Monongahela Textile Company
Backstory and Context
On January 1, 1896, “Lot 14” was purchased from the Morgantown Building and Investment Company (MBIC) to build the Monongahela Textile Company; MBIC required that construction begin by April 1 and be completed by December 31.1 The mill owners complied with the specifications set forth by MBIC and began experimenting with machinery, training new employees, and producing woolen cloth by mid-1897. Their first large shipment left on January 28, 1898, for Pittsburgh. That day, The Wheeling Intelligencer reprinted a story from Morgantown’s The Post: “Why Morgantown Rejoices.” The writer noted twenty large cases filled with blankets that had just been completed at the textile mill. The author mentions that two years prior, Morgantown did not have the woolen mill or “glass plant,” --“But that era has passed!”2
Morgantown’s new textile mill had grown on the tail-end of a region-wide movement in the South to industrialize the former agricultural powerhouse. Southern entrepreneurs and investors looked northward to understand how they might make the transition. The South’s abundance of cotton made it the perfect region for new textile technology. Many investors looked to the cotton mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, as a model. In the 1880s and 1890s, Southern merchants and wealthy businessmen believed that textile mills would modernize the South and bring it out of the long depression it had been experiencing since the end of the Civil War. Railroads connected the once divided North and South, cultivating more industry in young states like West Virginia. Between 1897 and 1899, West Virginia boasted five textile mills, employing roughly 330 people, and having invested roughly $140,000. Morgantown’s new textile mill was among those five new operations.3
While no records remain from the Monongahela Textile Company, the histories of other textile mills shed light on what work may have been like for those in Morgantown’s mill. While white men, women, and children all worked in the same facilities, none worked the same jobs. Women were given semi-skilled or unskilled tasks that “required nimble fingers, patience, and attention to detail” while men performed skilled labor. This disparity in jobs within the mill led to greater divisions in wages as skilled labor would always be paid higher than unskilled. African Americans also played a role in textile production, usually confined to “black work” that could easily have been found on the plantations thirty or forty years before. Black men hauling bales of raw cotton from boxcars and wagons into the mill building and refilled the trains with boxes of finished cloth. They also worked in the “picking rooms” of the mill where raw cotton would have the seeds removed so that it could be easily woven. Sunnyside was home primarily to white working class families, both immigrant and native citizen of the United States, some of whom may have worked in the mill. Morgantown’s African Americans may also have worked at the mill. Statistics from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century indicate that textile workers generally worked ten or twelve hour days, six days a week. 4
On February 9, 1898, a fire erupted in Pittsburgh that had a dramatic effect on the Monongahela Textile Company. At 11pm, the Chautauqua Lake Ice Company, a six-story cold storage warehouse on the wharves along the Allegheny River, a fire broke out. By 11:15 p.m., 8,000 barrels of whiskey exploded into an alley, killing eighteen and injuring many of the city’s firefighting crews, policemen, newspaper reporters, and homeowners. The blast caused the fire to spread to a nearby warehouse where 125,000 pounds of Monongahela Textile Company’s wool was stored. After the 1898 fire, the company clung to the banks of the Monongahela River for five more years before closing its doors. In 1903, the deed to the Monongahela Textile Company was signed over to the Bank of the Monongahela Valley. The building then sat empty for two years until the Union Stopper Company (later the Beaumont Glass Company) bought it.5
The original brick mill served as one section of the glass factory until the late twentieth century, when the Beaumont Glass Company closed. Environmental studies done in the 1990s and 2000s determined that much of the property could not be developed unless the land underwent extensive remediation. In 1996, the EPA determined that it was better to demolish the original brick mill, which was carried out in 1998.
While some of Morgantown’s investment companies and university students have tried to create a unique and community friendly way to use the waterfront property, all proposals have come up empty-handed. Some proposals have chosen to highlight the historical significance of the site, using its glassmaking past to potentially draw larger support from the locals who still remember the simple three-story brick building as a business. However, all proposals have been virtually bereft of the building’s previous use as a textile mill, ignoring a portion of Morgantown’s development that is often forgotten. Although only in existence for six years, the Monongahela Textile Company serves as a link to Morgantown’s national connections to the South’s rehabilitation in the decades following the Civil War.
1. Deed of Sale, Monongalia
Co., West Virginia, Deed Book 43, page 415, Monongalia County Courthouse,
2. “Why Morgantown Rejoices,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, January 28, 1898.
3. National Park Service, “Building America’s Industrial Revolution: The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts – Reading One: The Industrial Development of Lowell,” https://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/21boott/21facts1.htm; Jenrette, Jerra "Textile Industry." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 July 2013. Web. http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/706
4. Georgia State University Special Collections, “Southern Labor Archives: Work n’ Progress – Lessons and Stories: Part III: The Southern Textile Industry: Overview,” Georgia State University Library, http://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115684&p=751981.
5. The explosion was covered nationally throughout February 1898. A few examples are: “Fire Fatalities,” The Wheeling Intelligencer, February 10, 1898; “Blown Up,” The Topeka State Journal, February 10, 1898; “In the Morgue,” Los Angeles Herald, February 10, 1898.
"Beaumont Glass Company, Morgantown, W.Va." Photo. Circa 1980s. West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries. Accessed January 2018. http://wvhistoryonview.org/catalog/wvulibraries:5349
Research compiled by Bobby Novak. Edited by Elizabeth Satterfield and Pamela Curtin.