Rediscovering Binktom and the Empire Mines

March 21, 2024

Deep in the New River Valley, whispers can be heard echoing off the mountains from the lost town of Binktom and the Empire Mines.

“The stories of Binktom and the Empire Mines are really important to me and my family,” said Michael Mooney, son of late Binktom miner, Green Mooney. “I want to pass the history down to my son so that he can continue to pass it down through the family.”

Binktom was once a thriving community of coal miners and their families located on the south slope of Little Walker Mountain in Pulaski County. The town’s existence was owed to the nearby Empire Mines from which thousands of tons of coal were removed during Binktom’s heyday in the 1920s. Operation of the Empire Mines began in 1914 under D.G. Langhorne.

According to maps in the Raymond F. Ratcliffe Memorial Transportation Museum in downtown Pulaski and multiple former tenants of Binktom, the majority of the mining community once stood near the intersection between Mines Road and Langhorne Road. Maps indicate that the town stretched down the mountain along present day North Ridge Lane.

By most accounts, Binktom was a town with above average living conditions for the time and place.

“We fared OK when we lived there, ”said Verlon Hurd, former Binktom resident and older sister of Michael Mooney. “We always had enough to eat and we stayed warm. The conditions weren’t outstanding, but, at the time, nowhere else had outstanding living conditions either.”

In a 1925 industrial survey of the Empire Anthracite Coal Co. conducted by Edward R. Burt and Co., it was stated that Binktom comprised 55 houses for miners and their families. The survey described them as “comfortable, well built, and much superior to usual mining camp dwellings.”

In a 2007 book by late historian, Lloyd Matthews, titled, “Pulaski County: An Historic and Descriptive Sketch,”Binktom dwellings were described to have been supported by frame columns, under which fresh air could circulate throughout the year. Matthews commented, “In the winter, it must’ve been mighty hard to get out of bed.”

Additional structures existed in Binktom that allowed the community to operate just as a small town would.

“Binktom had little stores that my parents would go to for our groceries,” Hurd said.

The industrial survey detailed a “well-managed commissary” which carried “all living necessities for the miners and their families.” Furthermore, the survey claimed that goods were marked up at an average of 20%.

Matthews’ book details a much different picture of the town’s store, stating that it offered “ordinary staple foods such as sugar, flour, fatback, and potatoes” at extremely high prices.

Since the store was owned by the mining company, purchases at the store were generally charged to miners’ weekly pay. This meant that miners often did not receive pay at all unless they had an unusually successful week.

However, work at the Empire Mines had some advantages over competitors including the pay. According to the industrial survey, Empire miners earned an average of 55 cents per hour or $1per coal car of 1.7 tons. In 1925, $1 was roughly equivalent to what $17.78 is worth in 2023 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This amount was considered high pay at the time compared to that of Pennsylvania mining districts.

Other workers, such as Green Mooney, manned other positions at the Empire Mines and would get paid based off of their performance.

“Dad would calculate how much coal was in the carts,” Hurd said. “He used to keep records of the coal and count the carts. I remember running to him out on the road when he got off of work.”

Mine workers like Mooney allowed industry in Pulaski County to thrive in the early to middle 1900s. Alongside the mines, the railroad was another important asset that catalyzed the county’s success during this time period and connected both industry downtown and in the mountains.

The Altoona Railroad was constructed in 1880 by the Bertha Mineral Company which ran from downtown Pulaski, across present day Robinson Tract, and toward the coal seams in Little Walker Mountain that would eventually house the Empire Mines. This small extension line of tracks connected itself to Norfolk and Western’s Virginia-Tennessee railroad. This main line of tracks allowed the Town of Pulaski to incorporate in 1886 and proved to be a hub for industry and commerce throughout the following century.

“The Empire Mines were supplementing the furnaces downtown,” said April Martin, historian. “They were bringing all of the semi-anthracite downtown to be the fuel for the Bertha Mineral Company. All of these companies eventually timed-out at the same time. It was definitely a supplemental employment base between the mines and the railroad.”

Although a large portion of semi-anthracite extracted from the Empire Mines was used in furnaces downtown, the coal product was acknowledged to be of “better character than other coals” in the area according to a letter sent from Whitney and Kemmerer Inc. to E.H. Ottman of Chicago on October 6, 1924. The letter continued to state that the coal had been approved by the “majority of dealers” and that there was a consistent market for the sale of the product. This letter was sent during the peak of the mines’ production period.

1923 and 1924 were highly successful years for the Empire Mines according to both Matthews’ book and the industrial survey. It was reported that area mines extracted 600 tons of high-rank Virginia semi-anthracite coal each day during those years.

The industrial survey provided a chart showing coal sales between 1923 and 1924. Yearly coal sales in 1923 reached a total of $455,874 with 97,209 tons of coal being produced. Similar numbers were produced in 1924 with 124,240 tons of coal being extracted from the Empire Mines for $423,075.

Unfortunately, some questionable business dealings and frequent management changes during following years led the Empire Mines to bankruptcy in 1927 according to Matthews’ book. The Southwest Times, Pulaski’s local newspaper, reported that Empire Mines had accumulated debts of approximately $1.2 million and would likely be sold immediately.

In 1930, D.G. Langhorne, who had remained a shareholder of the Empire Mines since its inception though he had not remained the owner, chartered a new coal company alongside his son called the Anthracite and Coal Briquetting Co. This move followed a legal battle to regain rights to the Empire Mines premises after the previous company had declared bankruptcy.

According to Matthews’ book, the Empire Mines reportedly closed for good in 1938 after operating for another eight years. However, this date does not match that of Hurd’s who claims she lived in Binktom until she was six years old. This would mean that the mines did not close until at least 1943.

Regardless of which date is accurate, both Matthews and Hurd agree that the reasoning for the ultimate closure of the mines is unknown. Matthews’ book states some people claim that water could not be pumped out of the mines fast enough while others say a union was trying to organize.

A recent article from the American Geophysical Union may have unveiled another potential reason for the closure of the Empire Mines.

The article by Philip Prince titled, “Lidar reveals geologic details of the ‘worst’ coal mine in the Valley of Virginia,” gives several illustrations of how terribly fit the Empire Mines were for mining. According to the article, coal deposits reached a thickness of 125 feet at some points. This, along with major fault displacement, may have been yet another reason for the closure of the mines.

When the Empire Mines officially shut down, the town of Binktom went with it. According to Hurd, her family was forced to move to a house in nearby Robinson Tract while equipment from the Empire Mines was removed and the entire town was bulldozed.

Though almost nothing of Binktom remains, some evidence of the Empire Mines’ existence is still visible on Little Walker Mountain. A small powder house constructed in 1919 still stands just east of where Binktom once stood. Several mine entrances still exist but are not accessible. Concrete foundations of the Altoona Railroad still lay below the high ridges at the foot of the mountain.

Binktom and the Empire Mines are an example of the many lost mining communities that once flourished in southwest Virginia and across Appalachia. Some of these towns will never have their stories told as the people who once inhabited them are aging. Unfortunately, it is likely that towns similar to Binktom, once teeming with life, will forever remain silent and still.

Caption: “A powder house constructed in 1919 still stands on Michael Mooney’s property where Binktom once stood. Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.”

Caption: “An exhibit on Binktom and the Empire Mines at theRaymond F. Ratcliffe Memorial Transportation Museum. Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.”

Written by Evan Hull

Evan is a 2022 Pulaski County High School graduate and is currently attending Virginia Tech.