Polish immigrants were among the earliest and most numerous of the many ethnic groups that poured into West Virginia during the first two decades of the 20th century. Attracted to the job opportunities being created by the state’s rapidly growing industrial sector, Poles and other Eastern and Southern Europeans were recruited by agents of state government and the private representatives of mines, mills, railroads, and factories.
By 1908, Poles were the third-largest immigrant group working in the West Virginia coal mines. At that time, apart from native whites and African-Americans, only Italians and Hungarians were represented in the mines in greater numbers. In several mining communities, such as Raleigh in Raleigh County, Scotts Run in Monongalia County, and Whipple and Carlisle in Fayette County, Poles were the largest ethnic group. Polish immigrant miners were evenly distributed throughout the coalfields. Of the ten leading West Virginia counties with significant concentrations of Polish miners, five, led by Marion County, were in the northern part of the state and five, led by Fayette County, were in the south.
Polish labor also supplied a significant part of the work force in several areas of manufacturing. Poles were particularly important to the production of iron and steel products in Wheeling and Weirton in the Northern Panhandle. Moreover, Poles made up the largest part of the work force that made Charleston’s Kelly Axe factory (later True Temper) at one time the largest producer of axes, hatchets, and related hand tools in the world.
Whether they were coal miners or factory laborers, Polish workers in West Virginia fit the classic pattern of the so-called ‘‘birds of passage’’ immigrants who were single males or married men without their wives who intended to return to the old country as soon as they made their fortune. However, as more Poles made the decision to stay and their numbers swelled to almost 15,000 by 1930, ethnic institutions sprang up to serve them. A Saint Ladislaus Catholic Church was established in Wheeling, while in Weirton the Sacred Heart of Mary served a large Polish and Italian community. In some places, outdoor grottos such as Our Lady of Grace in Wheeling were constructed for special services. Furthermore, Polish fraternal organizations, athletic clubs, musical aggregations, and especially polka societies dotted the landscape.
Like many immigrant groups who came to West Virginia, some Poles left the Mountain State for opportunities elsewhere or returned to their homelands. Nevertheless, still vibrant strains of Polish-American culture remain, especially in the northern-industrial sections of the state.
This Article was written by Fred A. Barkey
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Fones-Wolf, Ken & Ronald L. Lewis, eds. Transnational West Virginia. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2002.
Rice, Otis. Charleston and the Kanawha Valley. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Pub., 1981.
Barkey, Fredrick A. Immigration and Ethnicity in West Virginia. West Virginia History: Critical Essays on the Literature. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Pub., 1993.
Cite This Article
Barkey, Fred A. "Poles." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 October 2010. Web. 24 March 2017.