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3.  

     At sunrise the next morning, Frank rose gingerly, trying not to aggravate his injured feet, but that painful condition was soon forgotten in the excitement of his new discoveries. He ingested a hastily prepared breakfast, bandaged his feet as best he could, bundled his collection of stones, and rode into Morgantown, the seat of Monongalia County.

    The Assayer's office was situated directly across from the courthouse. When frank entered, no one acknowledged his presence.  The clerk in attendance was a lean and tall, gaunt faced fellow with thick mutton-chops spread across his weathered cheeks.

    "Morning," Frank began amiably.

    "So you say," the clerk replied, giving little encouragement to his anxious customer.

    "I've been doing a little panning up river and found a few samples I'd like you to examine," Frank said, opening his bundle on the counter.

    "Iron pyrites," the clerk answered with barely a downward glance.

    "Iron pyrites?" Then they're not gold? What are they worth?"

    "Worth? A few grains? Nothing. No, they're not gold, not unless you consider 'fool's gold' an acceptable substitute. Good luck in finding someone to agree with you."

    "So, they're worthless, you say?"

    "A few grains are. A substantial deposit would have value, though. You could always market the ore up north. Pyrites are useful in a number of industrial applications. Of course, it won't compare to gold in value, but it's definitely not worthless, at least not in quantity.

    "Now this," he continued, lifting and hefting the larger black and grey dappled stone, "is pretty valuable these days, particularly if you can find more."

    "What is it?"

    "Bituminous coal. My God! where are you from? Have you never seen coal before?"

    "Sure, I have," Frank bristled, "although most of the stoves back in Reading were wood burning. The steamboat I worked on was coal-fired, but the coal in the boiler room didn't look much like this piece."

    "That's because the coal was processed. This sample is raw material, but it's easily recognizable. Look how smudgy it is. If you soaked it for a few minutes, the color would be consistent, shiny and black.

    "I suspect that you found all this material together in one place. Pyrites are a good indication that coal deposits are nearby."

    "Well, okay. Would it be possible, then, to file a claim," Frank inquired, clearly adrift in the legal ramifications of his discovery.

    "File a claim? Where the hell do you think you are, California?" the clerk replied with a wide grin, obviously enjoying Frank's predicament.

    "Well, what can I do?"

    "All right," the clerk relented, "you can file a claim for mineral rights as finder if the property is publicly held and provided that no one else has filed before you.  On the other hand, if the land in question is privately owned, any claim will be disallowed, but..."

    "Yes?" Frank interjected, clearly clinging to a thin sliver of hope.

    "Well, you just might be able to negotiate for the mineral rights. It's possible to draw up an agreement with the landlord. Of course, the owner would retain title to his property, but you would gain the right to extract the ore, in this case coal, in return for a share in the profits. Happens all the time around here now that king coal is the coming thing."

    "Thanks for the information. You've been a big help. Where do I go next to see about those mineral rights?"

    "County courthouse. Right across the street."

    "Will they be able to tell me if the land is publicly owned?"

    "They'll be able to tell you all you need to known," the clerk grinned, grateful that Frank had brightened his day with a liberal sprinkling of levity.

 

    After squirming through a geology lesson at the assayer's office, Frank was prepared for almost any contingency at the court house. And that was just as well, for the news he received from the county recorder might have dissuaded a less persistent, less resourceful person.

    The entire stretch of riverfront located one mile from the valley entrance was state property, but several steamboat companies had been granted an exclusive easement. The valley itself, its surrounding walls, ridge and summit, were public property, but the entire tract, including water rights, had been leased with right of first refusal to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in perpetuity. So the railroad controlled the property, paid no rent to the state, and must be granted an opportunity to match any purchase offer. Of course, no offer to buy could be considered as long as the lease was in force. In other words, the railroad was the effective owner of valuable acreage which it had received free of charge, a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Forever.

    Now, if Frank had pursued a career in field and track, he would have excelled at steeplechase; for every time an obstacle was erected in his path, Frank found a way to leap across. His enthusiasm and willingness to learn was more than amble compensation for any deficits in his formal education. And Frank was learning quickly; moreover, he was learning about matters that never would have been brought to his attention had they not appeared as gapping holes across his path. Every difficulty encountered was an opportunity, not to sling away defeated, but to deepen his knowledge. With each setback, he grew stronger.

   A witless man with adequate resources at his disposal will eventually be denied success, for once his resources have been expended, as over time they must, he will lack the ability to obtain more. Similarly, the most resourceful of men will never be able to establish a coal mine without adequate resources, for cleverness alone will never suffice to frame a supporting timber; lumber and nails will also be necessary. Thus, in all cases, both qualities, resources and resourcefulness, are needed; but of the two, an agile mind is the more essential. A resourceful man can always obtain resources while the inverse is rarely true.

    Frank left Morgantown more determined than ever to obtain control over the land containing the coal he had discovered. He returned to the valley and decided to establish a permanent camp on the grassy plateau; but each day he rode back to Morgantown, for he needed to learn more about the coal business.

    He read all the literature available and sought out as many experts as he could find. He consulted with every developer in Monongalia County and beyond who was willing to describe his experiences in the coal fields, and especially to teach him about the latest methods of extraction. And Frank learned much. He learned, for example, that a great underground deposit of coal, the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, extending south from Pennsylvania through northwestern Virginia, had been discovered around the turn of the century; but active mining within the seam was a relatively recent venture, occurring only during the past twenty years. An important branch of the seam, the Fairmont-Phillipi Coal Field, spread beneath most of northwestern Virginia, an area that almost certainly included his own valley as well.

    But how to extract the coal, that was the main problem. Frank could have saved himself an enormous amount of trouble by eliciting more advice, but he had delayed too long and would not be restrained. So he began digging, initially on the summit of Montague Mountain-That should have been expected. After all, did a man not reserve the right to christen his own children?-the location of his original find. He unearthed a modest pile of bituminous chunks and tried rolling them down the western slopes toward the railroad, but he soon abandoned that idea as impractical, for several reasons. First, it was too strenuous, and the results were disappointing: most of the coal disappeared amongst the downhill foliage. But more importantly, the supply of coal on the summit soon reached an end, the seam apparently exhausted. Had his expectations of a rich coal field lying under the mountain been delusional after all?

    Undeterred, he moved down the mountainside and began a new excavation at the base of the headwall near the waterfall, burrowing into the face of the slope itself. This time his efforts were successful. It must be said, however, that coal, of its own accord, did not exactly tumble out of the shallow portal he ripped into the mountain, but he was able to extract a quantity sufficient to satisfy himself that his original assessment was accurate; in fact, he concluded that the ultimate size of the field probably exceeded his most optimistic estimate; there was nothing imaginary about the supply of coal waiting to be extracted.

    The coal was there, then. At least that much had been verified. But removing it efficiently still remained the most vexing of all his problems. He needed help, obviously, but first he needed supplies before he could continue. To finance his mining operations, he began working for short periods of time along the Morgantown docks, earning enough money to buy a few necessary items: tools, a wagon, and a sturdy team of draft horses.

    Returning to his mine, Frank resumed his work, but new problems merged. He could certainly extract enough coal to fill his wagons within a reasonable time, but leading a team dragging a heavy load over rough, uneven ground was an arduous and time consuming task. At this point, he had found an eager market for his coal in Morgantown, but in order to be really successful he had to increase production, expand the mine, and find a more practical means of moving the extracted material to his customers. But first he had to secure the mineral rights to his own mine.

    For many small businessmen, the act of dealing with large corporations was often a disheartening experience, particularly when the corporations were railroads who largely deserved their unsavory reputations; for this was the middle of the nineteen century, and many lines were controlled by unscrupulous tycoons, the robber barons of the day.

    So Frank had to deal with the railroad, not an inconsiderable task, but the difficulty of reaching an accommodation with them probably helped influence a favorable outcome. Suppose, for example, that the circumstances were different; suppose that the mineral rights to the valley had been easily acquired. Would the Montague Mine have enjoyed the same success? It is possible to speculate that it would not have, that the mine would have failed as many similar small business ventures did. Why? Because the absence of greater obstacles might have led Frank's undertaking down an easier path, and an easier path followed, of necessity, usually less carefully followed, is always prone to greater mishaps.

    Instead, the railroad served as Frank's mentor; his experiences dealing with them honed his skills as one of the most gifted and astute developers of coal mines in the  richest coal field in the United States. And something else as well. The very nature of the railroad's business provided the ultimate solution to his transportation problems.

    When Frank arrived in Baltimore, his destination an impressive building on North Charles Street, few of his associates back in Morgantown would have given him favorable odds that he could negotiate successfully with the giant Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. But Frank had one advantage. He had a plan, and that plan made all the difference. Not only was he willing to generously share coal profits with the railroad, but he would guarantee them a future source of revenue.

    In exchange for granting him permanent and exclusive access to any coal extracted from Montague Mountain, he would share with the railroad twenty percent of all earned profits. Now, the twenty percent split that Frank had envisioned, at least as an  initial offer, was actually a soft number. He was willing to increase their portion to forty percent if absolutely necessary to close the deal. Moreover, he was willing to sign a contract stipulating that his mine would use the Baltimore and Ohio as its exclusive rail carrier when and if access to the mine could be established, all expenses of access to be borne solely by the mine. When he made such a concession, Frank expected that such a situation would not occur for many years. For the present, he certainly lacked the monetary reserves to fulfill such an agreement.

January 2012

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