Stone Cliff, West Virginia (1880s-1940s)
Stone Cliff was one of the earliest coal towns in the New River Gorge, located approximately 1.5 miles upstream from Thurmond. By 1883, two drift mines were operating in the gorge wall above the town. The following year, more than twenty thousand tons of coal and coke were shipped to markets both East and West. Today, only the crumbling stone foundations of former structures remain.
Backstory and Context
Established by Noah Jenkins and J.H. Bramwell by 1882, Stone Cliff was among the earliest coal towns in the gorge. Bramwell established the community of Bramwell in Mercer County in 1888. As was typical of the mining operations within the gorge, the mines were located well above the town. The people of Stone Cliff worked in the two drift mines, one into the Fire Creek seam the other 300 feet above the first in the Sewell seam, opened by Jenkins and Bramwell. Coal was moved from the mine to the railroad or the abundant coke ovens near the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad by means of a tramway and monitor cars.
The town site is located at the eastern end of the Stone Cliff bridge, originally constructed in 1928 to replace a ferry that had operated at the same location. It was rehabilitated in 2003. Immediately to the left, after crossing the bridge was the location of. Cavalier stated the town was constructed like many other towns found along the New River, with homes on either side of the main line. Robert J. Jackson and James Laprade, former residents of Stone Cliff, remembers houses on either side of the track, one side for the African-Americans the other for the White. Even though both men are African-Americans and grew up in a segregated society, neither recall overt racism in their daily lives. Both recall that housing in Stone Cliff was without electricity into the late 1940s or early 1950s.
The homes occupied by all miners lacked running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity. Water for drinking came from a spring, water for other purposes came from the river. Cooking was done on a coal burning stove. In the winter, heat was provided by coal. These homes were the typical Jenny Lind style home common to coal towns with a twist. They were four rooms, two downstairs and two downstairs. Many of them had a lean-to type structure on the rear used for cooking and wash in the summer months. The home was heated by a central chimney that featured an opening in each of the four rooms. The lack of electricity in the homes is not an indication that the town was without it. To the contrary, Stone Cliff was home to a power station that burnt coal from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. for use in the extraction of coal.
Mr. Jackson stated the town was not home to coal miners exclusively. Railroad men, like his father and grandfather, and their families also lived within the area of Stone Cliff. The houses of railroad workers were typically two rooms whereas the homes of miners were four. Many of the railroad men, “…worked some extra time there (mines),” so they could live in the larger miner’s house. It was also the location of a turntable for the C&O Railroad, due to its proximity to Thurmond. The remains of this are still intact There are a number of stone foundations of the buildings left for the explorer to uncover.
Racial discrimination pervaded life for black miners and their families throughout the New River Gorge coal fields. One of the most persistent challenges for black families in the area was the lack of local educational opportunities. Stone Cliff offered a one room school with instruction through eighth grade for children of the white miners. Despite African Americans composing no less than 40% of the community in the 1890s and 55.9% of the population by 1900, black children were forced to walk a mile upriver to Claremont in an effort to obtain an education.
The town was home to an African American church located between Stone Cliff and Thurmond. This church hosted the annual travelling minstrel show of Silas Green. This was a popular show among all the denizens of gorge.
Stone Cliff was home to sixty coke ovens at one time. These ovens were used to the volatile material from the coal. The result is a product that burns extremely hot and is desirable in the steel industry. Amazingly, Mr. Jackson related stories of people coming from out of town to work in the mines and rather than return to their homes when the mines were not open they would stay in the coke ovens. The ovens were not in use at this time. As he recalled there were no places close by for the workers to stay so they would set up housekeeping in the ovens themselves.
At its highest the population of Stone Cliff was 520 people in 1910. Due to the mine operations trading hands a number of times during the life of Stone Cliff, the population continued to fall in the following decades. By the late 1920s there was less than fifty men employed in the mine. Mining continued into the 1940s by the Pugh Coal Company. The post office established in 1880 ceased operation in 1948.
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