The Fairmont Coal Company Story
Founded in 1820 by Boaz Fleming, Fairmont, West Virginia, is located midway between Morgantown and Clarksburg. It is the seat of Marion County, which was formed in 1842 from Harrison and Monongalia Counties. During its heyday in the early 20th century, Fairmont was home to 100 millionaires who prospered in the town largely because of the coal fields, which were connected to the Eastern Seaboard markets by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Fairmont Coal Company’s roots lie in and near Fairmont with James Otis Watson (1815—1902).
He successfully pioneered West Virginia coal development and thereby earned the title of the “Father of the Coal Industry” of the Upper Monongahela Valley.
In 1852, he purchased a spread of 14 acres of coal land in the Fairmont region of northwestern Virginia (West Virginia since 1863).
One of James Otis Watson's early coal mines, located in Fairmont, West Virginia
When the B & O Railroad was laying its tracks through the Fairmont area in that year, he put his investment to use and opened up one of the first coal mines, called the American Coal Company, in what is now in the city limits of Fairmont.
A close-up of the West Virginia map and its explanation illustrated above
From there, along with his sons, he energetically pushed this and his other enterprises with tact and keen foresight. Therefore, his coal mining operations continued to grow enormously thereafter. He was a hard worker who knew every department of his coal-mining operations from the lowest to the highest; and by dispensing with unnecessary clerks and officers he cut expenses to the minimum and realized a handsome profit annually.
When asked by a large coal corporation's representative from Baltimore, then a competitor of the Watson coal mining business, how it was that he could make money and successfully operate his mines, when his corporation had difficulty in making a profit in its large mining operations, Watson remarked that while “you have large offices in the east, a salaried president, secretaries, clerks, and a mule boss and a mine boss, I am my own president, my own secretary, and my own mule boss and mine boss, and carry my office in my hat.” This illustrates Watson’s strong motivation, self-reliance, and acute entrepreneurship, qualities often found in a rich businessman.
Most of the coal lands here belong to J. O. Watson's northern West Virginia coal companies
Before his death on June 12, 1902, his 50 years of wheeling and dealing in the coal industry culminated in the formation of the Fairmont Coal Company the year before.
His son James Edwin Watson, who had for 17 years been instrumental in carrying on the business, containing practically all the coal operations in the Fairmont area, pushed through the deal.
He had been one of the original stockholders and promoters of the Montana Coal & Coke Company. Before the F. M. & P. railroad was completed, he and others had purchased small tracts of coal at Montana, located near the Monongahela River; and on July 7, 1886, with only a few men and J. C. Gaskill in charge, grading began for the necessary sidetracks to transport coal and possibly coke from this region to the main railroad line.
The Montana mine was originally opened to try to compete with Connellsvill, Pennsylvania coal supplying coke to the Pittsburgh and Wheeling steel mills, and later experimentations proved the quality of its bituminous coal was of coke-making quality. So this venture really fired up coke-making industry in the Fairmont region.
Profits from this mine allowed Watson to invest further in the coal industry. And, on July 1, 1890, he managed to buy, at a forced sale, in front of the Marion County Courthouse, the entire property belonging to the West Fairmont & Marion Consolidated Coal and Coke Company, which then owned the West Fairmont, Marion, and Shaft mines.
A 1910 Ebay postcard, one of Watson's traction company's trolleys is near the Courthouse
All three had been abandoned and allowed to fill up with water at the time. He then organized the West Fairmont Coal & Coke Company, which successfully worked the mines for decades thereafter. Profits from this venture allowed Watson's company to purchase the New England mine from the New England, Fairmont & Western Gas Coal Company in 1894.
This company had built an expensive railroad and bridge across the West Fork River and worked the mine a short time and then abandoned it, allowing the railroad and mine improvements to go to wreck.
Improvements inside of the New England Mine tipple included new dumps and car hoists
After the West Fairmont Coal & Coke Company bought the mine, it rebuilt the railroad, erected a coal mining town named New England, and made other improvements to the mining operation.
Automatic coal screening replaced child labor, still commonly used on Pennsylvania tipples
An outside view of the Watson's improved New England tipple beside the power-house
Then it reopened the mine.
Full cars exiting and empties entering one of Watson's New England coal mines
As a result, Watspm's modern New England Mine became the largest coal producer in Marion County, West Virginia. Watson also secured a portion of the Gaston Gas Company and the Briar Hill Coal & Coke Company.
A Consolidation Coal Company compressed-air motor at a Georges-Creek-Maryland mine
These four companies would eventually form the nucleus of the Fairmont Coal Company, which would later merge into the Consolidation Coal Company, and finally develop into today’s Consol Energy.
Nevertheless, returning now to James E. Watson, we find that in 1895 he went on to help organize and later become president of the Bank of Fairmont, which later became the National Bank of Fairmont.
He also assumed the presidency of the Watson Company, owners of the Watson building, in which was located the National Bank of Fairmont, the offices of the Consolidation and other coal companies and corporations, including the Fairmont & Clarksburg Traction Company, Fairmont Gas & Light Company, and Fairmont Chamber of Commerce.
The Fairmont & Clarksburg Traction Company was later known as the Monongahela West Penn System
He managed all the Watson coal interests until his health failed in 1899, when he released control of the business to his brother Clarence Wayland Watson,* who, the following year, promoted the family’s interests further by forming, with the help of a few New York capitalists, the Fairmont Coal Mining Company.**
The June 18, 1901 issue of The New York Times plastered the news across its pages with the large headline: “BIG DEAL IN COAL MINES,” and attached a smaller one reading “Fairmont Coal, a New Corporation, Acquires 36 Plants*** in the West Virginia District.”
The special to The New York Times went on to report:
“FAIRMONT. West Va., June 17.—The Watson coal interests, associated with a few capitalists from New York whose names are not yet given out, to-day consummated a new organization which will be known as the Fairmont Coal company, with a capital of $12,000,000. Four million dollars in bonds were issued, and have practically all been placed.”
Among the 36 mines were the Montana and Aurora of the Montana Coal and Coke Company, the New England shaft of the West Fairmont Coal and Coke Company, and six separate mines of the Monongah Company.
The infamous Monongah No. 6 plant—whose coal mine would blow up six years later—is displayed above and below on these postcards recently auctioned off on Ebay.
After listing all 36 coal companies, which included the New England, Chieftain, Enterprise and Gypsy mines, illustrated below, The New York Times added:
Watson's Chiefton tipple, barn, and railroad cars in West Virginia circa 1903
Watson's Enterprise coal-mining operations in West Virginia circa 1903
Watson's Gypsy mine and miners' village in West Virginia circa 1903
“In addition to the above, the company now owns 1,450 miners’ houses, 5,800 individual cars, 5,000 acres of surface land; and owns and controls 60,000 acres of the best coal in the district. The annual output will exceed 6,000,000 net tons, and the company will have a monthly pay roll of $250,000.”
Two years later, C. W. Watson purchased control of the Consolidation Coal Company from the Baltimore & Ohio Company, merging the Fairmont Coal Company and the Somerset Coal Companies into the Consolidation Coal Company.****
* He would eventually would become a United States Senator and by 1920, the President of Consolidation Coal Company.
**Miller, Thomas Condit . West Virginia History. Vol. 3. pp. 45, 46; New York, NY, USA: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1913.
***The full list provided by The New York Times reads as follows: “Montana and Aurora of the Montana Coal and Coke Company; Gaston of the Gaston Coal Company; New England and Shaft of the West Fairmont Coal and Coke Company; Fernum Hurry, Enterprise, Beechwood, Gipsy, Maulsby, Harbert, Viropa, Solon, Glen Falls, and Durham of the Briar Hill Coal and Coke Company; Meadow Brook, Uhlen, Melrose, Worthington, Luther, Lynch, and Reynolds of the Hutchins Coal and Coke Company interests; Chieftain, Columbia, Ocean, Highland, and Anderson of the Highland Coal and Coke Company; Palatine of the Palatine Coal Company, Monongah, with six separate plants of the Monongah Company; and Middleton of the Middleton Coal and Coke Company, making a total of thirty-six modern plants.”
****The historical records are a little murky and contradictory, to say the least, in regards to whether Fairmont Coal Company purchased Consolidation Coal Company or it was the other way around. For example, in Extracting Appalachia, Images of the Consolidation Coal Company 1910-1945, Geoffrey L. Buckley wrote: “By the first years of the twentieth century, Consolidation Coal was ready to expand beyond the confines of western Maryland. According to a 1926 company history, Consolidation purchased the Millholland coalfield, near Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1902. Additional acquisitions were made in 1903, including the purchase of the Fairmont Coal Company of West Virginia and the Somerset Coal Company of Pennsylvania. These ‘purchases’ were in no way the simple transactions the term suggests. With respect to the Fairmont Coal Company, for example, historians Richard B. Drake and John Alexander Williams note that Maryland and West Virginia entered into interstate agreement that permitted Consolidation Coal to ‘absorb’ the Fairmont Coal Company, headed by Clarence Watson. After Consolidation absorbed Fairmont Coal, Watson relocated to Baltimore, where he took control of Consolidation Coal. Mergers such as these permitted Consolidation to increase production significantly, from approximately 1.3 million tons in 1900 to 8.4 million tons in 1903.” Perhaps, just saying the companies merged is the best way of resolving the problem of who bought out whom in regards to Fairmont and Consolidation Coal Companies.
This page was last modified on Tuesday, January 19, 2016