children attend Montcalm Elementary School

1952 Virginia B. Coal Company stopped operations at McComas/Thomas Thomas Company Store remained opened several more years supporting other Virginia B. mining operations.

1952 Recession hit the area A mass exodus began - only a few hundred people remained. Houses were torn down - entire communities vanished

1956 American Coal Company was purchased by Pocahontas Fuel Company's Sagamore operation - their history is outlined in the preceding Sagamore timeline.

1957/8 Thomas Company Store closed and torn down. Sagamore, Crane Creek, Pinnacle Company Stores are torn down.

Shortly after 1960: The McComas Community Center, train depot, shoe shop, Mora (white and black) Elementary Schools were already gone or being torn down. Years later the McComas Post Office was also eventually torn down. A trailer held the Post Office for several years but now the community is on a Rural Route from Montcalm.

March 1958 Consolidated Coal bought the mines from Pocahontas Fuel Company.

1960 McComas High School closed its doors forever Students were bused to Bramwell High School Bramwell is closed now - all these students attend Montcalm High School

1961 McComas High School torn down

Mid 1960s No more Public transportation - buses from Bluefield HALTED their McComas runs. City buses operated hourly in years past. Even a bus ran from McComas to Matoaka (via Conner Mountain, Wyonake, Giatto, Matoaka, on to Princeton and back to Bluefield if you wished - or back across Conner Mountain to McComas)- these bus runs stopped operating in the 1950s.

1984 Crane Creek officially closed. Mine was permanently sealed.