Coal Mining Heritage Park and Loop Trail
Coal Mining Heritage Park and Loop Trail is located at mile five of the Huckleberry Trail between the Town of Blacksburg and the Town of Christiansburg. This park features a 1.5 mile loop trail, mining artifacts, open green space, and six distinct biozones. The former Merrimac mining community resided on the 28 acre tract east of Price Mountain, which hosted a mining tipple, hotel, general store, and residential housing for the coal miners. An ADA accessible trail leads to the old mining entrance and some of the old foundation. Look for historical markers and educational signage that give a glimpse into the past.
The Coal Mining Loop Trail officially opened November 17, 2010. The trail was designed and built by approximately 15 volunteers from the non-profit organization Pathfinders for Greenways. The trail crew volunteered 1,935 hours to finish the trail project. The new trail addition is 1.5 miles and is designed to meet International Mountain Bike Association standards to accommodate bicyclists, joggers, walkers, and trail users. There is a quarter-mile section designed to be accessible for wheelchair users.
The park is located at Merrimac (next to the intersection of Merrimac and Hightop roads) and stretches for 0.6 mile south along the Huckleberry Trail. If you are driving from Blacksburg, you can reach the park by turning right onto Hightop Road (just north of the hospital), turning left onto Merrimac Road, crossing the bridge and immediately turning right.
History of Mining in Merrimac
During the Revolutionary War from 1776-1783, Great Britain hired Hessian soldiers from Germany to aid in the war effort. Once the war was over, many of these Hessian soldiers became citizens of the newly formed United States and settled in Montgomery and Floyd counties. One of the soldiers, Jacob Broce, is credited with the discovery of coal in Merrimac. This led to the opening of numerous mines around Price Mountain, enhancing the local economy and leading the way in coal extraction and metallurgy. Family mines and small commercial mines continued to serve the area for more than 100 years, primarily for smelters of iron, blacksmiths, and farmers. The coal from the Merrimac mine was renowned for its quality, and became famous when it was used in 1862 to power the ironclad Merrimac in its Civil War sea battle against the Monitor.
Beginning of Commercial Mining
Commercial-scale mining at the Merrimac Mine opened in 1903. This was made possible by the Virginia Anthracite Coal and Railway Company (VAC&R) receiving a right of way around Price Mountain to the station in Cambria, which was operated by Norfolk and Western Railway Company. Within this contract the VAC&R was required to also construct a railway spur to the Town of Blacksburg, which is the original trailhead location of the modern day Huckleberry Trail. In addition to moving coal, this rail spur was well known for hauling passengers to and from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
With the investment from the VAC&R, the Merrimac Mine became the most important mine in the county, with approximately 150 miners employed. Dwellings for the miners were built north of Lick Branch within one-half mile of the mine in what became known to local residents as Bunker Hill. A commissary was built near the mine to sell food and supplies to miners and their families, and a post office was added later. A two-story company hotel provided lodging to new miners and visitors. The mining operation received a telegraph line, of which even Blacksburg did not have until a few years later.
In 1909 the Merrimac Mine was flooded from the waters of Lick Branch. As a result, the mine closed due to the high cost to pump the water out of the mine.
The Prosperous Years
The Merrimac Mine remained closed until the beginning of World War I, when an increased demand for coal made it profitable to pump the water out of the mine. Miners flocked to work in Merrimac again, as the miners' pay was the highest in the county. A number of the miners at this time were immigrants from middle Europe.
In 1917 the Merrimac Anthracite Coal Company became the new operator. However, the costs to reopen and operate were higher than anticipated, and the lease contract was transferred to the Virginia Coal Mining Company within the year. By 1922, the mine was operated once more by the Merrimac Anthracite Coal Company with new investors from New York. At this time, the mine tipple contained the latest technology designed to break, size, wash, and store the coal via automated processes. The coal mined at Merrimac was renowned for its high quality, and operations were very prosperous during the 1920s.
The End of Mining at Merrimac
Demand for coal decreased during the Great Depression of 1929-1933, causing the Merrimac Anthracite Corporation to declare bankruptcy. Miners had to search for work elsewhere to support their families.
The Merrimac Mine changed operators to the Morgan family under the Merrimac-Morgan Company, and by late 1933 the mine was back to 150 employees. This optimism was short lived however, and promises of upgraded equipment went unfulfilled. The United Mine Workers of America organized the employees, leading to strikes when demands for wages and hours were not met. Competition from two non-unionized operations in Montgomery County and competition from Pennsylvania made the requests impossible, according to the Merrimac-Morgan Company.
Operations ceased in April 1935, and the Morgan family abandoned the Merrimac Mine. An individual, Frank Thomas, leased the mine from Brush Mountain Coal Company to mine the coal remaining above the water line. This process removed the pillars holding up the rock ceiling of the mine, forever closing it to future activity. Over time, the mine was filled with water and left back to nature.
Brush Mountain Coal Company began selling the remaining piles of slate and coal dirt in 1946, a process which was completed by the early 1990s.
Mining at Price Mountain was considered again briefly during the oil shortage of the early 1970s. The Geology Department at Virginia Polytechnic and State Institute worked with Brush Mountain Coal Company, and it was ultimately decided that the venture was not promising. The property was deemed better suited for real estate development than coal mining.
Resources and Further Reading
Berrier Jr., Ralph. "Coal-Dust Memories - Montgomery County's Mining Legacy Has Been Chronicled in a Book by Radford University Students" Roanoke Times, 18 April 1997. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/VA-news/ROA-Times/issues/1997/rt9704/970418/04180030.htm Accessed 22 April 2021.
Freis, Robert. "King of the Mountain For Most of His Life, Albert Dobbins Has Lived Off and On Price Mountain" Roanoke Times, 7 July 1996. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/VA-news/ROA-Times/issues/1996/rt9607/960707/07080003.htm. Accessed 22 April, 2021.
LaLone, Mary B. "Merrimac Coal Mining Heritage Park Project, 1999-2000" Radford University, http://mlalone.asp.radford.edu/Merrimac_Coal_Mining_Heritage_Park.html. Accessed 22 April 2021.
Proco, Garland. Merrimac Mines - A Personal History. Blacksburg, VA, Southern Printing Inc., 1994.