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Covering some 900 square miles in Mercer, Wyoming, and McDowell counties in West Virginia, and neighboring Tazewell County, Virginia, the rich Pocahontas No. 3 coal seam was first mined by Jordan Nelson, whose backyard coalbank eventually attracted serious interest from the Philadelphia founders of the Norfolk & Western Railway. The N&W completed its line to the Pocahontas, Virginia, location of Nelson’s coalbank in March 1883 and began the rapid industrialization of the region.

Largely owned by the N&W’s Pocahontas Land Corporation, which leased mining rights to independent coal companies, the Pocahontas Coalfield has been one of the most productive in the nation. The low-volatile, low-sulfur, ‘‘smokeless’’ coal originated during the Lower and Middle Pennsylvanian Period and is older and better than most coal found elsewhere in the world. It stood 11 feet thick at Pocahontas, was perfect for making coke for use in steelmaking, and was the chosen fuel of the U.S. Navy during the age of steam. Of the original three billion tons in the field, some 900 million remain.

The exploitation of the Pocahontas No. 3 seam transformed southern West Virginia, creating the cities of Bluefield, Bramwell, Keystone, Northfork, Kimball, Welch, and Gary, and numerous coal company towns. The huge demand for miners in the labor-intensive early years created great racial and ethnic diversity. The U.S. Coal Commission’s 1923 survey showed that 20,000 of West Virginia’s 92,000 miners worked in the Pocahontas region. Twenty percent were foreign-born immigrants, 33 percent African-American, and the remainder native-born whites. The Pocahontas coalfield saw little of the endemic violence of the West Virginia Mine Wars, although union hero Sid Hatfield was assassinated on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in Welch.

This Article was written by C. Stuart McGehee

Last Revised on October 22, 2010


Lambie, Joseph T. From Mine to Market: The History of Coal Transportation on the Norfolk & Western Railway. New York: New York University Press, 1954.

McCulloch, Gayle. 'Poky 3' World's Finest, Coal Geologist Argues. Welch Daily News, 2/24/1984.

Stow, Audley H. Mining in the Pocahontas Field. Coal Age, 4/19/1913.

Pocahontas Operators Association Collection. Eastern Regional Archives. .

Rehbein, Edward A., C. Douglas Henderson & Ronald Mullennex. "No. 3 Pocahontas Coal in Southern West Virginia - Resources and Depositional Trends," Bulletin B-38. West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey, 1981.

Cite This Article

McGehee, C. Stuart "Pocahontas No. 3 Coal Seam." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 October 2010. Web. 20 July 2024.


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