A company town is a rural village, town or small urban community founded by officials of an industrial company or corporation and wholly or mostly owned by the company/corporation. Company towns were typically used to house workers, and sometimes included offices or facilities needed by the company to construct its operations. Company towns were a common feature of industrialization in the U.S. during the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the manufacturing, timbering and mining industries.
At one point or another during the industrial era there were around 2,000 company towns in the U.S. Some were “planned communities” in the sense of any systematic consideration of housing design, commercial venues, urban amenities like water and sewer, streets and transportation, while others were merely clusters of housing of a more-or-less permanent nature, often thrown up quickly in proximity to factory or mine entrances to provide housing for workers.
Lowell, Massachusetts, about 30 miles north of Boston, was the first planned company town in the U.S. , founded in 1826 only a few years after the first textile mill was established there. The founders of the town recruited young, single women from rural areas in New England to work in the textile mills, and built boarding houses for them to live in. The young women living there were expected to “lead a moral life”, which included going to church. After the Civil War, the boarding house model fell out of favor.
Indian Hill, Worchester, Massachusetts
Indian Hill-North Village is today a residential historic district encompassing the largest planned worker housing community in Worcester, Massachusetts. Located in the suburban northern part of the city, it was developed after 1910 by the Norton Company which is today the world's largest manufacturer and supplier of abrasives for commercial applications, household, and automotive refinishing usage, and which was then the city's largest employer.
Company towns were not limited to the U.S., but were also found elsewhere in North America. Arvida, Quebec, roughly 240 km north of Quebec city, was founded in 1927 by industrialist Arthur Vining Davis and the corporation he headed Alcoa as a model working class community of 14,000, complete with four Catholic parishes and churches of multiple other denominations, and an aluminum smelter.
The most famous company town, by far, and in many respects the nadir of the concept was Pullman, Illinois, where George Pullman built workers' housing for employees of his railroad car company, the Pullman Palace Car Company. Working under Pullman’s supervision, planners and builders chiefly architect Solon Spencer Beman sought to meet all the worker’s needs, but at the same time laid down exacting behavioral standards and social controls designed to regulate nearly all aspects of worker’s lives. The development built by the Pullman Company is today part of the city of Chicago, bounded by 103rd Street on the North, 115th Street on the South, the railroad tracks on the East and Cottage Grove on the West. The Pullman Strike of 1894 proved to be the demise of the community. Strikers were laid off, but expected to continue paying full rents in the community, and buy from the company stores and when they did not were evicted. Historian Linda Carlson argues that many of the managers of later corporate towns in the early 20th century believed they could avoid the paternalistic mistakes made by Pullman and Beman earlier in the 1880s. She says they sought to create better lives for their employees and to offer decent housing, good schools, and "morally uplifting" communities. In return, they expected stable, hard-working employees who would eschew the evils of drink and, most important, not fall prey to the enticements of union organizers. Thus, the Pullman Strike did not kill the concept of a company town but rather initiated a new chapter in its existence. Over the next thirty years, the old model of paternalism was abandoned in favor of new, professionally designed company towns with architects, landscape architects, and planners translating "new concepts of industrial relations and social welfare into new physical forms". This suited capitalists of the day who were obviously keen to avoid the experiences of Pullman. The first real example of this occurred at the previously mentioned Indian Hill-North village in Massachusetts in 1915. Company towns were not exclusively associated with manufacturing; Both timbering and underground mining industries also made extensive use of company towns. Mining company towns were relatively widespread in the Appalachian region of the U.S. throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though few are still around today.
Summit Hill, Pennsylvania
Summit Hill in eastern Pennsylvania, northwest of Allentown and Bethlehem, is generally regarded as the first company town located in the Anthracite coal region. The Lehigh Coal Mining Company began mining operations there in 1792, shortly thereafter establishing the town as a mining camp, complete with stables and paddocks. In Harlan County, Kentucky, the land was sparsely populated by farmers who used the mountain streams, the forests, and what tillable land was available to feed and clothe their families in a way of life that was drastically changed in the early years of the 20th century when the large coal companies moved in to exploit the rich mineral deposits found beneath the mountains of the county.
Benham and Lynch, Kentucky
At the far eastern end of Harlan County, two companies, U.S. Steel and International Harvester, each developed mines to supply coal to their large steel mills in Gary, Indiana and Chicago, Illinois. In doing so, these companies created almost overnight two of the largest coal camps anywhere; small industrial cities in the midst of a mountain wilderness that had, until that time, remained remote and isolated and largely outside the market economy. In 1910, the Wisconsin Steel Company, a subsidiary of International Harvester, purchased about 6000 acres on Looney Creek near the small trading center of Poor Fork (later called Cumberland). Here they began construction of the town of Benham and simultaneously drove mine entries into the sides of the mountains. By the end of the summer of 1911 the L & N Railroad had extended a spur from Pineville, Kentucky to Benham and the first train load of coal was shipped directly from Benham to Chicago on September 1, 1911. In 1917 the U.S. Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, purchased nearly 19,000 acres of land just upstream from Benham. Construction of the town of Lynch, which was in its day described as the largest coal camp in the world, was begun in August of that year. By January 1, 1918, there were nearly 1500 men on the payroll and 12,000 tons of coal had been shipped to the U.S. Steel mills in Gary, Indiana. Borderland, a company town on the Tug Fork River in Mingo County, WV. It is called that because it is located right near the West Virginia-Kentucky border. The trajectory of Borderland is measured by its post office which opened in 1905 and closed in 2009.
Kaymore, West Virginia
Kaymoor (or Kay Moor) was another company town in West Virginia, in the New River Gorge. The town was named for James Kay, a Low Moor Iron Company employee who was in charge of building the town. Fifty houses were built in 1901, followed by 45 in 1902 and 17 in 1905. A suburb, called New Camp, was built in 1918-1919 with another 19-24 houses, and represents the only extant town site remaining. Kay Moor town's public facilities were spartan, with no churches, saloons, banks or town hall, only pairs of segregated schools at top and bottom, company stores, a pool hall and a ball field. By 1952 Kaymoor Bottom had been abandoned, and in 1960 most of the remaining structures were destroyed by fire.
Nuttalburg, West Virginia
Nuttallburg, West Virginia was another company town in the New River Gorge almost directly across from the Kay Moor mine and townsite. What remains is located near Winona, West Virginia within the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Cubana, West Virginia
Likewise, in the latter decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries, numerous company towns like Cubana, West Virginia, existed in the Appalachian region to house workers in the burgeoning timber industry which managed to clear cut much of the primeval forests of chestnut and other hardwoods of the region.
The Ends of Company Towns . . .
Company towns are closely associated with the metaphor of "the company" as a presence in workers' lives even in their non-work, leisure time. in folk culture,
Most company towns could be characterized on a continuum from merely paternalistic, like Lowell, MA where the company had a paternalistic concern with the moral condition of the young women it hired in the mills, to the outright draconian, where the company sought to control and regulate all aspects of the personal lives of those who lived there.
By the 1920s the need for company towns in manufacturing, timbering and mining had declined significantly due to increased national affluence.
. . . And After
The housing from many company towns in Appalachia continues to exist today. As mining company towns in Appalachia were phased out, much of the housing stock and some community amenities (stores, churches, schools, etc.) remained, sold off by the companies to individuals and families living there. Throughout West Virginia, for example, housing of many former company towns is identifiable as a row of eight or more identical houses on one side of a roadway, especially when that alignment is in close proximity to a former mine portal, cluster of charcoal kilns, factory entrance or some other industrial feature.