Join our e-network

The Industrial Era

Much of what is now Tucker County, West Virginia was vast henry g daviswilderness until after the Civil War, when Henry Gassaway Davis, with the help of his brothers, began pursuing the rich coal resources on the banks of the North Fork of the Blackwater River. In 1884, a railroad line was constructed from Elkins to connect to Thomas. Coal from the first deep mine in the area was ready to be loaded by the time the track was completed. By 1892, Davis Coal and Coke Company, a partnership between Davis and S. Elkins, was among the largest coal companies in the world.

An experiment in 1887 determined that the coal was excellent for coking. Two years following the experiment, the company constructed over 500 “beehive” coke ovens along the mile and one-half rail line between Thomas and Douglas. Each year the coke ovens burned for 250 days, producing about 200,000 tons of coke. The group of houses situated near the coke ovens became known as Coketon.

Headquartered in Coketon, Davis Coal and engineering bldgCoke Company reached peak production in 1910. The company controlled 135,000 acres, employed 1,600 men of 16 nationalities, operated two power plants, and worked more than 1,000 coke ovens and nine mines within one square mile of the central office. The nearby Town of Thomas boasted the grandest railway station between Cumberland, MD and Elkins. The Buxton and Landstreet Store in Coketon was considered the finest building in the county, with its white tile bricks, ornamental ceilings, graceful columns and electric lights.

The boom did not last. Due to advancements in refining techniques, coke production in beehive ovens was discontinued in 1912, beginning the area’s slow decline. Some mines remained active through World War II, but by 1950 only two mines were still working -- and Coketon’s population continued to diminish. Underground mining ceased altogether in 1956.

Founded by Henry Gassaway Davis in 1866, the Potomac and Piedmont Coal and Railway stated that its purpose was to "furnish transportation" along with coal mining and timbering. The company was given the right to construct grades in Mineral, Grant, Tucker and Randolph counties.

Prior to the arrival of the railroad, Tucker County was sparsely populated, due in part to the rugged and wild mountain landscape. In fact, the first settlers in the area that eventually became Thomas were not reported until 1880.

In 1881, H.G. Davis’ first line entered into West Virginia, passing through Elk Garden in Mineral County. It became the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway and around this time acquired a great deal of coal and timber lands in present day Tucker County, WV. In 1884, the railroad was constructed along the North Branch of the Potomac River to the North Fork of the Blackwater River at the newly formed town of Thomas.

In 1888, H.G. Davis decided to continue expanding his railroad line southward from Thomas through the rugged Blackwater Canyon to Hendricks.

One year and ten miles later, the Black Fork grade, as it was named, was completed. This was an astonishing feat considering that along the way cuts sometimes hundreds of feet high were made into Backbone Mountain in order to facilitate construction. Other obstacles encountered were deep ravines and several rushing tributary streams. Along the way trestles were often built to keep construction moving, with workers returning later to place fill and remove trestles and build gigantic stone archways to accommodate both the railroad and bridge the mountain streams. Additionally all work was done by hand. It was considered at the time to be a nearly impossible task.

Of the stone culverts constructed, the most impressive is located at Big Run. The culvert at Big Run is estimated to be 60 feet long, with a width of 20-25 feet and height of 30 feet. The culvert at Big Run was known as the site of several wrecks and derailments, mainly because of the severity of the curve which the railroad took at this point.

The Black Fork grade was also known for its steep gradient. The railroad grade climbs 1236 feet over its ten-mile course, giving it an average grade of 2.34 percent. Modern surveys and field tests show that in some locations the grade is slightly more than 3 percent, making this an incredibly steep railroad whencompared to current standards.

With the railroad came industry and expansion. Along the way towns, such as Limerock and Coketon, popped up, as the influx of workers to the coal mines, coke ovens, and timber industry began.

The last train ran along these tracks on September 29, 1983. In 1989 the abandoned grade was converted to USFS Trail 115 for recreational use.

Today, the railroad grade and associated structures from Thomas to Hendricks are known as the Blackwater Industrial Complex. The site has been declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the Keeper of the Register. Many intact cultural remains, especially the coke ovens, make the area distinctive.