By Reno Bailey
We never gave much thought to that pile of black, dusty stuff under our houses, which fueled our stoves and fireplaces, except that it was such a nuisance to carry it in in the evening, and carry out the ashes in the morning. Little did we realize that coal was vital to our very way of life, and that, from time to time, the town came close to having a coal shortage. There was always great concern within the Company that there was enough coal on hand, and in the pipeline, to keep the mill and railroad running, and the employees warm an comfortable. Charles H. Haynes, the top official for over 40 years, personally kept tabs on the coal situation.
Our supply came from the coal fields of West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, in which we had several agents who kept us informed of the current sources, quality and availability, which depended on a number of factors, natural, social and political. If a vital trestle washed out, or the miners went on strike, or the federal government decided the coal was needed somewhere other than Cliffside, it could put us in a bind.
Thousands of tons of coal were shipped into Cliffside each year (15,000 tons in 1924), hauled by the Seaboard line to Cliffside Junction via Bostic and sometimes Charlotte. Our own engines would hook up to the coal cars and pull them down to the mill and unload them.
On January 8, 1918, Mr. Haynes, president of our railroad, wired in desperation to Seaboard, urging it to expedite our shipments: “Had to stop mill last week account shortage of coal. Will have to stop again after tomorrow unless more coal is received which will mean quite a loss to us, besides 900 hands being out of employment.”
In a follow-up letter to Seaboard on the same day, he wrote, “We are in a very critical shape and if weather continues bad and we run out of coal the water pipes throughout our mill will freeze and cause a big damage…in addition to this, about 900 people will be out of employment, also without fuel.”
It is not clear what caused the holdup, but one of our agents in Huntington, West Virginia, swung into action and helped get five carloads shipped before January was over.
A strike in August 1922 left Cliffside “practically out of coal,” however in March 1924, we urged a mining company in Roanoke to cease and desist. “Please do not make any further shipments of coal until further notice as storage capacity is full,” wrote Z.O. Jenkins, secretary of the CRR.
Interestingly, our railroad would buy the coal and sell it to the mill, as well as to local vendors, such as—in the ‘30s and ‘40s—R.Z. Dedmond, Carves Hamrick, “Tubby” Hawkins and others. During the years of WWII, strict coal allotments were set by the government for the railroad, the mill and the vendors.
A version of this article appeared in the May-Jun 2007 edition of the Cliffside Historical Society’s newsletter.