The Industrial Era
Much of what is now Tucker County, West Virginia was vast wilderness until after the Civil War, when Henry Gassaway Davis, with the help of his brothers, began pursuing the rich coal resources on the banks of the North Fork of the Blackwater River. In 1884, a railroad line was constructed from Elkins to connect to Thomas. Coal from the first deep mine in the area was ready to be loaded by the time the track was completed. By 1892, Davis Coal and Coke Company, a partnership between Davis and S. Elkins, was among the largest coal companies in the world.
An experiment in 1887 determined that the coal was excellent for coking. Two years following the experiment, the company constructed over 500 “beehive” coke ovens along the mile and one-half rail line between Thomas and Douglas. Each year the coke ovens burned for 250 days, producing about 200,000 tons of coke. The group of houses situated near the coke ovens became known as Coketon.
Headquartered in Coketon, Davis Coal and Coke Company reached peak production in 1910. The company controlled 135,000 acres, employed 1,600 men of 16 nationalities, operated two power plants, and worked more than 1,000 coke ovens and nine mines within one square mile of the central office. The nearby Town of Thomas boasted the grandest railway station between Cumberland, MD and Elkins. The Buxton and Landstreet Store in Coketon was considered the finest building in the county, with its white tile bricks, ornamental ceilings, graceful columns and electric lights.
The boom did not last. Due to advancements in refining techniques, coke production in beehive ovens was discontinued in 1912, beginning the area’s slow decline. Some mines remained active through World War II, but by 1950 only two mines were still working -- and Coketon’s population continued to diminish. Underground mining ceased altogether in 1956.
Today, the railroad grade and associated structures from Thomas to Hendricks are known as the Blackwater Industrial Complex. The site has been declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the Keeper of the Register. Many intact cultural remains, especially the coke ovens, make the area distinctive.
For more information about Blackwater Canyon History, please visit www.saveblackwater.org.