ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF VIRGINIA'S NEW RIVER VALLEY: FOCUS 1984
by Harold W. Mann Radford University
Radford, VA 24142
1884 was a good year for Southwestern Virginia, as developers saw it. As for all the Southern Appalachians, profitable development was in the works especially for the mineral resources. Local entrepreneurs without much apprehension had, particularly during the preceding five years, enticed well-heeled outsiders into the act. Advertisement of the coal reserves of the New River Valley went back eleven years, when the New York-owned C & O railroad completed its trunk line via Hawk's Nest overlooking the river in West Virginia downstream.  A heady realization that an iron industry using local ores of Western Virginia might someday rival Pennsylvania's had alerted outsiders even earlier, in 1867. A Philadelphia group, primarily Quakers, bought iron land southeast of the New in Pulaski County, Virginia, to erect a charcoal furnace with what were then modern proportions and technology.  The zinc ore in 1884 was being used, as it had been for four years, in a smelting operation organized by a Massachusetts firm in 1879. The ore was mined at Falling Cliff southeast of the river and near Barren Spring(s) in Wythe County, and smelted at the Bertha works in Martin's Station (now Pulaski), on the railroad in the neighboring county.  The railroad at the time of organization in 1877 had been the British-owned A, M & O; in 1884 it was the Philadelphia-owned Norfolk & Western.  Access to many markets via the railroad was the key to development.
Virginians who had been using the iron, and local coal, for decades perhaps were most surprised at what seemed like global interest in Virginia's ore reserves. Pre-Civil War furnaces, which dotted the landscape, were being built up. In Giles County, a furnace east of Newport reached the peak of its business selling pigs in 1872, just before the depression of the 1870s.  The Philadelphia Quakers who bought land in 1867 abandoned a Laurel Creek furnace and built a new Mack's Creek Furnace for their organization, called the Radford Iron Company though in Pulaski County, about a mile from the river (and opposite the old settlement of Draper on the other side).  In Wythe County the New River and its tributaries were the sites of numerous old furnaces. Among the best known were Graham's forge, on Reed Island Creek, and the Speedwell furnace, many miles up Cripple Creek.  As a Wytheville mining engineer, C. R. Boyd, wrote in 1881, the region was "making a wide and favorable reputation for the almost fabulous quantity of its iron ores and the extent of its fine coal fields, to say nothing of the ores of zinc, lead, and other minerals." 
There was, as near Mack's Creek Furnace, a bit of the admired red hematite ore, but most of what the mining engineers found was called limonite, or brown ore, embedded in clay; in ante bellum days the ore had been roasted to separate the iron. The 1880s method of preparing it for the furnace was to "wash" it.  With the American iron and steel industry burgeoning in the generally prosperous 1880s, agents of speculators and investors were delighted to find brown ore on the northern slope of Draper Mountain; up Little Reed Island Creek on the southeast side of the New (not to be confused with Heed Creek); at Foster Falls practically on the river; and at Painters, farther up and northwest of the river beyond Austinville. Austinville was of course the old lead-processing center, and adjacent to a zinc belt coexisting with lead in Pulaski and Wythe Counties. 
Coal used for the zinc works in Pulaski City came from Cloyd's Mountain in northern Pulaski County. It would also be used in the new iron furnace built at Central, to be renamed Radford. The Belle Hampton mines there belonged to the Hoge family. A future governor of Virginia, James Hoge Tyler, five years after 1884 would become the chief developer of the eastern half of Radford, where the N & W yards spread out on the flood plain near a sharp bend of the New. Not coincidentally, in 1889 he would also become Lieutenant-Governor.  The concentrated coal resources that attracted investors who wanted to use it in the East centered on the Flat Top Mountain section of West Virginia, west of the New downstream. Some knowledge of these riches was shared in England and Northern cities when in 1872 local entrepreneurs planned a new railroad spur from Central Depot downriver to Giles County, then paralleling the Virginia-West Virginia border to what after 1881 became Pocahontas, Virginia. By 1882 a group of Philadelphians had secured control of the proposed spur and it became the New River Division of the N & W. 
This spur, and the promise of other access to the mineral riches, caused excitement in the period 1880-1885, and in later cycles. The transportation barrier to commercial possibilities was being met; "after the Civil War the U.S. Government dredged and blasted a boat, channel from Max [sic] Creek to Radford and some iron was sent down the river to Radford on flat boats [and on to Lynchburg and Richmond], but the expense of getting the boats back up the river was so great that this venture was soon abandoned."  Fifty years after 1884 a man named Kersey remembered that "The iron I hauled I loaded at the [Mack's Creek] furnace in my wagon and hauled it across the ferry to Dublin [on the railroad] and unloaded."  The Radford Iron Company which owned the furnace experimented with mule-drawn cars on a tram road, and after they leased the furnace in 1880, vainly encouraged the N & W to build its second spur, headed for the Wythe County iron-lands across the mountainous terrain from Radford in a southwesterly direction directly to the Radford Iron Company's furnace.  With this prospect fading, the President of the company in 1884 joined with both local and other outside entrepreneurs to buy iron lands closer to the river, and west of it, and also at Peak Knob, overlooking Pulaski City. 
This move was made in 1884 because a Pulaski County man had persuaded the N & W, two years before, that the easiest route to the upper New would be on relatively level land from east of Pulaski City south to the river on its western bank, crossing the river to reach Allisonia, the mouth of Reed Island Creek, Foster Falls, and Austinville. The complete plan for the Cripple Creek spur, completed in four years, would extend the road, crossing once again to the west bank to a modern furnace at Ivanhoe (at Painters), then up Cripple Creek to reach both the Speedwell furnace and new developments south of the creek on the slope of Iron Mountain.  The N & W, like the mineral developers, knew of plans to extend a railway from Danville west to the New Rivernever fulfilledand another to extend a North Carolina railroad from Mt. Airy to Ivanhoe; that would materialize.  Rail access to the Midwest market was also anticipated.
In 1884 the primary existing market for the pigs of the new furnaces was the East. In that year eleven furnaces in Virginia shipped over 70,000 tons of pigs, via rail and ships. New furnaces, some using charcoal, some coke by a new technology, operated at Little Reed Island Creek Radford, Ivanhoe, and north of the James River west of the Blue Ridge.  With northern Alabama behind western Virginia in developing its iron resources, and considerably behind in shipping to the East, Virginia iron threatened the "McConnellsville" competition in Pennsylvania in a year of ups and downs in the market. Apparently an attempt was made in the summer of 1884 to keep the price up with a national pooling arrangement; with its break down, Virginia iron was really threatening to dominate the market by the end of the year. The London Economist saw fit to editorialize:
Virginia iron, however, much of it from Wythe County, continued to sell well into the late 1880s, so much so that speculation in limonite lands and sites for industrial towns, notably in the Holston Valley and at Radford, reached its peak in the three years before the 1890s depression. At the same time the Cranberry furnace 20 miles west of Boone had its greatest promise.  The same period brought a British company into development of Middlesborough, Kentucky, and the breakthrough in processing of the red hematite ores in the vicinity of Birmingham, Alabama.  Interest and excitement about Virginia's iron ores peaked about 1901, when the state was fourth in production.  A local entrepreneur who learned the method of the "big boys," George L. Carter, of Carroll County, was a principal organizer of the Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company just before the turn of the century, and a huge holding company building a new rail outlet and the industrial city of Kingsport before World War I. 
But a genie, or a god, would have known, even in 1884, that the expectations for Virginia's iron and zinc were exaggerated. Virginia's brown ore, its scattered locations, its remoteness in terms of railroad access, its management by relatively small operationsthese did not "fit" the emerging iron and steel industry in the age of Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the U.S. Steel giant organized in 1901. What later would be seen as modest-sized furnaces, lined with tile, in the 1880s came to use coke, the coke produced by a Belgian technology brought first to the Hawk's Nest area and then to the Flat Top and other coal regions.  The speculative era of the 1880s in Virginia resulted in new furnaces which "blew in," and in a few months would "blow out" because of the mineral "impurities" associated with the iron treated. Virginia iron had high percentages of phosphorous, manganese, and sulphur. Of course, given the right technology, and enough money, these, too, had commercial possibilities. In Augusta County, north of the James River, in the 1880s, where the manganese was itself relatively concentrated, outside investors developed the country's largest manganese plant.  An "acid plant" processing sulphuric acid flourished at Pulaski City until the Great Depression. 
In the 1880s though, idle months, and the expense of relining with tile were blights on the expectations. In Western Virginia, the most damaging of the "blow outs" occurred in 1884 for the Victoria Furnace, then considered a monster. Owned by the Iron and Steel Association of Virginia, Limited, a British corporation which also developed the Mr. Carbon Coke Company at Hawk's Nest, the Victoria performed beautifully during many months of 1882, then went out of blast in April, 1884. The market was slow during the months of expensive relining.  Within the next three years the Alabama industry flourished, using the less difficult red hematite ore, and Victoria's backers retreated to the coal operation in West Virginia. 
Despite being ahead of Alabama during the mid-1880s, Virginia had gotten a late start in benefiting from British investment money because of an embargo until 1880 watched over by that country's Council of Foreign Bondholders. Whereas the Alabama government worked out an advantageous arrangement for the bondholders, in effect giving them a railroad and mineral lands, Virginia's Readjusters in the late 1870s threatened the bond-funding formula which had pleased the British.  In anticipation of the political defeat of the Readjusters the British interest in Victoria ensued in 1882. 
In a sense, the boom in coal prices and the stability of coal-selling for the coal railroads worked to blight the iron industry in Western Virginia. Increasingly the coal of the Flat Top, and other West Virginia regions, as well as from the Cumberlands, could be sold to heat homes and fire factories.  From 1887 until the First World War, the N & W, the C & O, the L & N which came into Southwestern Virginia, and later the Clinchfield and Virginian railroads had managements desirous of this coal trade.  (The coal resources of Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski, and Wythe Counties, Virginia were not extensive enough to attract much attention. The advent of the Virginian railway did revive some interest in Montgomery's anthracite before 1914.) 
The iron industry in Western Virginia nevertheless held up remarkably well in the first decade of this century. The scattered nature of the ores, and Daniel Imboden's failure to interest the Pittsburgh steel barons in the area, probably were critical factors. After 1910 Virginia's iron industry took a plunge. As an example, the owners of the Mack's Creek furnace after 1903 gave up on significant use of the iron and zinc ores, and decided to sell off the timber and, later, gain a few dollars for their stockholders by leasing a route for an electric power line. 
The level of promise had changed drastically in the twenty-five years since 1884. In that Gilded Age year, the railroad had built a handsome Maple Shade Inn in downtown Pulaski City, to house the numbers of examiners of the possibilities of the "Industrial Region."  "Southwest Virginia. . . [was] attracting the attention of British capitalists."  At Staunton mining engineer Jedediah Hitchcock's publication, The Virginias, stirred up global awareness of the iron resources of the New River Valey in Virginia.  In Wytheville, mining engineer C. R. Boyd was still sanguine about commercial benefits for both local and outside investors.  It is not, at this distance, possible to know how the natives responded to the exclamations of promise. They had participated, truly, in "development," cutting trees for the charcoal furnaces, driving wagons with pig irons to the railroad stations, and shoveling the grading of mountainsides for a growing network of railroad mainlines and spurs. In 1885, the level of disinterest of some of the natives was observed with some pique, by an outsider writing for the Baltimore Manufacturers' Record. This publication was a major booster of social progress for the South through accommodation to the wishes of the men with money, and their agents. He wrote:
1. Oscar Lewis, The Big Four, The Story of Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, and Crocker, and of the Building of the Central Pacific (New York, 1938), pp. 63-69, 82; Cerinda W. Evans, Collis Potter Huntington, Huntington, Vol. II (Newport News, 1954), p. 517; Charles W. Turner, Chessie's Road (Richmond, 1956), p. 139; David Lavender, The Great Persuader (Garden City, N.Y., 1970), pp. 244-94.
2. Radford Iron Company records, 1872-1942, MSS in Radford University Archives, pp. 3-63; Ted Dalton, "The College Forest and Mining Properties," The Radford Review, Vol. III (April 1949), 7-12; E. Pierce Whitman, Pulaski County, A Collection of Articles (Radford, n. d.), pp. 15-16.
3. Jedediah Hotchkiss, ed. The Virginias, A Mining Industrial & Scientific Journal, Devoted to the Development of Virginia and West Virginia (Staunton), Vol, I (March 1880), 39-40; Vol. III (June 1882), p. 85; C. R. Boyd, Resources of South-West Virginia, Showing the Mineral Deposits of Iron, Coal, Zinc, Copper and Lead... (New York, 1881), p. 73; C. R. Boyd, Wythe County, Va., With Part of Pulaski County, map (Philadelphia"Wytheville", 1888); Thomas L. Watson, Mineral Resources of Virginia (Lynchburg, 1907), pp. 451-58.
4. The (London) Economist, Vol. (June 12, 1880), 688; (August 21, 1880), 979; (November 20, 1880), 1364; Vol. XXXIX (January 22, 1881), 108; (April 2, 1881), 419; (April 9, 1881), 453; (April 23, 1881), 513; Joseph T. Lambie, From Mine to Market, The History of Coal Transportation on the Norfolk and Western Railway (New York, 1954), pp. 29-31.
7. Charles Boyd, "Resources of South-West Virginia. . .," in James R. Presgraves, ed., Wythe County Chapters (Wytheville, 1972), pp. 38-47; J. A. Whitman, The Iron Industry of Wythe County from 1792 (Wytheville, 1942; originally, 1935), pp. 82, 91-94,100.
10. Boyd, map, Wythe County; Conway H. Smith, The Land That Is Pulaski County (Pulaski, 1980), p. 325; Watson, Mineral Resources of Virginia, pp. 448-51; Whitman, Iron Industry in Wythe County, pp. 82-100.
12. Thomas Bruce, South West Virginia and Shenandoah Valley. . . (Richmond, 1891), pp. 53-71; also see Jerry B. Thomas, "Coal Country: The Rise of the Southern Smokeless Coal Industry and Its Effect on Area Development, 1872-1910," University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) Ph.D. dissertation, 1971, pp. 68-78.
16. Howard C. Gilmer, Pulaski, to Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company, Sept. 22, 1926, Va. I, C & C Co. Records (typed copy); Acts and Joint Resolutions by the General Assembly of the State of Virginia. . . (Richmond, 1884), pp. 716-19.
18. Henry V. Poor, Manual of the Railroads of the United States . . . . (N.Y., London, 1884), p. 389; (N.Y., London, 1885), pp. 382-83; (New York) Commercial & Financial Chronicle, Vol. L, Investors' Supplement, (May 31, 1890), pp. 26-27.
19. The Virginias, Vol. I (March, 1880), p. 40; (July, 1880), 104; (October, 1880), 149-51; (November 1880), 165, Vol. II (January 1881), 13; Vol. III (April 1882), 52; Vol. IV (November 1883), 166; Manufacturers' Record, Vol. 5 (July 26, 1884), 686; Vol. VI (December 6, 1884), 520.
21. The Economist, Vol. XLIII (March 14, 1885), 6-7; (November 7, 1885), 1355-56; (November 14, 1885), 1386-87, Poor's Manual (1884), p. 489; Manufacturers' Record. Vol. 7 (Mar. 28, 1885), 200; (April 11, 1885), 296; (June 13, 1885), 551; (October 3, 1885), 237.
24. Joyce Carter, "George L. Carter of Southwest Virginia," Radford Review, Vol. VI (January 1952), 16-17; oral testimony, John Alderman, Hillsville, Va., transcribed 1980; Commercial & Financial Chronicle, Vol. LXXX (January 7, 1905), 118-19; (January 14, 1905) 224; (January 28, 1905), 474; Vol. LXXXIII (July 21, 1 906), 155; [Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and City of Kingsport "Kingsport in beautiful East Tennessee", p. 8
26. The Virginias, Vol. II (May 1881), 69-72; Watson, Mineral Resources of Virginia, p. 414; Thomas L. Watson, Biennial Report on the Mineral Production of Virginia. . . 1911 and 1912. Bulletin No. VIII of the Virginia Geological Survey (Charlottesville, 1912), p. 5.
28. The Virginias, Vol. II (March 1881), 52-53; (May 1881), 84; (August 1881), 119; (September 1881), 134; Vol. IV (February 1883), 19; (August 1883), 134; (October 1883), 164; Vol. V (April 1884), 53.
29. Ibid., Vol. VI (April 1885), 48; (May 1885), 75; Thomas, "Coal Country," pp. 105-12. Vol XXVI (June 29, 1878), Vol. XLI (March 10, 1883), 286; (March 24, 1883), 353; 50 p. 776; Vol. XLII (January 19, 1884), 75.
32. Maury Klein, History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (New York, 1972) pp. 279-80; Lambie, From Mine to Market, pp. 284-72; Lewis, The Big Four, pp. 121-22; Commercial & Financial Chronicle, Vol. XCVIII, Railway and Industrial Section (February 28, 1914), 27, 138.
33. Boyd, Mineral Resources of South-West Virginia (1881), pp. 15-17; Marius Campbell, and others, The Valley Coal Fields of Virginia . . . (Charlottesville, 1925), pp. 3, 130 ff; Watson, Mineral Resources of Virginia, p. 44-338.
1. Published Works.
Armes, Ethel. The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. New York, 1973; originally, Birmingham, 1910.
Boyd, C[harles] R. Resources of South-West Virginia, Showing the Mineral Deposits of Iron, Coal, Zinc, Copper and Lead. . . New York, 1881.
Bruce, Thomas. South West Virginia and Shenandoah Valley. . . Richmond, 1891.
Campbell, Marius, and others. The Valley Coal Fields of Virginia. . . Charlottesville, 1925.
Evans, Cerinda W. Collis Potter Huntington. 2 vols. Newport News, 1954.
Klein, Maury. History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. New York, 1972.
Lambie, Joseph T. From Mine to Market, The History of Coal Transportation on the Norfolk and Western Railway. New York, 1954.
Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, N.Y., 1970.
Lewis, Oscar. The Big Four, The Story of Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, and Crocker, and of the Building of the Central Pacific. New York, 1938.
Poor, Henry V. Manual of the Railroads of the United States. . . New York, London, 1868; 1884; 1885.
Presgraves, James R., ed. Wythe County Chapters. Wytheville, 1972.
Research Committee, Giles Co. Historical Society. Giles County, Virginia, HistoryFamilies. Marceline, Mo., 1982.
Smith, Conway M. The Land That Is Pulaski County. Pulaski, 1980.
Turner, Charles W. Chessie's Road. Richmond, 1956.
Watson, Thomas L. Biennial Report on the Mineral Production of Virginia. . . Bulletin No. VIII of the Virginia Geological Survey. Charlottesville, 1912.
______. Mineral Resources of Virginia. Lynchburg, 1907.
Whitman, J. A. The Iron Industry of Wythe County from 1792. Wytheville, 1942;. originally, Wytheville, 1935.
II. Government Publications.
Acts and Joint Resolutions Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Virginia During the Session of 1883-84. Richmond, 1884.
The United States of America, Petitioner, vs. Appalachian Electric Power Company (1939). Transcript of record in 3 vols. 1940.
The Commercial & Financial Chronicle. New York. Vols. L-XCVIII (1890-1914).
The Economist. London. Vols. XXXVI-XLVII (1878-1889).
Manufacturers' Record, A Weekly Review of The Iron, Steel, Metal & Hardware Trades. Baltimore. Vols. 5, 6 (1884-1885)
[Hotchkiss, Jedediah, ed.] The Virginias, A Mining, Industrial & Scientific Journal, Devoted to the Development of Virginia and West Virginia. Staunton. Vols. IV (1880-1884). Only six volumes published, through 1885
Gay, Thomas Edward, Jr. The Life and Political Career of J. Hoge Tyler, Governor of Virginia, 1898-1902. University of Virginia Ph.D. dissertation, 1969.
Thomas, Jerry B. Coal Country: The Rise of the Southern Smokeless Coal Industry and Its Effect on Area Development, 1872-1910. University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) Ph.D. dissertation, 1971.
Oral testimony, transcribed. John Alderman of Hillsville, Va., 1980.
Radford Iron Company letterbooks, 1896-1907. Letterbook #1, 1896-1899. Radford University Archives.
Radford Iron Company records, 1872-1942. Radford University Archives.
Howard C. Gilmer, Pulaski, to Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company, Sept. 22, 1926. Typed copy of Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company records. Radford University Archives.
Boyd, C. R. South WestVirginia and Contiguous Territory, Mineral Resources and Railway Facilities... Philadelphia ("Wytheville"), 1891.
______. Wythe County, With Part of Pulaski County. Philadelphia ("Wytheville"), 1888.
U. S. Geological Survey Maps:
Austinville, Va. Washington, 1965.
VI. Articles and Brochures.
Carter, Joyce, "George L. Carter of Southwest Virginia." Radford Review, Vol. VI (January 1952), 16-17.
Dalton, Ted, "The College Forest and Mining Properties." The Radford Review, Vol. III (April 1949), 7-12.
[Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and City of Kingsport]. "Kingsport in beautiful East Tennessee." 8 pp.
Whitman, E. Pierce. Xeroxed pages from Pulaski County, A Collection of Articles. Radford, n. d. Radford University Archives.
Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009