This former mining town is more than a symbol of the West Virginia coal industry—it’s a window into the transformation of a nation.
The New River, geologists tell us, is quite old. And as with many ancient things, it has collected many legends. Like the claim that the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world, second only to the Nile. Or that the Shawnee once called the New the Keninskeha, which meant “river of evil spirits.” Regardless of whether those stories are factual or fool’s gold, one story you often hear when locals talk about the river is true: that here, along the banks of the New, fortunes were made and lost, boomtowns sprang up and withered, and the industrial revolution made its indelible mark on West Virginia.
The New River has long rushed past human civilizations of all kinds, undeterred. But during its relentless push through ancient rock, it also unearthed one of the most unique resources in the region—a mineral that would spark national attention.
Talk of this strange mineral led 53-year-old Pennsylvania mine owner John Nuttall to a little tavern near the New River Gorge around the year 1870, according to Nuttall Family LLC, an organization of John Nuttall’s descendents dedicated to preserving their family history. There, Nuttall found lanterns glowing brightly with an oddly pure fuel—what turned out to be a bituminous, or soft, coal that burned so clean it was dubbed “smokeless.”
“John Nuttall was one of the first investors in the area,” says Leah Perkowski-Sisk, a park ranger with the National Park Service who’s been introducing tourists to the area for more than 20 years. She says what’s most surprising to visitors is how successful the community around the mine became, despite its remote location. “It’s still a really inaccessible part of the landscape. Even today, the road is very narrow, one lane. It’s not meant for two vehicles or larger vehicles like RVs.”
In Nuttall’s time, when the only way down to the river would have been on horseback or foot, the idea of building a mine, let alone a town, would have seemed even more impossible. But Nuttall, like the New River that coursed below, was undeterred.
Take a look into Nuttall’s history and you’ll understand why. Born in Accrington, England, in 1817, he began working in mines to support his mother and siblings after his father died. He was just 11 years old but he kept up with the adult workers and quickly became an expert. The experience set the tone for the rest of his life, and in 1849 he moved to what was quickly becoming the coal-mining center of the world, the United States. There he made enough money to pay for his family to join him within the year. With his growing fortune and business acumen, he was later able to start his first mine, in Pennsylvania: Nuttallville. But he didn’t stop there.
When the C&O Railway opened a new route through the New River Gorge in West Virginia, rumors sprang up that an untouched coalfield had been opened in the area. And in that tavern near the New River, Nuttall learned that the same “smokeless” coal the locals burned in their lanterns came from a nearly four-foot-thick seam running just above the railroad. The opportunity was too good to pass up. Nuttall purchased land for $1 per acre and set up his mining operation in record time. The mine and its surrounding community, which he dubbed “Nuttallburg,” was complete and projected to produce as much as 500 tons of coal per day, fueling factories and industries across the nation and sparking new towns and businesses across Appalachia, before the C&O line was even completed.
Nuttall was so far ahead of his competitors that, by the time the railroad began shipping in 1873, he made almost instant profits. “Nuttallburg was one of the earliest completed mines, and it was the second mine to ever ship coal out of the gorge,” Perkowski-Sisk says.
Drawn to the prospering coal industry in the New River Gorge, immigrants and freed African American slaves found lucrative employment and opportunities in towns like Nuttallburg, which, in just the first year of operation, was already swelling its ranks. “By late 1873 and early 1874, there were two mine sites at Nuttallburg. They’d built 17 two-family dwellings and 81 one-family dwellings with roughly 125 miners employed,” Perkowski-Sisk says.
Although the town had no good roads—the railroad was the only reliable way in and out—the people of Nuttallburg were well-connected. A resident of a mining town along the New River could hop on the C&O Railway at the Nuttall Depot and be in Chicago in less than a day. Newspapers like The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune arrived daily, and fresh seafood from Norfolk, Virginia, was fairly easy to come by.
“It would have been much like a community today. Anything they needed was there, from grocery stores and businesses to churches and schools. They even opened a post office in 1893,” she says. “They were self-contained communities. Any sense of isolation that we think of, looking at the gorge today, wasn’t what they experienced.”
In 1882 Nuttall created the Nuttallburg Coal & Coke Company, dividing ownership up among his family and mine boss. Profits were so good, according to the Nuttall Family LLC, that John Nuttall stopped requiring his partners to pay him royalties 12 years later, considering the obligation paid.
Along with profits, the community blossomed. In 1893 more than 300 souls called Nuttallburg home. John Nuttall died four years later, but the mine chugged on under the guidance of Nuttall’s family for more than three decades.
Most mine owners knew and accepted the boom and bust cycle of the coal industry. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a mine owner could expect around 30 years of profitable return before mining ran so deep into the earth that transporting the coal would become too expensive. It was no surprise when the Nuttall family sold its mine in 1919. What was surprising was who took an interest.
Henry Ford, automobile giant and millionaire, took over the business and eagerly came to visit a year later, touring every inch and gaining insights from miners and residents. Although the city newspapers poked fun at the magnate’s decision, Ford had big plans. “It was his goal to control all the aspects of production for the automobile industry. They called it vertical integration,” PerkowskiSisk says.
Within two years, Ford had instigated a major overhaul of the operation. He abandoned pick mining completely and ran four mining machines nonstop. Even with only 49 men on a 30-plus-year-old mine, Ford was able to extract 45,000 tons of coal a year.
He also improved the technology. As the coal seam Nuttall had set his operation on was nearly 600 feet above the river corridor and the railroad that would transport said coal, and bituminous coal was notoriously soft and breakable, Ford brought in state-of-the-art technology at great cost to carry the coal safely down the mountain. By 1926 he’d installed a long, sturdy conveyor—1,385 feet long, one of the longest ever built—that carried the coal to what became known as the Henry Ford Tipple, a structure that allowed the loading of coal onto train cars.
Despite all the modernizations, and even with a doubling of output, Ford’s efforts to control all aspects of production failed. The railroad was one factor even he could not wrestle into submission. “He could get the coal out of the mine, but to actually transport it to his factories once it left the mine was too challenging. He just didn’t have control of railroad schedules.”
Ford sold out in 1928. The mines saw a succession of other owners. But, with the business unable to compete with new, more advanced mines, Nuttallburg’s post office closed in 1955, its mines closed in 1958, and the Nuttall Depot shuttered in 1962.
The New Beginning
There Nuttallburg sat, relatively undisturbed, for decades, collecting birds’ nests and leafy vines. Meanwhile, for 53 miles along the New River, from Hinton past the New River Gorge Bridge, a new national park was being created. “Any kind of national park has to have national significance,” says Dave Bieri, district supervisor for the National Park Service. “The river, and the whole gorge, was important because of its history with coal mining and because this is the longest, deepest gorge in the area. The forest itself is one of the largest unfragmented forests in the eastern United States. The area is important habitat for many endangered species and migrating animals. So they established the New River Gorge National River in 1978.”
And right within the boundaries of the newly drawn, 70,000-acre park was Nuttallburg. Thankfully, the descendents of John Nuttall, who still owned the property where the business once sat, saw the significance of their ancestor’s achievements and transferred ownership of the property to the park service in 1998.
Since then, Nuttallburg’s history has been protected and promoted by the National Park Service. From investing millions in stabilizing the tipple and conveyor to fighting the ever-encroaching vegetation to creating fun trails and informational signage to help visitors explore the area, the park service is working to keep alive the memory of a tiny town that helped fuel an industrial revolution. “That’s one of the things places like Nuttallburg do: Through preserving them, we are educating future generations and giving them a tangible tie to their history,” Perkowski-Sisk says. “It’s not
just about the New River Gorge. It gives you insight into the transformation of the entire country through the industrial revolution to today.” nuttallfamilywv.com, nps.gov/neri
This story was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
written by Mikenna Pierotti
photographed by Carla Witt Ford