The Mountain Laurel
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George L. Carter - Mountain Capitalist - Part 2 of 2

By Sebert L. Sisson © 1989

Issue: November, 1989

Left to Right: George L. Carter, Mayetta Wilkinson Carter, Jennie Reeves Wilkinson, mother of Mayetta, James Wilkinson, father of Mayetta and James Walter Carter - Goerge L. and Mayetta's only child. Photo circa 1900.Left to Right: George L. Carter, Mayetta Wilkinson Carter, Jennie Reeves Wilkinson, mother of Mayetta, James Wilkinson, father of Mayetta and James Walter Carter - Goerge L. and Mayetta's only child. Photo circa 1900.Part one of this story appeared in the October 1989 issue. This is the conclusion of the George L. Carter story.

For the next decade Carter devoted his energies to the building of the Clinchfield Railroad. The construction of the line was costly in terms of money and human effort. Often the many Italians who came to work on the project had to be threatened with firearms to keep them on the job. Several years after it was completed MUNDY'S EARNING POWER OF RAILROADS said, "The road is of excellent type of construction, and although traversing largely a mountainous country, no grades exceed 1.2% northbound and 1% southbound." George L. spent many hours riding the route with Engineer Kent in order to accomplish the completion of the line. The building of the Clinchfield Railroad was George L. Carter's greatest accomplishment and although he had resigned as president of the corporation, he was allowed to drive the last spike of the railroad on February 19, 1915 in Dickerson County, Virginia.

The Hillsville home of George L. and Mayetta Wilkinson Carter. The famous Carroll County Courthouse is on left.The Hillsville home of George L. and Mayetta Wilkinson Carter. The famous Carroll County Courthouse is on left.The railroad was a profitable one and continues in operation today. In 1916 Thomas Ryan and the other stockholders decided to liquidate the Cumberland Corporation and sell its stock including the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railroad. In 1924 those owners leased it jointly to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the Atlantic Coastline for 999 years.

Construction of the Railroad led to the development of Kingsport, Tennessee. J. Fred Johnson, Carter's brother-in-law and chief purchasing agent, had obtained for Carter's corporation some 7000 acres of land in Old Kingsport, most of which cost $30-$40 an acre. After the land had been purchased, Carter moved J. H. Dobyns from Hillsville to Kingsport to manage the large number of newly vacated farms. Later, Carter sold this land to James A. Blair and company in the name of Kingsport Farms, Inc. In 1915 the Kingsport Improvement Company was chartered with Johnson, James A. Blair, and John B. Dennis as major investors. They bought the land from Kingsport Farms for the establishment of a model town. In early 1916, Johnson moved to Kingsport and for the next 28 years dedicated himself totally to its growth and development. It has been written that probably no city in this country the size of Kingsport owes so much to one man.

When Carter began his plans for the railroad, his home and massive holdings were in Bristol, so citizens there were surprised when it was learned that Carter was moving his headquarters to Johnson City, Tennessee and that the railroad would bypass Bristol altogether. It was rumored that two businessmen had angered Carter by trying to get ahead of him in real estate purchases. Whatever his reasons, Carter quit Bristol and in 1906 moved his business operations and his family to Johnson City where he lived until 1916.

While living in Johnson City, he became a leading land owner and developer. When the state of Tennessee was looking for a town in which to build a new college, George L. tipped the scales for Johnson City by donating more than $100,000 and 150 acres of land for the college that would become East Tennessee State University. When he moved from Johnson City, he gave his home to the college and it was used for a boy's dorm for some period of time. Earlier a girl's dorm was constructed on campus and was named Carter Hall in honor of the Carters. It is still used today.

In 1916 Carter moved from Johnson City in the same manner in which he had moved to the city years before. Quickly and quietly, he ended all ties with the Clinchfield Railroad and its interests and sold his Kingsport land holdings which at one time included as many as twelve banks. One of the banks he owned was the City National Bank in Johnson City of which J. Fred Johnson was the president. Unfortunately, he and Johnson disagreed about its affairs and the quarrel was never resolved. In 1916 Carter moved to Coalwood, West Virginia, and Johnson went to Kingsport, Tennessee - their paths never met again.

Carter had seen the potential in mining the Pocahontas seam of high quality coal in McDowell County, West Virginia and Tazewell County, Virginia during his visit to the area in April, 1877. At that time he had ridden horseback from Tazewell through the mountains where he made his first contact with Daniel Harman who owned much of the land where Coalwood and Caretta are now located. Carter began buying land in 1902 when he organized the Virginia Pocahontas Coal Company, and on April 5, 1905 shipped the first load of coal from these mines.

In 1912 Carter organized the Carter Coal Company and bought 16,000 acres of land in Big Creek District. To this he added 11,000 acres along the Cumberland River in Kentucky under the Inter-State Coal Company; about 1916 he purchase the Seabroad property, a 10,000 acre tract of coal lands near Richland in Tazewell County, Virginia.

At Coalwood, Mr. Carter built a model town for his employees. It written of the town, "He owned lock, stock, and barrel the model coal town of Coalwood - houses, stores, churches, police, clergy, medical services, and all that makes up life for the miner. It is a town in remarkable contrast to surrounding villages where squalor and poverty are the world. With houses painted and surrounded by flower gardens and lawns, it looks more like an Alpine village than the begrimed coal towns of most of America."

At one time Coalwood had a doctor, two dentists and seven stores. Mr. Carter's town also had a school, recreational facilities and indoor plumbing for the houses. He and his family lived in the Clubhouse where he added a third story for son, James Walter.

Carter who had spent a good deal of money on the Coalwood operation was beginning to reap the profits from his investments when, in February, 1922 he sold all the facilities in McDowell County to Consolidated Coal Company of New York for $17 million.

Consolidated invested several million dollars in capital improvements at the Coalwood and Caretta plants and operated them for some five or six years before the coal industry collapsed. They were forced into receivership during the Depression and Carter was able to negotiate with their creditors for a quoted sum of $4 million. The Coalwood and Caretta facilities were transferred back to Carter on March 16, 1933.

During the time Consolidated Coal Company and possession of the McDowell operation, the Carters lived for a while in Washington, DC, and then returned "home" to Hillsville, Virginia. There they remodeled the house which Mayetta had inherited from her parents. George L. purchased 7400 acres in Wythe County near Fort Chiswell and leased another 5000 acres. Here he produced beef cattle, sheep, hogs, and turkeys. During certain seasons of the year he would hire as many as 200 people from the area to work on his farm operations.

Carter resumed control and full production of the Carter Coal Company in 1933. The company was reorganized with James Walter Carter as president and George L. as vice president. In 1935 the Carter Coal Company sold its Kentucky tract to investors in Cincinnati. Soon after James Walter became president, a central operations office was opened in Washington to coordinate all interests including the Carter Coal and Dock Corporation which Carter had organized in 1930's. The wharves and docks owned by the company were located at Norfolk, Virginia; Providence, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; and Bridgeport, Connecticut and were considered among the most modern on the eastern seaboard.

George L. Carter died on December 30, 1936 in a Washington, DC hospital of pneumonia at the age of 79. His body was brought back to his home in Hillsville for a brief service conducted by his brother-in-law, Rev. Doggett. He was buried in a private cemetery located directly to the back of the Carter home in Hillsville. His grave is marked by a plain stone slab bearing only name, dates of birth, and death. He had directed the making of the stone prior to his death. The marker is symbolic of his life - simple and unpretentious.

While Mr. Carter created an empire and amassed huge amounts of money and power, he remained a private person. He shunned publicity to a point of obsession preferring no pictures, no recognition's and no awards for all his accomplishments. He owned a private Pullman but preferred the day coach. He was known for his high moral standards and for his strong sense of ethics. He detested the use of alcohol, tobacco, and had very little respect for unions. He would not hire a female employee to work in his office and he never learned to drive a car.

Mr. Carter was a generous man. Once, during a negotiation, he was asked the difference between fifteen million dollars and twenty million dollars. Mr. Carter hesitated a moment, then replied that he could educate several thousand mountain boys with the difference.

One of his favorite charities was the Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Virginia. He gave several acres in order to straighten a road in Wythe County and that now bears the name Carter Memorial Wayside. He and his family made contributions to the Hillsville Christian and Presbyterian Churches. Recently Mrs. James Walter Carter who still lives in New York City made a sizable contribution to the Carroll County Pubic Library.

"Old timers" in Carroll County believe Mr. Carter was partial to workers from Carroll and surrounding counties. Almost every family has some members who worked at Coalwood or Caretta, on Mr. Carter's farms or in other Carter businesses. So many area residents worked for him in West Virginia these people hold a reunion in Hillsville each year.

Following his death, Mayetta continued to live in her thirty-six room house in Hillsville until a short period prior to her death on January 10, 1957. George L. left no will of record and his vast estate and extensive holdings went to his son, James Walter. Married to Margaret Woolford of Montgomery, Alabama, the couple had no children. They resided in Williamsburg, Virginia and New York City. With the exception of a brief time during World War II when the mining companies were operated by the Navy, he managed his father's business as organized until 1946. Then he sold the Carter Coal Company and its holdings to the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, Steel Company of Canada and Inter-Lake Iron Company of Cleveland. In 1959 he sold his mother's home to Carroll County and the building was converted to governmental offices. Other real estate in area was sold with the exception of forty acres which he donated to the Nature Conservancy along with $100,000 for upkeep. The tract contains the family cemetery and is managed as a wildlife sanctuary known as Mountain Meadows Preserve. It is managed by Mr. Sebert L. Sisson of Hillsville. James Walter Carter died November 13, 1981 at his hotel Carlyle suite in New York City.

George L. Carter was a native son of the area he helped explore and develop. Through his empire he created thousands of jobs for the people and was heralded in a Kingsport paper as "The greatest industrial developer and leader the southern Appalachian coal section ever produced." Because of his aversion to publicity, little has been written about Mr. Carter; however, because of his contribution to the region, his name and his accomplishments must never be forgotten.