Located in the rugged terrain of eastern Clay County, Widen was built as a coal company town in 1911 by the Elk River Coal & Lumber Company. The company, organized in 1905, succeeded an 1898 association of the same name composed of northern capitalists investing in central West Virginia lumber and coal lands. To extract lumber and coal, the Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad was built 18.6 miles out Dundon Ridge to Widen. J. G. Bradley, fresh out of Harvard Law School in 1904, came to Clay County as vice president of the railroad. L. G. Widen, the town’s namesake, directed the building of the Buffalo Creek & Gauley.
Bradley soon became president of the Elk River Coal & Lumber Company, controlling more than 80,000 acres of land. Practicing ‘‘welfare capitalism’’ designed to attach worker loyalty to him and his company, Bradley built a solid town at Widen. Worker homes, painted company red, were well-constructed. Widen grew to possess a bank, an Elrico company store, schools, and churches, all built by the company. Eventually there appeared a YMCA, a high school, a swimming pool, and a ball diamond with company-sponsored teams.
Isolated in its early history, Widen prospered during the 1920s when West Virginia labor unions had declined. In the early 1930s, the United Mine Workers renewed its drive to unionize West Virginia miners. Strikes at Widen occurred in 1933 and 1941, the latter violent, but Bradley defeated the union. Again in 1952, a bitter strike erupted. Sixteen months later, after one man was killed and friendships and families had suffered severe disruption, the union called off the strike, but the company never recovered. Bradley sold the mines to the Clinchfield Coal Company in 1959; soon it was unionized under the new owners.
Widen continued to produce coal until 1963, when the mine and the railroad ceased operation. Now Widen is largely a ghost town where former residents gather each July on Widen Day to reminisce about both the good times and the troubles.
This Article was written by Lou Athey
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
Cantrell, Betty, Grace Phillips & Helen Reed. Widen: The Town J. G. Bradley Built. Goldenseal, (January-March 1977).
Stewart, C. C. Strike Duty: A State Trooper Recalls Trouble in the Coalfields. Goldenseal, (Winter 1995).
Yeager, Barbara. Mostly Work: Making a Home in Widen. Goldenseal, (Jan.-Mar. 1977).