“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”~ Henry Ford
Henry had a plan; his company had been growing tremendously over the past 15 years, a definite improvement over his first failed business attempt. As a result of Henry’s ingenious ideas about efficiency, he had prospered and was now one of the wealthiest men in the country. But, he still saw room for improvement. After all, he was a tycoon, someone willing to take a risk. And soon, he would be branching into a field quite different from his own, for Henry Ford had his eye on West Virginia.
This is the story of an Englishman and a famous inventor who saw the potential in a piece of land located in the hills of the mountain state along the raging New River, and a ghost town still standing today to bear the tale.
The year was 1870. The Civil War had ended. Plans for the Brooklyn Bridge were complete. John D. Rockefeller incorporated his soon to be famous company, Standard Oil. The United States ratified the 15th Amendment to the constitution giving African-American males the right to vote. Syracuse University was established. The Chicago Base Ball Club, later known as the Chicago White Stockings, and ultimately the Chicago Cubs played their first game against the St. Louis Unions. Old Faithful Geyser was observed and named by Henry D. Washburn. Christmas was declared a federal holiday, and the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in Colorado, connecting the east with the west by rail, tying the knot on industrialism. Times were changing, and Americans of all ages were looking for the next big opportunity.
In Pennsylvania, an English emigrant was about to embark on a new venture. His name was John Nuttall. He had been in America for 21 years coming to these shores across the Atlantic at the age of 32. He started in this new country working in silk mills for almost a decade before he had enough money to purchase some coal mines in western Pennsylvania.
Now, on the verge of this new decade of 1870, John Nuttall was buying up coal-rich lands in the mountains of the newly formed state of West Virginia. Nuttall predicted that the soon to be complete Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad would run right through the valley of the New River, and right along his land. He planned to be ready with freshly mined coal to export on the first train car to pass through.
And so, John Nuttall built his town and opened his room and pillar mine at the mouth of Short Creek on the north side of the New River. The town was named Nuttallburg after its persistent founder, and the Nuttallburg Coal & Coke Company soon began operation. As Nuttall predicted, they were ready to ship coal when the C&O Railroad was completed in 1873. Nuttallburg became the second mining town in the New River Gorge to export the state’s famous “smokeless coal.”
The town, like other numerous coal camps in the area, was racially segregated. White workers lived on the west side of Short Creek and the black workers lived on the east side. There was a separate church and school for each community prohibiting racial mixing in these institutions.
Among the dozens of houses, rows of coke ovens, and solid mining structures that Nuttall built, he also started to expand his land holdings in the area. He eventually built a 7-mile railroad up the canyon to more mines on the headwaters of Keeney’s Creek.
When John Nuttall died in 1897, he owned thousands of acres of land and operated mines providing a job for hundreds of workers and their families.
Between his daughters husbands and his own son, the family continued to run the mine after the death of Nuttall. Due to their combined efforts, the coal community of Nuttallburg continued to grow and was a booming town at the turn of the century.
It was just a mere three years after this turn of the century that another determined pioneer would start his own business in Dearborn, Michigan. In June of 1903, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company. Soon to be world famous, Ford enjoyed the success and popularity of his model automobiles. But, his interests would soon bring him to the banks of the New River along the coal town of Nuttallburg. Fifteen years after he founded his famous automobile company and perfected his assembly line process, Henry Ford sought to further the reach of his company. He wanted to gain control of all aspects of production, a process called “vertical integration.” This included among other things, owning the mine that produced the coal for his steel mills in Michigan.
And so, by 1919, the Nuttallburg mines were leased to Henry Ford, and soon the Fordson Coal Company began operation. Ford went about mechanizing the operations of the mines. He also built a huge “rope and button” conveyor tipple that stretched over 1,300 feet down the mountainside. This new tipple was designed to be more efficient, as was any other part of a Ford operation. It was completed in 1923 and was the largest incline tipple in the world. This tipple still stands today amid the ruins of the town of Nuttallburg.
In the decade of the 1920s, Nuttallburg’s population peaked at 500 residents. It included 2 schools, 2 churches, a powerhouse, company store, clubhouse, hotel, doctor’s office, and a public water system. There was a scalehouse, headhouse, blacksmith shop, carpentry shop, and of course the large tipple. Despite the success of the town and mine, the Fordson Coal Company did not last long in Nuttallburg. Henry Ford sold his interests in the mine in 1928. Ford had come to the realization that he could not complete his goal of “vertical integration” because he could not control the railroads that transported the coal the long distance to Michigan. After Ford abandoned his stake in the New River Gorge, the mine passed through three owners with production declining and ultimately coming to a stop in 1958.
By the early 1960s, Nuttallburg was a ghost town. But it was not forgotten. The town was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. It was bought by the National Park Service and is now a site for hikers and history buffs alike. Travelers and explorers can traverse the winding road from the top of the gorge down to the water’s edge and view what is left of the town of Nuttallburg, the town once owned by automobile tycoon Henry Ford. Not much remains in Nuttallburg but the foundations of several houses and the company store, rows of collapsing coke ovens, forgotten pieces of railway track, and the once state-of-the-art coal tipple.
According to the National Park Service, Nuttallburg today is considered one of the most intact examples of a coal mining complex in West Virginia. In fact, it is one of the most complete coal related industrial sites in the nation.
“Today, Nuttallburg’s mines provide a picturesque setting for the massive sandstone cliffs of Beauty Mountain called the “Endless Wall” by rock climbers. The turbulent whitewater below carries thousands of rafters annually past John Nuttall’s old company town.”William Grafton
The town of Nuttallburg may have been just like any other coal town in the New River Coalfield, but it had its era of fame and success. This small coal camp and mine played a role in the blossoming automobile industry. The Ford Motor Company was built by the furnaces of Ford’s steel mills powered by West Virginia coal. And not only Ford, but dozens of other enterprises were built on the steel forged by the power of Mountain State coal. Nuttallburg today stands as a testament to the impact that the minerals found in the mountains of West Virginia have had on the history and industry of the United States.
Check out this awesome video from the New River Gorge National River.
- Grafton, William N. “Nuttallburg.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. January 24, 2013. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1713
- “Nuttallburg.” Coal Camp USA. n.d. http://www.coalcampusa.com/sowv/river/nuttalburg/nuttalburg.htm
- “Fayetteville, West Virginia: Nuttallburg.” Atlas Obscura. n.d. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/nuttallburg
- “Nuttallburg,” National Park Service. January 06, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/neri/learn/historyculture/nuttallburg.htm
- Jarvis, Robin. “This Abandoned West Virginia Mine Just Begs to Be Explored.” Only in Your State. October 10, 2018. https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/west-virginia/nuttallburg-mining-town-wv/
- “Nuttallburg Coal Mining Complex and Town Historic District.” Wikipedia. May 14, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuttallburg_Coal_Mining_Complex_and_Town_Historic_District
- “Nuttallburg Loop.” Hiking Project. n.d. https://www.hikingproject.com/trail/7018655/nuttallburg-loop
- “Nuttallburg, Henry Ford, and Coal Mining in the New River Gorge.” New River Gorge. November 9, 2011. https://newrivergorgecvb.com/nuttallburg-henry-ford-and-coal-mining-in-the-new-river-gorge/
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