New River Company General Office Building
The New River Company General Office Building is located at 411 Main Street in Mount Hope, Fayette County. Constructed in 1917, the U-shaped brick building consolidated the management functions of the New River Company into one location and was part of an overall modernization of the company.
Backstory and Context
Work Cited From
United States Department of the Interior
National Park Service
National Register of Historic Places
The New River Company was formed by Samuel Dixon, a native of England. In 1876, at the age of twenty, Dixon left the limited opportunities of his home land for the United States, where the growing coal industry offered places for the ambitious. Dixon had some experience in the Yorkshire coal trade; therefore, upon arrival in the United States he went to work for his uncle as a book-keeper. His uncle, Frederick Faulkner, had purchased a coal mine near Montgomery, in Fayette County, a few years before. Dixon rose quickly in his uncle's mines to become a foreman, the first of several supervisory positions in his early career. Around 1893, Dixon had left his uncle's works and started as superintendent and general manager of the MacDonald Colliery Company, owned by his countryman Symington MacDonald.
Dixon pursued a gradual plan of saving, buying, and saving again in his quest to create his own coal empire. As superintendent of the MacDonald operations, Dixon managed to put away his money, then purchase coal lands at reasonable prices. All the while, he was improving the MacDonald interests. It was Dixon who charted the way into the coke business, which was more profitable than the simple domestic coal business MacDonald had pursued before. Dixon pursued an ingenious policy of using the profits from operating mines to purchase new holdings. Refusing remuneration for his efforts until the operations were profitable, he poured his operation's capital into good, modern mining equipment, well-built railroads, and sanitary worker housing, that guaranteed long term, rather than short term, profits. Dixon also applied English-style management techniques that stressed exhaustive book-keeping and full accountability to top management at all times.
By the early 1900s, The New River field was a patch-work of many independent producers. The trend toward consolidation was a natural shift, spurred on by intense competition and rising costs. It was Phineas W. Sprague, of C.H. Sprague and Co., who sensed the value in joining the several operations together in order to more efficiently supply the national demand for steam coal. Sprague approached investors in the Scranton, Pennsylvania area, and in the Boston area, with the idea of buying and piecing together the disparate elements of the coal field. Sprague used the lure of Dixon's holdings portfolio to prove his thesis that the idea was sound. Dixon's capital, added to that of the Scranton and Boston capitalists, resulted in the creation of The New River Fuel Company on June 17, 1905. The New River Company evolved from the earlier merger a year later, in 1906, and the White Oak Coal Company was established to serve as the sales agent for the associated mines. Two railroads, the White Oak Railway Company, and the Paint Creek & Pines River Railway were company owned, and served to connect the mines to the mainline Virginian Railway and the C&O Railway. Dixon served as president of the newly merged coal interests for only six years. Although his methods were visionary, and his management principles sound, he could not stop an investor revolt in 1912. The result of this event was Dixon's ouster from the leadership of The New River Company. After resigning from the company, Dixon went on to lease a nearby mine, and continued in a smaller, yet still successful, way until his death in 1934.
The present General Office came into existence during the years of modernization that followed the change in management. The new company president, Robert H. Gross, led the company through a series of changes that took advantage of the most modern materials, technologies, and types of organization. Wooden tipples were replaced with steel, new worker's housing was constructed and old stock rehabilitated, and all mines were electrified using power from a new power plant at Cabin Creek Junction on the Kanawha River.
The company selected Mt. Hope as the center of its operations. Mt. Hope had been a slow-growing community prior to the coal boom of the late-19th century. Gradually, the town increased in size, but its growth was stopped short by a fire in 1910 that destroyed forty businesses and one hundred and fifty houses. The fire caused the aggregated loss of five hundred thousand dollars, and left one thousand people homeless. Reconstruction started immediately, using brick, stone, and concrete where once there had been wood. Within two years, most of the town had been rebuilt in a fire-resistant fashion. It was into this spirit of renewal that The New River Company added their building to the town inventory.
Prior to the construction of the General Office building, the management functions of the company had been scattered among the many coal towns. By building in Mt. Hope, the company could consolidate its management functions in one place, thus saving the loss in time and money coping with a widely scattered industrial complex. It helped that the town (incorporated as a city in 1921) was at the center of an expanding network of hard-surfaced roads, thus easing transportation difficulties between the company's far-flung mines and towns. Work on the building moved quickly, with the footprint (with a notation "from plans") indicated on the May, 1917 edition of the Mt. Hope Sanborn fire insurance map. The company followed a similar pattern when it moved its outmoded repair facilities from Carlisle to a plot just to the west of the General Office in 1920. The new facility included a large machine shop for the repair of the company's vast inventory of mining equipment, and a central warehouse that stored spare parts for quick replacement and return to service turnaround times. The new General Office and the nearby shop buildings were solidly constructed from concrete and brick.
Good times continued for The New River Company through the decades of the 1920s and 1930s. The company was often recognized for its paternalistic interest in the well-being of its employees, characterized by the lawn and garden competitions held every year. The company also encouraged safety in its mines by requiring that all employees be certified in first aid and mine rescue techniques, and by engaging in competitions to encourage participation. During World War Two, the company was honored by the National Victory Garden Institute for its fine performance in the 1943 victory garden drive. The New River Company employees did their part in the total national production of 8,000,000 tons of food for the victory garden movement.
In 1940, The New River Company secured its immediate future by purchasing 20,000 acres of minable coal from the McKell heirs. This accomplishment was joined by the inauguration of forest conservation activities to secure future timber needs, and the expansion into strip mining, a method of exploiting coal reserves that was new to the company. The decade of the 1950s witnessed changing fortunes not just for The New River Company, but for the coal industry as a whole. Deep mine automation, strip mining, and the advent of the Diesel locomotive reduced the need for coal as the decade went on. Coal usage for industrial and domestic use likewise diminished. Ever so slowly, the company began to retrench, but in the early 1950s, the company's eventual demise in the 1980s must have seemed remote, indeed.