To accommodate workers, coal companies built towns from scratch, often in a matter of weeks.
Company towns exist across the country; however, the southern coalfield company towns are distinctly West Virginian. When the railroads arrived, southern West Virginia primarily was a mountain wilderness, with a smattering of small towns such as Beckley, Madison and Aracoma (later renamed Logan). Coal companies had to build towns and houses for their miners in some of the most isolated areas of the region. By 1922, nearly 80 percent of West Virginia miners lived in company houses.
Coal companies stripped down the forests to erect simply designed houses, schools and churches, all within close proximity of the mines. The towns followed the branch lines of the C&O, N&W and Virginian railroads. To cut costs, almost all miners’ houses were built identically, often of cheap materials. Since most towns, such as Mohegan, were built in isolated areas, miners and their families were totally dependent on the companies for all services. Some companies took much better care of miners and their families by building swimming pools, movie theaters and parks. Houses in these model towns included indoor plumbing, electricity and sewer systems.
All life in company towns revolved around the company-owned store. Since these towns were located in isolated areas, the company store offered the only option for buying groceries, mining tools and other goods. Most company stores also contained the local post office and payroll office. As the only store in town, companies were not threatened by competition. They often charged exorbitant prices compared to what people in cities paid for the same items. Company stores could provide anything a miner and his family might need, ranging from washing machines to shoes to medicine. Most miners eventually earned enough to buy cars, which allowed them to visit local service towns such as Welch, Beckley, Bluefield, Logan, Madison, Mullens or Williamson.
African Americans and various immigrant groups typically were forced to live in separate sections of company towns. For African Americans and European immigrants, the company towns were a culture shock. Racial and ethnic violence occurred in a number of communities. To maximize productivity while maintaining peace, coal companies tried to keep a balance in numbers among native whites, blacks and immigrants—a “judicious mixture,” as dubbed by operator Justus Collins. Blacks attended different churches and schools. In addition, blacks and immigrant groups formed their own cultural institutions and fraternal orders.