Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

September 12, 2012

Coal mining linked a generation of proud families across southern W.Va.

Although my mother shared many stories about my grandparents with me, I never actually had a chance to meet them. Grandfather passed away in 1962, and grandmother in 1967. I wasn’t born until a couple of years later. By that time, man had already walked on the moon.

Mom was in her late 30s when she gave birth to me. At the time, both grandmother and grandfather had already passed on. So I have no actual memories of my grandparents.

I do have plenty of photographs of grandmother and grandfather, and I feel as if I know them, simply based upon the many warm stories mom shared with me about them over the years. Grandfather of course came from Hungary to work in a West Virginia coal mine. His decision to move to America, and to work in the coal mining industry, is the reason my once large Hungarian family took root in McDowell County.

I often marvel at the story of how my grandparents ended up in America, and the many photographs depicting their early life together in McDowell County. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m proud of my Hungarian ancestry. Sure Mom was born in America, and so was Dad, but there is still some Hungarian blood in me thanks to my grandparents.

While visiting mom’s graveside — something I still do on a regular basis — I often marvel at the birth dates of my grandparents, and my uncles and aunts who have since passed on as well. Many — including mom — grew up as part of the Greatest Generation.

Mom never talked much about World War II, and that’s probably because she was only 7 years old at the time. By the time the second great war had ended in 1945, she would have only been 13. Growing up as a child during the war was a topic she simply didn’t discuss with her children.

But I often think about how my grandparents, and mom as a child, lived through this dark period of war in our great nation’s history.  I also wish I knew more about the time grandfather spent underground working in the coal mines in McDowell County in order to support his large family — a wife, seven sons and two daughters. Having to raise and care for a large family during such a difficult time in America’s history couldn’t have been easy. But the coal mines were a constant source of employment at the time for so many.

While coal mining may now be a dirty word in the dictionary of many politicians and environmentalists, such wasn’t the case back in the day. Like it or not, the great regional coalfields are linked to so many families in our region. It’s a part of our history, and our heritage. After all, if it wasn’t for the coal mines in McDowell County, grandfather would have never traveled to America from Hungary.

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Going, going gone.” If memory serves me correctly, this was the photo-caption used for a dramatic aerial photograph captured by veteran Bluefield-photographer Mel Grubb that appeared in the pages of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph more than 20 years ago. The photograph detailed the explosive demolition of the old U.S. Steel’s Alpheus preparation plant in Gary, a historic landmark that stood for many, many years as a powerful testament to the legacy of King Coal in southern West Virginia.

As a kid growing up in McDowell County, I would pass by this large mining operation every morning and evening while riding the school bus from Anawalt to Welch. The towering giant was easily recognized from afar by the large clouds of smoke it would emit high above the sleepy community.

As a youngster, mom would frequently take the family shopping in downtown Welch as opposed to neighboring Bluefield. We would almost always marvel at the large plant as we made the short, but seemingly long, journey from the Anawalt to downtown Welch.

It wasn’t unusual at the time to be stopped at a railroad crossing by a train hauling coal. In fact, there were several railroad crossings where delays were common, including in Anawalt, Pageton and Gary. Today, most of those railroad tracks are gone. The days of being awakened by the friendly bellow of the train whistle is now only a distant memory.

Today, about the only thing you will see occasionally traveling along the path of the old tracks is an all-terrain vehicle.

Its demolition in many ways marked the beginning of a painful downturn for the mining industry in southern West Virginia.

Despite the so-called “war on coal” being waged by some in Washington, the coal industry is still alive and kicking However,  the industry today is still a far cry from the once mighty giant that employed my grandparents, and so many thousands of others, from across southern West Virginia.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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