Print | Back to e-WV The West Virginia Encyclopedia

William Purviance Tams Jr.


At the time of his death ‘‘Major’’ W. P. Tams Jr. (May 19, 1883-August 3, 1977) was recognized in southern West Virginia as the last of the old-time coal barons.

Tams was born in Staunton, Virginia, and studied engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. He went to work for entrepreneur Samuel Dixon in the New River coalfield in 1904. With the support of Dixon and J. O. Watts of Lynchburg, Tams launched his own company, Gulf Smokeless Coal, in the new Winding Gulf coalfield in 1908. He established the company town of Tams, Raleigh County, as his headquarters, and later acquired Wyoming Coal Company in neighboring Wyoming County. He invested in other mines as well and was a leader in industry associations.

Major Tams was remarkable in a consolidating industry as a lifelong independent, selling out only at his retirement in 1955. He made Tams and Wyco into model coal camps and was remembered after his death as a benevolent paternalist. Major Tams made his modest bachelor home at Tams in a house no larger than those occupied by most of his miners, his major indulgence a sizable personal library. He authored the book, The Smokeless Coal Fields of West Virginia, and in his later years was often interviewed on the subject of coal history.

Written by Ken Sullivan


  1. Sullivan, Charles Kenneth. Coal Men and Coal Towns: Development of the Smokeless Coalfields of Southern West Virginia, 1873-1923. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.