Starting in Bramwell and extending over forty miles, the West Virginia coal fields became extensive in 1873, contributing to Bramwell's affluence. The Pocahontas coalfields alone employed 100,000 miners and brought a great deal of wealth to the town. At one point, the Norfolk & Western railroad stopped at Bramwell fourteen times a day. The Historic Bank of Bramwell served as the financial center of southern West Virginia and was reputed to be the wealthiest bank per capita in the United States. Its janitor, Henry Wade, regularly transported bags of money via wheelbarrow down the town's brick-paved streets to the nearby train depot. Unfortunately, the Great Depression of 1929 led to the collapse of the Bramwell Bank.
In 1886, the Pocahontas Coal Company was established as the marketing arm for the coal fields serviced by the railroad, with offices situated in Bramwell. The town's population grew rapidly, reaching 4,000 by 1896, while the N&W had completed lines into McDowell County by 1897, expanding mining activities. The Flat Top field boasted thirty-eight mines by 1895, and Bramwell became the hub of commerce and finance for the coal mines. The Bank of Bramwell, founded in 1889 by James Mann and with his cousin I.T. Mann as its cashier, was instrumental in the town's growth. Mann himself controlled all of the lands of the Flat Top Coal Land Association, which he eventually sold to the N&W Railroad at a considerable profit. At the height of its prosperity, Bramwell counted seventeen millionaires among its residents.
At one point, Bramwell was the only town in the United States of comparable size to have three post offices (Bramwell, Freeman, and Cooper) within its limits. The Office of the Postmasters' General in Washington D.C. indicates that Joseph H. Bramwell was the first postmaster when the Bramwell Post Office opened on August 14, 1883. Joseph H. Bramwell, the town's namesake, was an engineer from Staunton, Virginia who surveyed the Pocahontas Coalfields with Captain I.A. Welch in 1873 before working as the general manager of the Crozier Coal and Coke Company. When the Bank of Bramwell was established in 1889, Joseph H. Bramwell was appointed as its first president on May 1, 1889. Official Post Office records indicate that he served as the first postmaster in Bramwell from August 14, 1883 until May 1886.
Bramwell, lovingly referred to as the "Town of Millionaires" gained notoriety for having the highest number of millionaires per capita in the United States during the late 1800s, with as many as thirteen residing in the town during the early 20th century. This wealth is evident in the magnificent homes that still stand today.
BRAMWELL, a History
Pre-American Civil War
After the War
1881 - 1885
1886 - 1887
1893 - Turn of the Century
Into the 20th Century
The mountainous terrain of southern West Virginia around the now-known town of Bramwell was historically a deterrent to original Euro-American settlers. During the 19th century, this area lacked proper roads and was sparsely populated. Narrow trails meandered through the area, dotted occasionally by the lone cabin or sometimes by a tiny cluster of cabins, separated by as many as eight miles. The original settlers primarily relied on subsistence farming to sustain themselves and the occasional blacksmith would extract coal from nearby deposits to use in his trade. During the Civil War, Virginians ventured into the region and took notice of the abundant coal deposits exposed along the banks of streams that had carved through the mountainous landscape.
Following the war, a group of individuals dispatched investigators to assess the area's timber and mineral resources. Major Jedediah Hotchkiss and Captain I.A. Welch conducted surveys encompassing 480 square miles of the Wilson-Cary-Nichols land grant, which dated back to the Revolutionary War. They discovered remarkable indications of coal along the course of nearly every river and stream they surveyed. The reports submitted by these men between 1871 and 1873 sparked interest among potential investors from Virginia and subsequently from Philadelphia. It became evident to all involved that the success of any mining venture relied heavily on the establishment of transportation systems to transport the coal to markets. Consequently, early development efforts focused not only on acquiring land but also on constructing railroads. After the Civil War, the owners of the Wilson-Cary-Nichols land grant lost their ownership rights due to their failure to pay West Virginia state taxes. In order to fund schools, the state decided to sell the lands, coinciding with the time when Hotchkiss and Welch's investigations revealed their significant mineral value. Thomas Graham, a resident of Philadelphia, was one of the early individuals to acquire these coal lands. Interestingly, during the same period, Graham also gained a controlling interest in the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad (AM&O), a railway initially established by a group of Virginians to access the previously untapped coal fields. Graham played a pivotal role in redirecting the focus of coal field development from Virginia to Philadelphia. Eventually, the AM&O Railroad fell into the hands of E.W. Clark & Company, a Philadelphia bank, due to foreclosure. Among the partners of this bank were Clarence H. Clark and Frederick J. Kimball. They successfully transformed the AM&O into the Norfolk and Western Railroad (N&W) with the help of capital from Philadelphia and British investors. This new venture enabled them to acquire additional coal lands, including those originally surveyed by Jedediah Hotchkiss and those previously purchased by Thomas Graham.
In 1881, E.W. Clark & Company founded the Southwest Virginia Improvement Company, a mining venture that also acquired land under the name of the Bluestone Coal Co. As part of their operations, they established the Flat Top Coal Company, with Thomas Graham from Philadelphia serving as vice president. This subsidiary embarked on building the inaugural mine tipple, coke ovens, and the town of Pocahontas in Tazewell County, Virginia. Concurrently, in the same year, the N&W Railroad commenced the construction of its railway line leading to Pocahontas (completed in 1883). In 1882, semi-bituminous coal mining began in Pocahontas, Virginia, which is located near Bramwell, West Virginia. This led to the arrival of thousands of workers from the United States and other countries to work in the mines surrounding Bramwell. Joseph H. Bramwell, a civil engineer from New York, named the community he arrived at in 1883 "Bramwell". He became the first postmaster of Bramwell and famously declared, "Every little baby has a name, and this little town must have the same. I therefore name it Bramwell." In addition to his postmaster duties, Bramwell also served as the President of the historic Bank of Bramwell. The Town of Bramwell completed its first rail system in 1884, a significant achievement that enabled coal from local mines to be transported across the country and to seaports such as Norfolk, VA. In the 1920s, ships like the I.T. Mann were loaded with coal from these ports. In 1884, John Cooper operated the first coal mine on the West Virginia side of the Flat-Top Coalfields near Bramwell. His mine in the Cooper section of Bramwell shipped coal from West Virginia's Pocahontas Coalfield over the N&W Rail Road on November 4, 1884. Having successfully opened one mine, the Flat Top Company turned its attention to expanding its operations by opening additional mines. Rather than be accused of a coal monopoly, avoid technically-challenging mining techniciques and to capitalize on the coalfield's resources as wuickly as possibly, the Flat Top Company made the pivotal chhoice to lease its coal lands to individual operators. This opportunity caught the attention of mine operators from the coalfields of Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, railroads were purchasing coal lands to secure freight transport, leaving fewer opportunities for ventures in that region. This prompted experienced miners, many of whom were immigrants from England and Wales, to eagerly seize the chance to lease coal lands in West Virginia. In the beginning, the leases offered covered approximately 1,000 acres of land, with the condition that each operator had to build one coke oven for every 10 acres leased. Several notable lessees emerged in the Pocahontas-Flat Top field, including John Cooper, who partnered with J.L. Beury to form the Mill Creek Coal & Coke Co., John Freeman, who partnered with Jenkin Jones to establish the Caswell Creek Coal & Coke Co., and Jonathan P. Bowen, who teamed up with William Booth to create the Booth Bowen Coal & Coke Co. It is worth mentioning that in many cases, the capital required for opening these mines was provided by the land-owning firm, which was effectively controlled by the Philadelphians. This arrangement allowed the Philadelphians to maintain a significant influence over the coalfield despite the involvement of various lessees and operators. The Flat Top Coal Company initially operated from an office in Pocahontas, Virginia, where they managed their land operations. However, as the majority of their coal lands were located in West Virginia, the company decided to relocate their headquarters to this state in 1884. They selected and purchased land along the Bluestone River, just inside the West Virginia state boundary and outside the coalfield itself. This land became the foundation for a new town named Bramwell, in honor of the local superintendent, J.H. Bramwell, who served the Flat Top Company. Bramwell was carefully planned, with the company laying out the town and establishing company offices in the building that now serves as the Bluestone Inn on Main Street. The Flat Top Company sold lots to individuals for both commercial and residential purposes, but it is evident that the company had a significant say in determining who should purchase the lots and for what specific purposes. The primary aim of Bramwell was to serve as a company town, catering to the needs of Flat Top Coal Company's operations and employees. It provided administrative offices to manage the company's interests, housing for the families of those employed by the company, and various service and retail facilities to ensure the comfort of the community. During this period, most mine operators, who were the lessee-producers of the coal, lived near their respective mines. Notably, C.H. Duhring, a local Flat Top manager, and I.A. Welch, one of the first surveyors of the coal seams, became early residents of Bramwell. Interestingly, Welch maintained some form of association with the Philadelphia interests throughout his life. Over time, some buildings, including the original 1885 Bluestone Inn built to accommodate business visitors and families awaiting completion of their residences, have vanished from Bramwell's landscape. However, the town's legacy as a purpose-built community for the Flat Top Coal Company operations and its employees continues to be remembered.
Three significant events occurred that brought about a transformation in Bramwell's trajectory. The first event, in 1886, saw a collaboration between the N&W Railroad, the Flat Top Land Company, and the four original lessees and operators of coal mines (Southwest Virginia Improvement Company, John Cooper & Company, Freeman & Jones, and William Booth and Company). They reached an agreement to establish a subsidiary company known as "The Pocahontas Coal Company," which would be responsible for marketing all the coal extracted from the field. Initially, the nerve center offices of this subsidiary were situated in a structure adjacent to the Masonic Hall, but by 1895, they were relocated to the first floor of the Masonic Hall itself. The second pivotal event occurred in 1887 when the N&W Railroad completed its line into McDowell County, thereby granting access to a previously untapped and resource-rich portion of the coalfield for development. This new connectivity expanded the potential of the region significantly. The third event, also in 1887, involved the Clark interests in Philadelphia consolidating their two land-owning companies, the Southwest Virginia Development Company and the Flat Top Coal Company, into a single entity known as the "Flat Top Coal Land Association." As a result of this merger, the new firm became the primary owner of most of the coal lands in the Pocahontas-Flat Top field, solidifying their control over the region. These three key events in 1886-1887 had a profound impact on Bramwell's development and its role within the coal industry, shaping the town's future and its importance as a significant player in the coalfield's operations.
After 1887, the Pocahontas coalfield experienced a rapid expansion in mining activities. Prior to 1887, there were only four mines in operation, but within eight years, this number had surged to 38. Many of the new mine operators initially resided close to their newly established mines. However, as their mining operations stabilized and became profitable over the next two decades, some of these operators opted to build more substantial homes in Bramwell. This decision allowed them to live in a more pleasant and congenial environment, surrounded by others who shared their social status and business interests. For these operators, relocating to Bramwell meant they had to commute to their mines and hire on-site superintendents for day-to-day management. In return, they gained the advantage of being in close proximity to representatives of the landowners, marketing agencies, and financiers, all of whom were concentrated in Bramwell. In 1889, the Bank of Bramwell was established, closely following the developments of 1886-1887. The primary capital for the bank came from individuals like C.H. Duhring and James E. Mann. Mann, a prominent landowner from Greenbrier County, West Virginia, who also held coal land in Fayette County, played a significant role in its formation. Notably, other notable capitalists such as J.P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, Edward H. Harriman, and John D. Rockefeller were engaged in railroad construction projects to facilitate access to the coal mines in Fayette County. There exists an intriguing possibility of a connection between Mann and the Clark interests in Philadelphia, represented by Duhring. This potential connection raises questions about any competitive struggles that may have unfolded during this period. James Mann appointed his cousin, I.T. Mann, as the cashier of the newly established bank. I.T. Mann relocated his family to Bramwell, commencing a long and influential career in financing coal operators, eventually becoming one himself. The interplay of these individuals and their financial activities adds a fascinating dimension to the history of Bramwell and the coal industry in the region.
The nationwide economic downturn of 1893-94 had a weakening effect on the Clark-N&W Railroad's control over the Pocahontas coalfield. The challenging business conditions prompted the railroad to offer lower coal prices to operators, leading them to unite in forming an association aimed at negotiating with the railroad. In 1895, West Virginia enacted legislation that prohibited railroads from directly marketing coal. This change left the operators without an agent to sell their coal. To address this situation, they established The Pocahontas Company, which would function in place of the Norfolk & Western Pocahontas Coal Company. This new marketing organization also had its headquarters in Bramwell. By 1895, Bramwell had firmly established itself as the central hub for coal mining operations in the Pocahontas-Flat Top field. The Bank of Bramwell was situated at the Main and Bloch Streets intersection, while The Pocahontas Company had offices for managing marketing on the first floor of the Masonic Hall. Meanwhile, the land company negotiated leases for coal lands in a building next door. Remarkably, the Norfolk and Western, unlike other influential entities in the coalfield, limited its presence in Bramwell to its station, maintaining its corporate offices in Bluefield. As coal operators flocked to Bramwell, so did various other professionals and quasi-professionals such as doctors, teachers, ministers, and storekeepers. Houses sprung up in an orderly fashion on the flat terrain created by the bend of the Bluestone River, then extended up the hillsides to offer more spacious residences with commanding views of the bustling town center.
As the 20th century began, the destiny of Bramwell appeared to be heavily influenced by I.T. Mann. He had gained control of the largest locally owned mining operation in the Pocahontas field. Mann achieved a notable feat by purchasing the lands held by the Flat Top Coal Land Association and subsequently selling them to the N&W Railway, realizing a substantial 100% profit from the transaction. (The potential connection between Mann and the interests of J.P. Morgan in this deal raises intriguing questions for further investigation.) However, for Bramwell, this deal marked the beginning of its eventual decline. In 1910, the N&W Railroad relocated the offices of the land leasing company (now known as The Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company) to its offices in Bluefield. Just a year prior, some operators who had been part of the Pocahontas Company withdrew and entered into marketing agreements with other firms of their choosing. This led to the dissolution of The Pocahontas Company, and its offices in the Masonic Hall were closed. The process of economic change preceded physical destruction. In January 1910, a devastating fire swept through much of Bramwell's retail commercial center on Main Street. While Bramwell's coal-related and financial buildings, along with Edward Cooper's house and the Bluestone Inn, were spared, the haphazard collection of wooden stores, boarding houses, and restaurants that had sprung up to support early coal business activities were replaced with a carefully planned and tightly arranged row of fire-resistant, plain brick buildings. Simultaneously, a new generation of coal operators entered the Bramwell scene. Some were the sons of early mine operators, while others were newcomers assigned to manage mines by corporations formed as a result of the consolidation process initiated by figures like I.T. Mann in the 1890s and early 1900s. During this period, new homes with intricate embellishments were constructed, and existing, less ostentatious homes were expanded and improved. Despite the eventual decline brought about by the relocation of the N&W Railroad's land leasing offices from Bramwell and the disbandment of the operator's marketing association, Bramwell continued to experience two more decades of coal prosperity. The inevitable trend toward business consolidation and the rise of massive corporations in the United States stemmed from the development of systems for managing capital and new technologies. The proliferation of numerous small businesses had created both widespread wealth and market instability. In the pursuit of greater wealth, some individuals recognized that order, made possible through control, held the key. Concurrently, advancing technologies required more capital, while new challenges posed by labor and government regulation necessitated innovative approaches to responsibility and service values. This era marked the commencement of a new phase of business growth, with increasingly large and diversified corporations where the entrepreneur had evolved into the executive. Bramwell enjoyed prosperity through World War I and into the 1920s. However, the declining markets that preceded the Great Depression of 1929 were exacerbated by coal overproduction. In 1932, I.T. Mann passed away, leaving behind substantial debts. The following year, the Bank of Bramwell closed its doors, and the community gradually entered a state of well-preserved decline. While coal continued to be mined in the Pocahontas-Flat Top field until the 1970s, the operators no longer resided in Bramwell; they had joined the corporate offices in major cities such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.