Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Coal Heritage Trail, West Virginia

I took a drive through a couple of regions of the state, starting with a tour of the Coal Heritage Trail, and then a trip to the New River Gorge region. It’s a beautiful part of the United States, but a state that has fallen off the radar, and to a certain extent, has not recovered from the Great Depression and the decline in American industry over the past 50-60 years.

West Virginia ranks 49th out of the 50 states in income per capita and per household, and the poverty of the state really shows. I counted more mobile homes in one day than in the last 10 years combined, saw plenty of shuttered businesses and abandoned houses, and some aspects of the state do live up to the stereotypes. But that’s far from the entire story.

My first stop was Bluefield, a town on the border with Virginia, which features a notable skyline dating from the 1920’s when it was a boom town; now it’s mostly abandoned and clearly struggling. Just down the road is Bramwell, which is a neatly kept town that featuring the grand houses of millionaires who struck it rich during the boom years of the early 20th century.

Downtown Bluefield, WV

Keystone, WV, with its dominant coal mine

Abandoned house, Kimball

As for coal mining, it’s pretty much absent. I noticed perhaps a couple of operating mines, most notably in Keystone.

Welch and Mullens are hanging on, but Mullens was devastated recently in the flood of 2001. The area is a parallel America, far removed from the busy cities, an isolated, poor enclave in an isolated, poor state. The communities sprawl along the numerous rivers and streams, and now that the economic base is mostly gone, they have been steadily losing population.

Wyoming Hotel in Mullens, John F. Kennedy took lunch here during his 1960 campaign.

The New River Gorge is the most prominent natural feature of West Virginia, an ancient river that cuts a nearly 1000-foot deep gorge as it winds through the state. The small ghost town (or nearly ghost town) of Thurmond lies at river level, brought to life by the railroad, and doomed as the railroad traffic slowed to a trickle. And a word of warning, the planks on the railroad bridge are dodgy, I nearly fell through, and that would have been the end of shredworld!

New River and the bridge into Thurmond

Thurmond, West Virginia, population 7

Further north, the bridge is spectacular, a magnificent steel arch span completed only in 1977 that shaved the crossing time from 45 minutes to 45 seconds. It’s 876 feet above the river, and an awesome piece of engineering.

New River Gorge Bridge