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W.Va. mining, manufacturing began a sharp decline in the 1980s

bY Gerald D. Swick

CORRESPONDENT

Mining and manufacturing declines hit W.Va. in the 1980s

Editor's Note: The Clarksburg Exponent and Telegram and WBOY-TV have teamed up to bring you the "Top Stories of the 20th Century," a 10-part series that profiles major events over the past century and gives our readers and viewers the opportunity to select the top 10 stories of each decade and the top 100 stories of the century. This is another part of the series.

Coal Mining Falters. When oil prices soared in the 1970s, coal regained its national prominence and many West Virginians found well-paying jobs as miners again, but in the 1980s several events combined to turn the coal boom into a bust. By 1982, petroleum prices had plunged. New nuclear power plants began operations, and innovations in the Japanese steel industry contributed to a rapid decline in demand for coal, according to "Coal in My Blood," by Fred R. Toothman.

American Electric Power, the nation's largest consumer of coal, stockpiled fuel in anticipation of a miner's strike in 1984 that never materialized, according to an Associated Press story by Martha Bryson Hodel in The Exponent, Dec. 29, 1985. With vast reserves, AEP purchased little coal during the middle of the decade. The one bright spot for the state's mining industry was demand for low-sulphur coal in industries that were under orders to reduce emissions believed to contribute to acid rain. Only 46 percent of the state's licensed mines operated in 1985; normally, 75 percent would have been producing coal. Employment fell from 40,041 workers in 1984 to 31,548 during October 1985.

-- Decline of Manufacturing. While the mines were reducing employees, job opportunities in manufacturing also declined. Factories were consolidating or moving operations to foreign countries where low wages and few governmental regulations allowed greater profit. When Weston's Colonial Plate Glass burned on May 23, 1975, the plant was not rebuilt, former "Yesteryears" columnist Bill Adler, Sr. said. In Stonewood, Pittsburgh Plate Glass closed and McNichol-Martin China Co. virtually stopped production during the 1970s. Westinghouse cut employees in Fairmont. The final straw for North Central West Virginia came when the Newell Co. announced in 1987 it would close the Anchor Hocking glass plant in Clarksburg. The state had loaned $2.5 million to the plant in 1979 with the understanding it would provide jobs for 20 years, according to an Oct. 14, 1987, Exponent article. Congressman Bob Wise railed against the practice of corporate restructuring, common in the 1970s and 80s, in which companies acquired other companies then closed less profitable sites to recoup expenses from the acquisition.

On Oct. 31, The Exponent reported the state had filed a $614 million lawsuit against Newell Co., and Newell filed a $30 million countersuit. The Wall Street Journal covered the story on March 8, 1988, reporting the plant closing cost 942 jobs. Local stories said the closing effectively cost the area's economy $100 million.

Drastically curtailed employment in manufacturing and mining cost the state millions in the 1970s and 80s. Gov. Jay Rockefeller ordered a $22 million cut in government spending, according to Dec. 11, 1982 news reports. Census figures show West Virginia lost 8 percent of its population between 1980-1990, the most of any state.

-- Stonewall Jackson Lake. A dam for flood control on the West Fork River and to create a recreation area in Lewis County "had been proposed and opposed since the 1930s," according to "Lewis County, West Virginia," by Joy Gregoire Gilchrist and Charles H. Gilchrist. A 1953 report resulted in 20 more years of controversy, but eventually families, 10 cemeteries, an elementary school and other structures were moved and 6.5 miles of Rt. 19 relocated to make way for the lake. Dam construction cost $208 million, but it is estimated to have prevented $25.6 million in damages during the 1985 flood alone, according to information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Today Stonewall Jackson Lake recreation area encompasses 20,451 acres.

-- 2,000 Year Flood. A flood spawned by Hurricane Juan struck the state Nov. 4 and 5, 1985, after several days of rain. Archeological evidence indicated it was the worst in 2,000 years, according to a Dec. 27, 1985, article in The Exponent. The eastern half of the state suffered $500 million in damages. Most of Philippi was under water. The West Fork crested at 18 feet in Clarksburg, and residents had to boil water for drinking; 56 homes were destroyed in the county, according to "Killing Waters," compiled and edited by Bob Teets and Shelby Young. A closure over a penstock at Stonewall Jackson Dam tore away, and rumors spread that the dam had broken, according to Adler. Weston was isolated. Three people died in Upshur County. Nine bridges were affected by the waters in Randolph. Sixteen homes were destroyed in Doddridge. Tucker County was hit hardest: 275 homes destroyed, another 92 condemned and 50 public buildings destroyed. Marion and Taylor counties suffered the least damage in North Central West Virginia, with only one home destroyed in each. Marion received its wettest year of the decade four years later when 54.33 inches of precipitation came within four inches of the county's all-time record, according to a Jan. 29, 1990, news report.

-- Olympic Gymnast. Fairmont's Mary Lou Retton was trailing Romania's Ecaterina Szabo in the individual all-around finals of women's gymnastics at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Two back-to-back "perfect 10" performances later, Retton emerged with the gold medal around her neck, scoring 79.175 out of a possible 80. Two months earlier, a doctor had told Retton her Olympic dream was over because of cartilage chips around her knee. She was more than a winner; she was the darling of the Summer Games. Pohla Smith, writing for United Press International on Aug. 5 that year, described Retton's Olympic performance by saying, "She grabbed (the world) by the throat and made it her own magic kingdom . . . with her gutsy, come from behind gold medal victory . . ." "Sports Illustrated" magazine recently (Vol. 91, No. 25) placed her Number 2 on a list of West Virginia's 50 greatest athletes.

-- Pro Football Hall of Fame. The same year Retton triumphed at the Olympics, the athletic efforts of another Marion County native were honored. Farmington High School graduate Frank "Gunner" Gatski was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played for the Cleveland Browns during their glory days of 1946-1949, when the team went 47-5-2.

-- Pruntytown Industrial School Closes. In 1982 the state Department of Corrections announced plans to close the Pruntytown Industrial School for Boys. The youth rehabilitation center had been in operation since the 19th century, originally known as the West Virginia Reform School. Closure threatened to harm Taylor County's economy, and area legislators vowed to fight to keep the facility open. Complicating their efforts was a Dec. 10 news story that four employees had been suspended for handcuffing and shackling a boy at the school for 15-20 hours. Today the old reform school is home to the Pruntytown Correctional Institution where selected adult offenders are rehabilitated prior to release. An additional 128-bed housing unit opened there in 1999.

-- Rails to Trails. As mines and manufacturing plants closed and interstate highways became the primary means of ground transport, railroads shut down many rail lines in the state. Doddridge County lost its rail service in 1985, 128 years after the first trains arrived. Dick Bias of Ritchie County led the movement to find a use for the 61 miles of abandoned track between Wilsonburg and Walker, leading to the development of the North Bend Rail Trail, according to "The Track Record Commercial Atlas 1999-2000," by the North Bend Rails to Trails Foundation, Inc. Old tracks were torn out and replaced with level, surfaced trails for hiking, biking, bird watching and other activities to draw visitors to the area. Rails to Trails programs in Harrison and Marion counties are resulting in tourism dollars. Mike Satterfield, co-owner of the Old Town Depot restaurant in Mannington, said of the trail, "Weekends used to be terrible. Now they are my best days . . . I get a lot of business off the trail."

-- Memorable Winters. Several winters of the 1980s saw extreme cold and deep snow in the North Central area. Christmas 1983 brought severe cold (minus 26 degrees at Snowshoe), just one year after the warmest Christmas, according to information provided by Ken Batty, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston. January 1985 dropped the mercury to minus 36 at Snowshoe. The entire month of December 1989 was frigid with average temperatures in the teens or 20s, rivaling the bitter Decembers of 1917 and 1963. The winter of 1985-1986 saw record snowfall at Elkins, 123.7 inches, only the second time the city had received over 100 inches. April 3-5, 1987, brought the greatest April snow storm since 1928, dumping one to two feet from the mountains to the Ohio River.

-- Fairview Mine Deaths. Five men died in an accident at Consolidation Coal's Loveridge Mine Preparation Plant near Fairview, Marion County, on Feb. 6, 1986. Unlike most accidents, which claim the lives of miners engaged in extracting coal, these victims were three mining engineers, a project engineer from a mine contracting firm and a vice-president of operations for that same firm. The five were standing on a coal pile when it collapsed, according to news reports.

-- Owen W. Davis Day. The nation's capital honored a Randolph County native in 1986 according to Don L. Rice's "Randolph 200." Owen W. Davis, born in Elkins in 1916, was saluted for his 33 year-career with the Washington, D.C., Police Department. He became the first black officer to head a police precinct in the city and rose to Deputy Chief of the Department, "the highest rank ever achieved by a black in the Metropolitan Police Department," Rice wrote. The District of Columbia proclaimed Oct. 28, 1986, as "Owen W. Davis Day." He had retired in 1973.

-- Doddridge County Jail Closes. In 1987, the Doddridge County Jail closed after 50 years of service. The old building was taken over by the county's historical society and converted into a museum preserving many eras of the area's history. The upper floor remains as it appeared during its years as a jail. A new regional jail is presently being built in Doddridge County, projected to open in 2001.

-- Salem-Teikyo University. On July 28, 1989, financially troubled Salem College announced it would merge with Teikyo University of Japan to form Salem-Teikyo University. The merger revamped the school's curriculum and offered Japanese students an opportunity to study at a university in America influenced by educational leaders from their own country. The unique arrangement was an outgrowth of efforts to attract Japanese investments in West Virginia.

-- Philippi Bridge Burns. Ever since the first land battle of the Civil War was fought at Philippi on June 3, 1861, the covered bridge there has been a national landmark. Known as the Monarch of the River, the bridge had witnessed the battle and survived numerous floods, but on Feb. 2, 1989, a tanker truck caught fire, severely burning the structure. Local preservationists started a $1.4 million restoration project; two years later, the Monarch was restored to its original appearance, according to the City of Philippi's tourism brochure, "The Restored Philippi Covered Bridge."

-- WVU v. Notre Dame. West Virginia University's football team went undefeated and untied in the 1988 season. On Jan. 2, 1989, the Mountaineers met Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title, the only time WVU has played for that honor. The team's offense was led by the potent passing-running threat of sophomore quarterback Major Harris. On the third play of the game, Harris suffered a slight shoulder separation, according to news reports. A national television audience and 74,211 spectators -- a record attendance for the Fiesta Bowl -- saw the 'Eers lose 32-21.

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