Deepest West Virginia: A BMW Tour of Southern Coal Country

West Virginia is justifiably famous for its mountains, rivers, and (among driving enthusiasts) a huge selection of superb mountain roads. My goal in late April was to sample more of these roads in my trusty BMW 335i—and to see what was left of the coal mining industry that used to predominate in the southern part of the state. In addition, I was pretty sure that I could find a good story or two among the forgotten towns and beautiful rural scenery. In the process, I went far underground twice (although the BMW stayed topside and out of trouble, for once!)

A quick jaunt of 300 miles brought me to Lewisburg, WV, where I would spend the night in preparation for an early start on my tour. I arrived just in time to visit the nearby Lost World Caverns before they closed for the day. I was met by this not-altogether-friendly-looking, 400-pound llama. As best I could tell, he serves as the night watchman.

Many years ago, a farmer discovered a large and very deep hole in the ground on his property. He decided it was the perfect place to dump various items of farm detritus, including dead cattle and such. (He noted that they took a long time to fall to the bottom of the pit…) The dumping continued for years without ever filling the hole, even slightly. It wasn’t until 1942 that a couple of enterprising Virginia Tech students decided to explore the opening, discovering the cavern in the process.

After a lot of clean-up, the caverns opened to the public in 1973. Although there are more than a mile of interconnected passageways, the regular tour takes you through a single huge chamber, measuring about 1,000 feet by 300 feet, and as much as 120 feet high in places. They give you a laminated information sheet and a flashlight (in case the power goes out) and send you on your way. Late on a Sunday afternoon, I was the only person in the whole place. (“Monophobia”: The fear of being alone. I now know that I don’t have it.)

In this first photo, notice the big limestone blocks covering the floor of the cavern. They used to be in its ceiling… (“Felsbrocken·von·oben·ophobia”: Fear of falling boulders. No further comment!)

This is the “Ice Cream Sundae” wall. Lost World had every sort of formation, including arguably the largest stalagmite in the world.

My favorite formation was the “Bridal Veil,” which was just beautiful. It’s estimated to be 50 million years old.

The “War Club” is 28 feet high and features in the Guiness Book of World Records. In 1971, a fellow named Bob Addis sat on top of this stalagmite for just shy of 16 days, and his record still stands. All in all, I absolutely loved this cavern. With a lot of rain during the prior day, I could hear a vast quantity of water rushing by underneath one section of the path through the cave. When I wasn’t expecting more of the ceiling to collapse, I was looking for floodwaters rising from below. (“Antlophobia.”)

Oh, I forgot to mention that “Bat Boy” was discovered here in 1992. He had lived here all his life, raised by the cave bats and eating quantities of insects for sustenance. Or so reported the Weekly World News. For the record, it’s not clear that the WWN has ever published a true story. Too bad; I really liked this one.

Getting There Is Half the Fun (Unless You Have “Phasmophobia”)

That’s “fear of ghosts.”

My tour of coal country started and ended in Rainelle, WV, following a route from RoadRunner Magazine. Of course, there were a few things to see on the way to Rainelle, including the Tuckwiller Tavern, built by David and Sallie Tuckwiller in 1828. It sits along the original James River and Kanawha Turnpike and continued in operation until the railroads arrived in 1872. The support beams in the basement are made of entire oak trees, bark and all.

Next up was Morlunda Mansion, originally called Mountain View and now the Swift Level Farn. During the French and Indian Wars, Samuel McClung I became the first settler in Greenbrier County to be wounded in an Indian attack. He narrowly escaped death by leaping across a deep chasm, which his pursuers did not dare to attempt. His son, Samuel McClung II built Morlunda in 1827, and the farm has been used to raise thoroughbred horses ever since. It is also a bed & breakfast now, in case you’d like to admire its hand-carved walnut interior furnishings.

This early in the morning, the temperature was only in the high 30s, so the hardtop was still in place. That status didn’t last for long, however, since it turned out to be a beautiful day.

The Herns Mill Covered Bridge has been carrying horse-drawn and internal-combustion traffic across Millican Creek since 1884. I was thrilled to see an old covered bridge that did not have a host of warning markers, height-limit poles, “don’t jump off the bridge” signs, and so forth. It’s been reinforced but is otherwise identical to its original construction. The view from the bridge to the creek below was also quite pleasant.

Everywhere you look in West Virginia, you’re bound to find something interesting—such as this old barn with faded white “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” lettering and a white horse to match.

Farther along the original James River and Kanawha Turnpike, the Old Stone Tavern served stagecoach passengers for many decades. It was built by the Tyree family in 1824 and is now a private home, with the original front porch having been enclosed following a fire in 1996. Back in the day, the tavern’s guests included Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Civil War soldiers Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. History test: which of those four fellows did not serve as President of the United States? (Unless otherwise noted, historical photos are courtesy of the National Registry of Historic Places, the Library of Congress, or Wikipedia.)

The 1849 Soule Chapel Methodist Church would be interesting enough in its own right, even without the extraordinary story resting in its cemetery.

On January 23, 1897, 21-year-old Zona Heaster Shue was found dead in her living room. The local physician, Dr. George Knapp, conducted a cursory examination and determined that Mrs. Shue’s death was due to an “everlasting faint.” He later amended his finding to include “and childbirth.” Her husband of 3 months, Edward “Trout” Shue, had her quickly buried in her best, high-necked dress. The matter was laid to rest, so to speak.

One month later, Zona’s mother woke up in the middle of the night to find her deceased daughter standing at her bedside. Zona’s ghost declared, “I was murdered, Momma—Trout strangled me!” She went on to describe that the force of being strangled caused her neck to break. For another 3 nights, the strange experience recurred, with Zona repeating that she had been murdered.

Shaken, and now convinced that the experience was no dream, Zona’s mother went to the local sheriff urging him to investigate her daughter’s death as a murder, committed by Trout Shue. The sheriff reluctantly agreed to reopen the case, and Zona’s body was exhumed—and found to have a crushed windpipe and a broken neck. Trout Shue was charged with murder, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to life in prison. (It is not known whether he subsequently suffered from “Novercaphobia”: Fear of your mother-in-law.) The trial of Trout Shue is the only known case in the U.S. where a ghost’s testimony helped identify and convict a murderer.

In the Heart of Coal Country

Coal was formed when forests and other plant life became covered by wet soil. Over time, as additional layers built up, the vegetation was carbonized by high pressure and heat, ultimately becoming coal. Coal ranges from very soft peat, to medium-hardness bituminous, to hard anthracite. Graphite is actually the hardest form of coal, although it doesn’t burn for beans. I was surprised to learn that coal seams are typically only 3 to 6 feet high, and usually trapped between layers of hard rock.

By the mid-1800s, the transition from wood to coal for producing heat and energy led to a huge increase in demand that outstripped Pennsylvania’s coal production capabilities. Bituminous coal mines opened throughout West Virginia, and the Chesapeake & Ohio and Norfolk & Western Railroads built new lines to carry workers and supplies to the remote and otherwise-inaccessible mining areas and to carry the coal back out. By the Civil War, coal production in West Virginia was about 500,000 tons per year. Output grew rapidly thereafter, and reached 150,000,000 tons annually during World War II. Somewhat surprisingly, WV production fluctuated around this level for the next 60 years (but has dropped 25 percent following tighter environmental regulations issued by the Obama Administration). (Historical photos courtesy of the Library of Congress and Mining Artifacts and History, respectively.)

State Highway 20 meanders through many scenic areas before reaching the New River—at which point, both the Scenery and Highway Fun Quotients go off the scale. This old cabin hugs the bank of Mill Creek, with modern-day Interstate 64 traversing the hillside beyond. (That steep bank, incidentally, is a typical West Virginia “back yard.” This state is nothing if not vertical.)

I’d seen Sandstone Falls on the New River on a trip in 2010 (see Almost Heaven, West Virginia). It is a majestic view, from 600 feet above the river. At river level, it’s even more impressive.

Highway 20 continues to follow the New River all the way to Hinton and the Bluestone Dam. This is a view of Brooks Island.

Today’s CSX Railroad grew out of the C&O, and 2-mile-long coal trains are still a common sight along the river. Not all of yesterday’s railroad and coal equipment is still in active use, however. I wasn’t sure what this structure had been, so I asked a very nice older woman who was out walking her dog. With complete sincerity, she opined that it had been an airport control tower… Back home, I learned that it was the “new” coal loading station for the steam locomotives at Hinton’s large railroad yard. It was built in 1929, had a capacity of 800 tons, and could load 8 engines simultaneously with a crew of only 3 workers. It became obsolete with the advent of diesel trains in the early 1950s.

It was challenging to get a good photo of the Hinton Railroad Station because someone had parked a long line of coal hoppers in front of the building. The station is still in active use, I believe, although it currently appears to be undergoing renovation.

This water tank is another leftover from the steam years. Note the brick paving on the road.

The Bluestone Dam was built as part of a flood-control project. Work started on the dam in 1941 but could not be completed until after World War II. The dam is 125 feet high and is being raised another 8 feet after a finding that the dam could not withstand maximum flood pressures. The prior days’ rain had produced a torrential flow through the dam, so I waded out a little ways to get this photo for you all.

Okay, maybe I walked a little ways out onto a fishing pier for this purpose… To quote Jonathan Winters, “I get to believin’ my own stuff sometimes!” The residents of Hinton are no doubt relieved that the dam is being strengthened—although the project started in 2004 and is still a long ways from completion. (“Aquaphobia.”)

Whenever you park your valuable BMW, you should always endeavor to ensure its safety from fires, floods, vandalism, or—in this case—frequent falling objects. Yes, that stone block had recently come out of the cliff on the other side of the road. It easily weighed 300 pounds! (As for “Felsbrocken·von·oben·ophobia,” it really should be an actual word.)

Native Americans used to camp alongside Pipestem Falls. They, and the European settlers who followed, valued the local Spiraea alba plants; their hollow stems made excellent pipestems for smoking. The waterfall drops about 30 feet, and a short trail leads to an upper section that is also quite scenic.

Much of the tiny hamlet of Pipestem had a slightly abandoned look about it.

Bluefield, WV was settled by the Davidson and Bailey families in about 1780. Along with a church, homes, and a store, they built a fort to fend off the frequent attacks by Shawnee Indians who were rather disgruntled at having their lands stolen. By 1787, coal had been discovered beneath Bluefield. It would prove to be the largest and richest source of bituminous coal in the world. The “Pocahontas Seams” prompted the construction of hundreds of mines in this area and the arrival of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. N&W built a mammoth rail yard here, much of which still remains in use. At the time of my visit, only one coal train rumbled through—in marked contrast to the early-to-mid 1900s, when about 40 percent of the entire country’s coal production passed through Bluefield. During World War II, Adoph Hitler considered Bluefield to be so important that his commanders drew up plans to bomb the city and destroy its rail yard. (Historical photos courtesy of Living in Bluefield and the Norfolk & Western Historical Society, respectively.)

Following the Civil War, the mining and railroad industries attracted a large number of African Americans to West Virginia, looking for better jobs and greater opportunities—and finding equal pay to white miners in the process. Bluefield State College became the first institution of higher learning in this area in 1895, and it is one of only two historically black colleges in West Virginia. The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity purchased this mansion in 1962, and it became the center of social life for the school’s black students and prominent guests from around the country. Duke Ellington gave a private performance here for the fraternity in 1966. Today, with black enrollment representing only about 10-15 percent of the school’s total, Alpha House is no longer an active residence for fraternity members. Nonetheless, the local chapter has continued to keep the house and grounds in very good condition.

On the other side of the tracks, both metaphorically and geographically, Country Club Hill has more mansions per block than almost anywhere. I particularly liked this Spanish Revival example, which was designed by noted architect Alex Mahood.

This Neoclassical Revival mansion, also by Mahood, was similarly impressive.

A final note on Bluefield is that it was the birthplace of John F. Nash, Jr., the brilliant mathematician who was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film “A Beautiful Mind.” He was born in 1928 when his father was working here as an electrical engineer for the Appalachian Electric Power Company. Sadly, he and his wife Alicia died just a few days ago when the taxi they were riding in lost control on the New Jersey Turnpike. They were returning home after John had received the Abel Prize in Norway. A tragic ending to a most unusual life.

In the Land of Millionaires

Leaving town on Highway 52, I soon found Pinnacle Rock towering above the surrounding mountains. Much like Seneca Rocks, eons of erosion have worn away the surrounding stone and soil, leaving this dramatic sandstone peak.

Naturally I had to try to reach its pinnacle, which is 3,100 feet above sea level. I came close but stopped short of crawling along this narrow ridge to climb the final outcropping. (I may have neglected to mention that a well-defined, 0.7-mile trail, complete with handrails, brought me to this vantage point.)

I stopped to fill up at this service station outside of Bramwell but discovered that they didn’t have any premium. Or any gas for that matter, or even gas pumps. Nonetheless, the office still has a treasure trove of old junk, uh, I mean valuable historic artifacts.

Bramwell was known as the “Millionaires’ Town” in the late 1800s, with more millionaires per capita than any other community in the U.S. As I approached, the view suggested I was in for a treat. Bramwell is surrounded on three sides by the Bluestone River, and the prominent building in the middle of this photo was the Edward Cooper House; his father, Englishman John Cooper, started the first West Virginia company to mine the Pocahontas Seam in 1884. (John Cooper photo courtesy of Historic Bramwell, WV.)

The town’s railroad station is a replica of the original, which, along with most of the Main Street buildings, was destroyed by a fire in 1910. In its prime, 14 Norfolk & Western trains would stop each day at the station. Today it serves as a visitor center and museum. Although I arrived just after closing time, the director welcomed me inside and provided a wealth of information about Bramwell and the surrounding area. Much appreciated!

Behind the station, an old dining car and other rolling stock provide a sense of what traveling by rail used to be like. (My earliest memory is of a train trip with my mother, to her father’s funeral, when I was 3 years old. Yes, a steam locomotive pulled us from West Virginia to Chicago.)

After the 1910 fire, the downtown section of Bramwell was rebuilt and prospered for another 50 years.

Henry Wade, the Bank of Bramwell’s janitor, would carry each day’s cash and checks in a wheelbarrow up Main Street to the train station. The bank was highly successful from its start in 1889 until being done in by the Great Depression in 1933. Remarkably, the bank reopened in 2007, with its modern computer systems cleverly hidden within the classical furnishings. I’m not sure if the bank is still a bank or not—but it recently hosted a steampunk wedding… (That’s the bride on the far left and the groom on the far right. Photos courtesy of the Bank of Bramwell on Facebook.)

Jairus Collins was one of the coal mine owners living in Bramwell. He built this charming house in 1903, complete with a tiny balcony on the tower portion.

This winsome pooch was dutifully guarding the Hewitt House (built by another coal mine owner in 1914). What she really wanted was to be patted and talked to.

This old bridge is clinging to life across the Bluestone River. Hey, if it was good enough for 1915, it’s good enough for now—as long as you keep on the steel tracks…

On the other side of the river, it’s apparent that not all of Bramwell’s residents were millionaires.

Outside of town, the Norfolk & Western used to cross the river on this bridge. Although this branch of the railroad (which later becametoday’s Norfolk Southern) is defunct, most of its tracks and bridges are still in place, just waiting for historical tourists.

To Have and Have Not

Pocahontas coal was highly prized, in large part because it would burn with almost no smoke or ash. This coal fueled all of the naval ships of both the U.S. and Great Britain in World Wars I and II; it helped a lot when your enemy could not see smoke from your ships beyond the horizon, while you could see theirs. I detoured just across the state line to visit Pocahontas, Virginia, once one of the premier mining towns in the area. Parts of the town were still doing well, including St. Elizabeth’s Church and this quaint-looking downtown section along Laurel Fork.

Sadly, however, most of the town was well along its way to oblivion.

Virtually every house on Church Street had either burned or collapsed. In this photo, believe it or not, I held the camera exactly level: the faithful 335i is pointing downhill on the incredibly steep street (with its handbrake pulled on to within an inch of its life!), while the blue house is gently collapsing in the uphill direction. I measured this as a 36-percent grade—probably the steepest road I’ve ever been on.

All in all, Pocahontas was a remarkable place, although rather depressing. It was a common story: When the big mines began emptying the coalfields, and oil could meet consumer needs for heating more conveniently, the demand for coal plummeted. What demand continued could increasingly be met with far fewer workers, thanks to automated “continuous mining” machines and other productivity-enhancing systems. Mining employment in West Virginia fell by two-thirds, from 125,669 in 1948 to 41,573 in 1968. With no other jobs to turn to, families left the State in droves—and towns like Pocahontas began to collapse, literally and figuratively.

Another such town was Switchback, WV. The Elkhorn High School in Switchback was highly regarded from its start in about 1922, but declining enrollment forced its closure in 1953, with its students transferred to Northfork High. With school integration in 1966, it reopened as a junior high and converted later to Switchback Elementary School. In the historical photo, the building on the left housed a swimming pool below and a gymnasium above, while classrooms were in the building on the right. Over time, the upstairs gymnasium became more and more dilapidated, and the school closed in 2004—not long before the ceiling and gymnasium collapsed into what had been the indoor swimming pool. (Note the bleacher seats in the upper left of the interior photo below.)

This is the entrance and exit for the town of Switchback. It’s deceptively narrow next to the stream; the 335i had maybe one foot to either side as I drove through!

Switchback has very few residents these days. I saw only three people as I drove through, all of whom gave me a friendly wave. I was looking for the old Pocahontas Fuel Company Store, if it still existed—and I discovered that it doesn’t.

On the other hand, the Switchback Memorial Baptist Church is still clinging perilously to its hillside. It closed many years ago; sometime later its basement was used for activities that were “against the will of God,” as described by the church caretaker. She also noted that it’s common to find rattlesnakes throughout the church.

A Miners’ Clubhouse and the Sound of a Tornado

After almost 12 hours and 177 miles of exploring, I arrived at my stop for the night: the Elkhorn Inn, which was originally the Empire Coal & Coke Company “miners’ clubhouse.” It provided entertainment, food, and overnight accommodations for visitors, as well as the paymaster’s office where miners received their earnings. (Historical photo courtesy of Virginia Tech Special Collections Online.)

The 1922 clubhouse served many other purposes after the coal company’s demise—and it survived major floods in 2001 and 2002, unlike the 30 houses on either side. “Chef Dan” and Elisse Clark put in a bid on the structure and were a bit shocked to suddenly find themselves the new owners. Dan completely renovated the clubhouse, Elisse added art and other gallery features, and the couple opened the inn in 2003. This is the second-floor guest lounge. My room was furnished in 1930s style, complete with a clawfoot bathtub. It was a great way to experience turn-of-the-(prior)-century accommodations, and I very much enjoyed my stay.

I had dinner at the inn that night, along with a railfan guest from Philadelphia—and I must say that Chef Dan did an outstanding job from the garden salad with WV ramp dressing, to the entrée of poached salmon with Alfredo-Dill sauce, to the delicate flan dessert. After dinner, we traded stories with Dan for a good 2 hours. As I was going to bed, I heard a growing sound and thought “My gosh, a train must be approaching, because it sounds exactly like a tornado!” Railfan & Railroad Magazine didn’t call this inn “the best legal train-watching location in the USA” for nothing: the Norfolk Southern tracks are immediately across Highway 52, and coal and other trains were a regular feature. The larger coal trains went up the steep grade being pulled by two or even three diesel locomotives and pushed by one or two helpers. The helper teams would periodically come back down the mountain alone, to pick up the next train. (The railfan guest explained that if the “pusher” engines at the back moved up front and became additional “pullers,” then the total force on the couplings would be too great and they would break. “Siderodromophobia”: Fear of train travel.)

With that, it was time for a good night’s sleep.

Strange-But-True Tales

The next morning at breakfast, I couldn’t decide which I liked better: Chef Dan’s Eggs Benedict or his captivating stories on an eclectic set of topics. They included:

  • The banking misadventures of Miss Cherry and Mrs. Church (more on this shortly);
  • The unspoken primary cause of low IQ scores in southern West Virginia throughout much of the 1900s (gross amounts of lead and other heavy metal byproducts from heating coal to make coke); and
  • How Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” managed to charge up San Juan Hill in 1898 (because then-Lieutenant Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing’s unit of African American “Buffalo Soldiers” first wiped out the machine gun emplacements on top of Kettle and San Juan Hills that would have otherwise devastated Teddy’s troops; no one back then was going to credit black soldiers with this success, and to this day the best-known photos of Roosevelt’s forces have cropped out the Buffalo Soldiers who were also there).

I could have stayed for hours, learning more about the region and Dan’s adventures during his 21-year career flying Army helicopters, including four tours in Vietnam. But I had many more places to go before sundown. Thanks much, Dan and Elisse, for your hospitality during my visit.

”I Owe My Soul to the Company Store”

Tennessee Ernie Ford made these lyrics famous in “Sixteen Tons,” but there was a major element of truth to the song. Since coal mines were generally in very remote locations, the mine owners built company towns to house their workers and meet their various needs. However… many owners paid their workers in “company scrip,” which was usable only at the company’s store and other facilities. By taking advantage of their monopoly, the owners could charge unreasonably high prices, provide easy credit, and keep their workers indebted. In effect, the owners would collect back all the wages they paid and then some.

Some of the more enlightened mine owners paid their workers in dollars and provided much better treatment, along with fair prices in the company store. But you get the impression that, prior to unionization, these owners were in the minority. Near Northfork, the Algoma Coal and Coke Company Store was one of the last ones built, in 1940. It stands out due to its more modern style and glazed-yellow tiles.

Like many other towns in southern West Virginia, Northfork has a large proportion of abandoned and/or ruined buildings. Sometimes it’s hard to know what function a structure served: A church? A stately home?

In contrast, it’s easy to determine that this unusual, curved building was an Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, and Cadillac dealership. Its contour follows Elkhorn Creek.

The mammoth Peerless Coal and Coke Company Store was designed by the prolific Alex Mahood and built in 1921. Like other company stores in West Virginia, it served as the center of social and commercial activities in Vivian for the miners and their families. The walls and ceilings are still intact, but the windows, doors, and interior furnishings have gone with the wind. The Vivian school sits nearby, in a similar state of disrepair. (Historical photo courtesy of the Virginia Tech Special Collections Online.)

Other company stores have fared much better: this is the well-preserved Houston Coal Company Store in Kimball, WV. It is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. Note the skylights, which were very unusual in the early 1900s. (Renovation photo courtesy of the Charleston Gazette.)

“If It’s Too Good To Be True…”

With a population of less than 300, Keystone is the smallest of the towns along the Norfolk Southern tracks. I went there to track down one of Chef Dan’s unbelievable tales—which, like the others, turned out to be 100-percent true. The Keystone Town Hall and Police Department is housed in what was once the First National Bank of Keystone. The bank was founded in 1905 and slumbered along peacefully until Mr. J. Knox McConnell purchased it in 1977. Under his, uh, leadership, Keystone National became the most profitable bank in the country, and its assets grew from $17 million to $1.1 billion in 1998. Mr. McConnell achieved this success by issuing and buying sub-prime home mortgages across the U.S., bundling them into securities, and selling them for a profit. And then keeping the securities on the bank’s books, even after they were sold… He was aided in his scheme by loyal helpers Mrs. Terry Lee Church and Miss Billie Jean Cherry, who also served as the bank’s chairperson—and as the Mayor of Keystone. For years they kept the federal bank examiners at bay (allegedly through the assistance of Mr. McConnell’s friend, former President George H.W. Bush) and somehow managed to get squeaky clean audits from Grant Thornton LLP.

The bank’s nefarious dealings began to fall apart when Mr. McConnell died unexpectedly in 1997. Thinking quickly, Miss Cherry and Mrs. Church forged alterations to his will, naming themselves as his only heirs, and Mrs. Church became president of the bank. They continued the fraudulent mortgage securities, but eventually the feds were able to investigate and promptly shut the place down. In the process, they dug up tens of thousands of pages of bank records that had been buried—inadvertently, no doubt—in Mrs. Church’s backyard. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation had to step in and reimburse investors $664 million in lost bank deposits—one of the ten largest FDIC bailouts since the savings and loan meltdown of the 1980s. The grandmotherly Miss Cherry remained overwhelmingly popular with most of the citizens of Keystone; she died in prison in 2007. Mrs. Church is still there but will be released early for good behavior, in 2017. Approximately $515 million in bank assets remains unaccounted for. I suspect the answer lies somewhere underneath Mrs. Church’s backyard. (Photo of Billie Jean Cherry, far left, Knox McConnell, and Terry Lee Church, second from right, courtesy of McDowell County, by Bill Archer.)

In Kimball, I distinguished myself by failing to spot the obvious War Memorial Building and somehow ending up on top of this hill. It offered a nice view of abandoned buildings and cars, a railroad tunnel, and, oh, the top of the memorial building I was seeking.

The War Memorial was built in 1928 and dedicated to African-American veterans of World War I—the first such memorial in the country. Unfortunately, the building was abandoned in the 1970s, sitting vacant until a fire destroyed its interior in 1991. Ten years later, restoration began on the memorial, and it now serves as a museum and community center. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s truly wonderful when historic sites are brought back to life.

Like other tunnels from the old Norfolk & Western Railroad, the 1907 West Vivian Tunnel has been inelegantly widened to handle modern double-stacked container cars. The railroad follows Elkhorn Creek throughout its 24-mile length. When you visit the Elkhorn Inn, be sure to ask how the creek became one of the very best trout-fishing streams in the country. (Hint: It was literally an accident.)

The Mine Wars

The city of Welch is the seat of McDowell County. Following the austere conditions forced by World War II, and at the height of coal production in the 1940s, Welch became an exciting and prosperous place. This photo was taken in 1946, with cars jamming McDowell Street and people bustling to go shopping and see movies at the two downtown theatres. (Photo courtesy of the National Archive.

Today, McDowell Street is much quieter. The Pocahontas Theatre is an empty lot, but the 1929 Odd Fellows Temple still stands—vacant. The open white structure on the left is the town parking garage. When it was built in 1941, it was the first municipally owned and operated parking garage in the U.S. I left the 335i there while wandering around the city; it cost $1.00, regardless of how long you parked.

Despite the relative degree of poverty in West Virginia, every county seat has a magnificent county courthouse. Welch’s has seen more than its normal share of drama.

In the early years of coal mining, working conditions were generally abysmal and horrifically unsafe. Moreover, far too many mine owners exploited their workers unmercifully. Tensions between the owners and miners reached crisis proportions in many parts of the State, as frustrated workers tried to unionize, held strikes, and often sabotaged the mine equipment. Owners reacted by bringing in “strikebreakers” from out of state and hiring thugs (officially referred to as “detectives”) to intimidate the miners, often through the use of force. In the Mine Wars of 1912-1913, a peaceful strike spiraled out of control after the mine owners hired the notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to break the strike. As documented in Professor Hoyt Wheeler’s fascinating paper Mountaineer Mine Wars: An Analysis of the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1912-1913 and 1920-1921, the agency “immediately began a campaign of assault, intimidation, and terrorism.”

The living conditions for workers and their families were not very good to begin with. When strikes happened, the mine owners’ guards would forcibly evict the strikers’ families, who then had to live in tents provided by the United Mine Works of America (UMWA).

The situation escalated even further: First, the legendary Mary “Mother” Jones arrived and urged the striking miners to arm themselves and “kill every goddamned mine guard on the creeks below.” Then the UMWA thoughtfully provided 1,000 high-powered rifles and 6 machine guns to the miners. Violent confrontations and many deaths ensued, with the fighting quelled only by marshal law. (Historic photos courtesy of the Library of Congress and the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.)

By 1919 the situation had gotten even worse. In the largest insurrection since the Civil War, 5,000 striking miners marched to invade Logan County and correct the horrible conditions by force. They were somehow dissuaded by WV Governor John Cornwell, but only temporarily. The “Matewan Massacre” occurred in 1920, when a strike broke out and Baldwin-Felts goons forcibly evicted many workers and their families, often at gunpoint. The Matewan chief of police, Sid Hatfield, was accused of starting the firefight when he shot Albert Felts, but others said that Felts fired first, killing Cabell Testerman, the town’s mayor. A total of 10 men were killed within minutes, including the mayor, Albert Felts, and Albert’s brother Lee Felts. At his trial, Chief Hatfield declared that he had shot Felts in an effort to protect the mayor, but others accused him of having shot the mayor. It didn’t help that Hatfield married the mayor’s attractive widow 2 weeks later… Nonetheless, a jury acquitted Hatfield, perhaps in part because some of the witnesses suffered violent deaths before they could testify. Regardless of the circumstances, Sid Hatfield became a folk hero for standing up to the Baldwin-Felts thugs and trying to protect the rights of miners. (Photo of Hatfield and Jessie Testerman courtesy of

All of which brings me back to the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch. Chief Hatfield was forced to go into McDowell County to stand trial resulting from false accusations made by the Baldwin-Felts agents. As he climbed the front steps to the courthouse, unarmed and with his wife Jessie, he was shot to death by B-F detectives—who, themselves, were acquitted by the McDowell County court. A few weeks later, 6,000 miners invaded Logan County, and the Battle of Blair Mountain ensued. Both sides had machine guns, and the coal companies even hired private pilots to fly over the miners and drop bombs on them. Remarkably, only a dozen or so men were killed before Federal troops arrived and ended the conflict. A number of the union men were tried and convicted of treason, and, in the words of Prof. Wheeler, “Union organization in the southern fields was dealt a death blow from which it did not recover until the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933.”

Is Everything in West Virginia On Top of a Hill?

Isaac Thomas Mann was one of the people who started the Bank of Bramwell back in 1889. Building on its success, he talked J.P. Morgan into investing in coal mining in McDowell County, WV. (Mann is said to have been so persuasive that the conversation required only 7 minutes.) Serving as president of both the Bramwell bank and the Pocahontas Fuel Company, he quickly became an enormously successful and wealthy individual. It all collapsed with the Great Depression, but not before the town of Itmann (as in “I.T. Mann”) was named for him. (Photo courtesy of The West Virginia Encyclopedia.)

Prior to 1916, this area along the Guyandotte River was just wilderness, with a single rough dirt road running through it. (The Guyandotte River, in case any staunch Baptists are wondering, winds along for another 130 miles before emptying into the Ohio, near Latulle Avenue in Huntington, WV.) With the advent of Mann’s coal mine and company town, however, homes sprang up and were soon followed by the exceptional Itmann Company Store in 1922. It was built as four connected buildings, with a large loading dock area in the center. (Historical photos courtesy of Norfolk & Western Historical Society.)

The building is still in very good condition today, despite being vacant for many years. The section on the left contained the post office, barbershop, doctor’s office, and a poolroom, in addition to the Pocahontas Fuel Company offices. The company store was in the parallel section on the far right.

As with many of the most prominent buildings in this area, it was designed by Alex Mahood and constructed by Italian immigrant stonemasons. The loggia connecting the offices and the store is particularly impressive.

Although the mine closed in 1928 and most of the workers left the area, the store continued to provide goods and services for other nearby residents for many years. One of the store’s last uses before being abandoned was apparently as an office for the local Justice of the Peace—and the records of thousands of small claims cases are still spilled all over the place.

Itmann had two schoolhouses for the miners’ children. Since this was back in the bad old days, one school was for white children and the other for African-American kids. I found one of the old schools, although I’m not sure which one it was. When a larger, integrated school was built, the one-room schoolhouse became home to the local chapter of the UMWA. After the union closed their office here, the building sat vacant for roughly 20 years.

On the day of my visit, I had the good fortune of meeting Ken Goode, a graduate student in Landscape Architecture & Industrial Design at West Virginia University, and his industrious assistant April. Ken is also the program manager for the Guyandotte Trust for Groundwork USA, which is working to “revitalize neighborhoods and transform community liabilities to community assets.” Ken and April are in the process of converting the abandoned school / union hall into a headquarters for the local branch. Ken is also active in community “sustainability” initiatives in several parts of West Virginia, helping people set up shared gardens, rebuild parks, and pursue other means of sustaining the environment. It was a real pleasure talking with both of them, and I wish them well in their efforts on behalf of West Virginia.

In nearby Mullens, I particularly liked the 1920 bank building (which now houses a State Farm insurance agency)…

…and the 1923 Highland Avenue Baptist Church. J.R. Criswell was the church’s first pastor, and, as a practicing architect, he also designed the building. The church was built by Jubal A. Early—no, not the famous Confederate Civil War General, but one of his direct descendants.

Speaking of old Baptist churches, I detoured off of Highway 16 to find the Wyco Church, just to keep up with Cathy and Kim’s unquenchable thirst for historic Baptist houses of worship. I found it all right, perched on top of a steep hill and with no obvious way to get up there. I began to conclude that West Virginia churches were purposely set on the side or top of a mountain to force penitence on the parishioners as they climbed up the steep embankments! Eventually I found a sketchy and overgrown path up the side, and I emerged from the wilderness to get a good look at the striking Gothic Revival edifice.

The church was built in 1917 for use by the residents of the Wyco mining camp (as in Wyoming Coal Company). It had a sizable congregation until about 1950 and has been vacant for at least 20 years. The Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) now owns the property and appears to have started a renovation. The roof has been replaced, but the interior is still in very rough shape. With some difficulty, I re-located the path down the hill and returned to the patient BMW.

In Search of a Church—and a Famous Politician

I was now well behind schedule, as usual, and pressed on for Stotesbury with beaucoup de vitesse. (“Tachophobia”: Fear of Speed. Not an issue for BMW owners, generally speaking.) Of course, I had to stop to investigate the ruins of the old Blue Flame Inn. No one seems to know anything about the place, other than its name. I suspect that the name came from an age-old (and unreliable) test for moonshine whiskey: if it burns with a blue flame, it’s considered safe to drink. If there’s a red flame, then it contains lead and will kill you. (Of course, flatulence also burns with a blue flame, so it’s perhaps best not to generalize the results of this test…)

Stotesbury, WV, like Switchback and a hundred other all-but-defunct West Virginia coal-mining towns, is still clinging to life by its fingertips. A number of the old E.E. White Coal Company houses are still occupied here on the “affluent” side of town. On the other side of town, most of the houses have collapsed, burned, or just been abandoned.

Like the other towns, Stotesbury had a pair of churches for the mining families—one for whites, the other for blacks. The former example is well-preserved, nondescript, and still in use, while the latter was once one of the most stately and imposing African-American churches in rural West Virginia. I was determined to find what was left of St. John’s Baptist Church, whatever it took. This view of St. John’s from a distance, taken by Jen (a.k.a. LibertyImages), is one of the most wonderful and evocative photographs I’ve ever seen.

After seeing Jen’s photo of St. John’s, I learned that the church’s roof had collapsed not long after her photo was taken—and that the rest of the church followed over the next couple of years. Nonetheless, I wanted to see the site. I soon found myself driving the long-suffering BMW through deep and muddy sections of an old dirt road that clearly had not seen another vehicle in months or even years. As I bogged along, I realized that one of the few residents left in this part of Stotesbury was filming me with his cell phone from across Winding Gulf Creek!

When I finally reached this unusual concrete bridge, I realized that I had missed Old Stotesbury Road, which itself is rough, potholed, and muddy, and had instead ended up on what might have been an old railroad bed! My car is a veteran of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, however, so I had great confidence in its ability to go almost anywhere.

Of course, confidence should always know its limits, and I eventually set off on foot. If this isn’t the most remote part of West Virginia ever, then I’m not sure I’d want to see what is!

Eventually I found a little trail leading (yet again) up the side of a steep hill. The foundation of the once-proud St. John’s Baptist Church was sitting at the end, a sad relic of the church that had stood here for generations, meeting the spiritual needs of the town’s majority African-American population. I could not find a single photo of the church prior to its abandonment; the closest I came was this 2008 picture (courtesy of Coal Campus USA, a year before the roof collapsed.

Behind the huge foundations, I found only a few signs of the church’s cemetery.

This abandoned house sits at the bottom of the hill, below the church site. Remarkably, as I was bumping and bogging my way back to the town (on the good road), I happened across a young African American fellow who had lived in this house for 2 years when he was growing up. Darrin no longer lives in Stotesbury, but he was back to visit a friend. We ended up having an animated and very enjoyable conversation about the town, West Virginia history, and politics—and Stotesbury’s most famous (and infamous) former resident.

Less than 1 year after his birth, Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr.’s mother passed away during the great influenza epidemic of 1918. He was sent to live with his mother’s sister and her husband, who soon moved to Stotesbury to work for the E.E. White Coal Company. Like most other coal towns of the time, the company housing offered neither electricity nor running water. The couple renamed the child Robert C. Byrd, and he lived in this town until the age of 19. This photo shows him (at top) in Kopper’s Store in Stotesbury with some of his friends (courtesy of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.)

Robert proved to be a good student, and at age 7 he learned to play the violin from the school principal’s wife. After scrimping and saving for a long time, Robert’s adoptive father bought him a fiddle—which cost him almost a month’s pay. At 13, Robert put together a small string band and arranged a series of performances in the Appalachians. He also played with the “Moonlight Mountain Moonshiners” to supplement his meager income from raising hogs.

Getting to the Mark Twain High School required Robert Byrd to walk 3 miles and then take a school bus for another 4 miles. He graduated as valedictorian in 1934 (in a graduating class of 28). Today, there’s nothing left of the high school but the steps that used to lead to it. (“Scholionophobia”: Fear of school. “Batophobia”: Fear of heights and/or being close to high buildings.)

After having visited the U.S. Capital Building as a boy scout, Robert Byrd set his sights on becoming a Senator. Along the way, he married his Stotesbury sweetheart, Erma, at age 19, and became a store clerk and butcher in nearby Crab Orchard, WV. The couple promptly joined the Crab Orchard Baptist Church—at about the same time that Robert organized a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and was elected its first “Exalted Cyclops.” Although Byrd later apologized many times and characterized his role in the KKK as a brief “youthful indiscretion,” as late as 1945 he wrote a letter stating “I will never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. … Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.” He also vigorously opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Robert Byrd was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952 and then achieved his goal of becoming a U.S. Senator from West Virginia in 1958. In fact, he served in the Senate longer than anyone else, before or since, and was twice elected Senate Majority Leader. I remember him well from my several appearances to testify before the Senate Finance Committee. He was courteous and formal, in a traditional southern way, and he asked incisive questions that demonstrated his acute interest in helping raise families out of poverty, particularly in his home state. By the late 1960s, the Senator was actively supporting many civil rights causes. (Photo of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Senator Byrd courtesy of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.)

Senator Byrd died in June 2010 at age 92, and President Barack Obama was among the distinguished people who delivered eulogies at his funeral. During Byrd’s 51½-year career in the Senate, he funneled billions of dollars toward infrastructure and other spending in West Virginia, and I lost count of how many buildings, bridges, and highways are named after him. He did more to improve the dismal economic circumstances in West Virginia than anyone else in history. So was he a hero, a reformed scoundrel, or a very successful man with an unsavory past that secretly lingered on? In my new acquaintance Darrin’s words, “He was an absolute crook—but one who put the ill-gotten gains to good use in West Virginia.”

Into the Darkness (or “Coal Mining 101”)

By the time I reached Beckley, it was so late that I barely had time to find “Wildwood” (the 1835 home of General Alfred Beckley, who founded the city and named it after his father)…

…or the old Beckley Theatre from 1935 (and now the Raleigh Playhouse & Theatre)…

…or the 1929 First Baptist Church of Beckley (which became the fifth building in the church’s history in this city).

Did I mention that when Gen. Beckley founded the town in 1838, it didn’t even exist? Other than the General and his family, there were no other residents until 1845. Gen. Beckley had built Wildwood at the intersection of two old trails—one used by Native Americans and the other by buffalo, and over time other buildings were added.

Mostly I wanted to arrive in Beckley in time for a tour of the Phillips-Sprague Coal Mine. Mining first started here in 1889 when the Phillips family found an exposed seam at their farm. The Phillips used the hillside coal for their farm for a number of years, and in 1905 the Cranberry Coal Company began commercial mining. The mine closed in 1953, and the city of Beckley bought the property and reopened the mine as a tourist exhibition in 1962.

The tour was fascinating—and made me very grateful for having had nice, safe “desk jobs” for 40 years. This late in the day, there were no other people on the tour, and retired miner Steve hauled me into the mine using an original, 1925 battery-powered mine locomotive. Although the mine opening has been enlarged, the ceiling still seemed awfully close as we whizzed by. And note the short wooden planks that are bolted to the ceiling. Yep, that’s what keeps the ceiling rock from collapsing… (“Roof bolting” replaced the earlier timber supports starting in the late 1940s. The exhibition mine has both types, and frankly I thought the timber beams looked more secure!)

In this photo, deep within the mine, the coal seam is about 2 feet thick—representing roughly 20,000 years of plant material accumulation. In the early years, a miner would work by candlelight, first removing the “jack rock” from beneath the seam using a pick and shovel. Then, he would drill several holes into a section of the coal seam using a large “breast auger,” like the one protruding from the seam. Black powder would be packed into these openings, the miner would light the fuses as simultaneously as possible, and then run like mad around the corner of the opening and wait for the explosion. After returning, he would load the pieces of coal into a cart, which would be drawn out of the mine by a mule, horse, or possibly even several goats. His cart would be weighed, and the miner would be credited with $0.20 per ton… On an average day, the miner would blast and load 10 to 14 tons. It was backbreaking work, in no small part because the tunnels were generally so low that the miners could not stand upright. (Historical photo courtesy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)

Using candles around explosives often had dire consequences, as did the open-flame oil lamps that miners later wore. Starting in about 1910, carbide lamps used a chemical reaction to produce acetylene gas that burned more brightly and without smoke—but still with an open flame. Eventually, the Edison Flameless Electric Miner’s Lamp helped reduce the likelihood of explosions. (And, yes, those are kids in the historical photo.) (Drawing detail courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). In practice, an individual miner would do all of the steps, including cutting out the jack rock, boring and exploding the coal layer, and loading the coal into a cart.)

Unfortunately, there were all too many other ways in which an explosion could occur. Bituminous coal deposits give off methane gas, called “firedamp,” that is highly explosive in concentrations around 10 percent. “Blackdamp,” “stinkdamp,” and “afterdamp” were also serious problems. A “fire boss” would periodically walk through the mine wearing wet clothing and carrying a candle at the end of a long stick, purposely burning off any residual gasses not cleared out by the mine’s ventilation system. Fire bosses were easy to identify, since they generally lacked any facial hair, such as eyebrows.

In my b&w photo from the Beckley Mine, several “kettle bottoms” are shown, under and next to a miner’s lunch bucket. These are sections of fossilized tree trunks, weighing as much as 400 pounds each. It wasn’t easy to distinguish these stones from the other rock forming the mine ceiling. As it happens, their smooth sides would slide easily against other rock, and the drilling and blasting tended to loosen them—at which point they could fall out without warning, injuring or killing anyone standing underneath. Kettle bottoms were more commonly called “widowmakers” for good reason.

Coal mining deaths have been a fact of life from the first underground mining in the late 1800s through to the present. In West Virginia alone, there were over 21,000 deaths during 1883-2013 and nearly 500,000 injuries. I exited the mine with a renewed respect for the dangers that miners faced as they pursued their livelihoods and provided the energy that enabled the American industrial revolution.

Back above ground, I hustled the 335i off toward my overnight destination at Hawk’s Nest State Park. I had to forgo a return trip to the abandoned town of Thurmond, even though it’s one of my favorite places anywhere in the state (see Almost Heaven, West Virginia). Along the way, however, I managed a quick look at the beautiful mansion built in 1890 for William Nelson Page, then-president of the Gauley Mountain Coal Company and one of the foremost metallurgists and railroad engineers of the time.

I also found the Halfway House tavern, which was built sometime between 1790 and 1810. If you look carefully, you’ll see that it features a direct entrance to an upper floor by means of a “double approach” staircase on the front porch. Civil War skirmishes were common in this area, and both sides used the tavern for their headquarters at one time or another. The interior wood still bears carved names and graffiti from the soldiers, not to mention an impressive collection of sword hack marks on the doors, walls, and mantels.

I finally reached Hawks Nest State Park and marveled at the views from its mountainous rock outcroppings. As documented in West Virginia: GPS, Gravel, and All, my friend Buzz and I had motorcycled by the state park back in 2007, but somehow missed the scenic overlook.

This next photo shows the Hawks Nest Dam on the New River. See the drainage-like opening and tower on the far right of the dam? It diverts the majority of the New River into a tunnel that runs 3.8 miles underground to a hydroelectric generating station. The tunnel was dug and blasted in 1930-1933—creating one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the U.S. The Hawks Nest Tunnel Tragedy, by Betty Dotson-Lewis, has a compelling description of the gross negligence by the Union Carbide Corporation that led to the deaths of between 500 and 1,000 men, out of a workforce of 3,000.

By the time I checked into the lodge at the state park, I was tired, hungry, and ecstatic over all the fascinating places I’d visited during the day. The rooms at the lodge are fairly basic, the food in the dining room is very good, and the views of the New River Gorge are spectacular. A cable car takes visitors straight down the side of the mountain to the river—which is far easier than my corresponding journey on foot the next day!

A Walk in the Wilderness

In the morning, I retraced my steps on Highway 16 to visit a few places that I’d missed the day before due to lack of daylight. This large rock outcropping is known locally as “Indian Head Rock.” It’s about 0.3 mile south of the intersection of Highways 16 and 60.

The city of Fayetteville, WV is worthy of a longer visit—and it’s close to the extraordinary New River Gorge Bridge—but I was saving my time and energy for a trek down the mountain. (And, I hoped, back up as well.) I managed to find the old Altamont Hotel hiding behind these trees. It’s virtually unchanged from its original construction in 1897-1898 and even retains much of its original, now-antique furniture. The Altamont features the largest veranda in Fayette County, just in case anyone is keeping up with such statistics… An upstairs rooms is known as “the hung jury room,” since stalemated juries from the nearby county courthouse were often sequestered there.

Speaking of the courthouse, it was magnificent. It’s made of red brick with stone foundations, porches, and window arches. It has been in active service since 1895.

With a last look at my glorious 335i on the streets of Fayetteville, it was time to head for the hills—and an abandoned mine perched on the impossibly steep banks of the New River Gorge.

The rich, smokeless, bituminous coal of West Virginia was in such great demand that mining companies went to extraordinary lengths to reach new seams. The Sewell Seam was particularly challenging, since it lay 600 feet up the side of the gorge above the New River, or, equivalently, 400 feet down from the top of the gorge. However, the new C&O Railroad tracks at the bottom of the gorge provided quite an incentive to tap this seam, and work began on Kaymoor Mine #1 in 1899. This HABS diagram shows “Kaymoor Top,” where many of the workers lived, “Kaymoor Mine” at the seam level, and “Kaymoor Bottom,” where the coal-processing and loading equipment was, along with coke ovens and the bulk of the worker housing. The HABS photograph gives an even more graphic idea of how steep the terrain is.

There are two ways to hike to the mine ruins: a relatively level 2.1-mile trail, from old Fayette Station Road, or the much shorter 0.5-mile trail down from Kaymoor Top. Naturally I opted for the latter! Here’s a view from Kaymoor Top, with the New River 1,000 feet below and the foundation of the old “haulage house” in the foreground. (The haulage was a steep rail system for transporting workers and supplies up and down the mountainside. That should have been a clue…)

I knew that this trail would be very steep and challenging, and I’d brought along a set of trekking poles just in case I needed them. National Park Service signs also warned of timber rattlesnakes and copperheads, although I was hopeful that they would all still be happily hibernating. (“Ophidiophobia”: Fear of snakes.) Once underway, the trail down was deceptively easy at first, with a modest grade and nice dirt landings braced by logs in the steeper sections. Before long, however, the trail comprised a steep and narrow series of uneven rocks, some secure, some loose. I got my money’s worth from the trekking poles, without doubt.

The folks who lived at Kaymoor Top and worked in the mine would routinely follow the series of 7 switchbacks carved into the side of the gorge to get to work. In the steepest parts, they would clamber up or down crude ladders such as this one. The National Park Service had thoughtfully built an occasional wooden staircase for the benefit of wandering old photographers like me.

It was really important to watch your footing almost every step of the way. But the scenery constantly cried out for my attention.

I probably could have hiked the level 2.1-mile route in about an hour. The half-mile climb down from Kaymoor Top took me only 35 minutes, although it felt like hours and left me with rubbery legs! Regardless, I had reached the mine level—and celebrated by drinking half my water and (appropriately enough) eating a Cliff Bar. (For the record, my return climb back up the mountain took 39 minutes. I’m more sure-footed going uphill.)

Safety was very important to the operators of the Kaymoor Mine, as evidenced by the sign shown in the photo above. In this photo, however, I got the sense that safety was important to the owners mostly because accidents forced the mine to shut down for a period of time. Concern for the injured workers seemed to be secondary.

Operating a mine on the middle of a steep hill required blasting out a “shelf.” That is, a narrow level surface, where the coal trains could run and the lamp house, powder house, headhouse, and other buildings could be located. At Kaymoor Mine, the shelf followed this semi-circular path. The metal surface in the foreground of the photo was the floor for the coal car repair house, which can be identified in the HABS diagram below and in the Bing satellite image. The historical photo shows how the repair building (at left) and headhouse were connected.

This was the main opening to the mine, with an old coal car in the foreground. It’s blocked off now, to prevent daring explorers (also known as “idiots”) from crawling deep within. There were several other entrances; the old photo from the inside indicates a severe need for roof bolting!

Kaymoor was initially mined by hand, with coal drawn out by mules. Once electricity was installed, power equipment could be used to dig out the rock strata below the seam, and electric coal locomotives could haul miners in and coal out. Due to tight clearances in the mine, however, the miners themselves continued to load the coal into the carts, by hand and shovel, right up until the mine’s closure in 1962. Over the course of the mine’s operation, approximately 17 million tons of coal were produced. Much of this output was converted to coke in the mine’s 202 ovens, reaching a cumulative total of 1.2 million tons before the ovens were shut down in 1935. The amount of lead and other noxious byproducts was not measured, nor their effects on the families living in the houses nearby.

This photo shows the building where black powder was stored prior to its use to blast the coal out of the seam. Powder houses are designed to blow up. That is, in the event of an explosion, the stone walls direct the force of the explosion upwards, through a flimsy roof, and not sideways into the work area. This powder house survived intact. Elsewhere, only the walls of the lamphouse are still standing, where miners would pick up their headlamps each morning. The headhouse, with all the equipment to transport the coal down to Kaymoor Bottom, is just a pile of boards and metal, partway down the hillside.

The next 600 feet, down to Kaymoor Bottom, is far steeper even than the first 400 feet. The Park Service has thoughtfully provided a stairway to get there, with 841 steps… Although my legs were feeling a lot stronger after the water and Cliff Bar, I knew that climbing back up those steps was likely to be beyond my capabilities. I had to content myself with this vertigo-inducing look at the first 120 or so steps before the stairway disappears out of sight. Next time! The Bing satellite views suggested that the climb down would be worth it, with ruins of the processing plant, rail yard, and the mine’s 202 coke ovens just waiting to be found.

Although I hadn’t seen another soul on my hike down, at the mine I bumped into a cheery fellow from Derbyshire, England. He had taken the 2.1-mile path, which he said was pretty easy—but then those Brits are natural-born hikers. A few days earlier, he had hiked much of the Endless Wall trail along the top of the New River Gorge on the other side, where the cliffs are made of Nuttall Sandstone. We had a great chat, and then we went our separate ways.

Just before turning to climb back up the gorge, I spotted a young woman in an exercise outfit, as she was starting to climb down the stairway to Kaymoor Bottom. I couldn’t imagine that anyone would hustle from Kaymoor Top to Kaymoor Bottom and back, for exercise, but that’s what she appeared to be doing. I began my climb back up the switchbacks, pausing every so often to catch my breath and drink some more water. Danged if she didn’t suddenly appear behind me when I was only two-thirds of the way up! We talked for a few minutes while she jogged in place on the treacherous path, and then she was up, up, and away. I know some really fit people, but this young lady set a new record.

A little farther up the trail, I stopped to admire the towering cliffs in the distance. (Okay, and to catch my breath again.) I had heard voices up there, and I suddenly realized that someone was climbing the cliff. He is just visible to the left of dead center in this photo. As I was zooming the camera in his direction, he suddenly lost his grip and fell.

My blood curdled instantly, and in my immediate horror I wondered whether I could make my way over there to offer assistance. Thankfully, he knew what he was doing: he fell only about 3 or 4 feet before his safety rope caught him. He swung there in mid-air for a few moments, cussing a blue streak while his friends laughed and jeered at him, and then swung over and resumed his climb.

I learned later that this is a popular cliff among dedicated climbers, although at least one person has died here. After reaching the BMW at Kaymoor Top, changing out of my hiking boots, and starting the long drive home, I reflected on this spot and its vicissitudes over time. Where miners once risked life and limb to eke out a living for themselves and their families, now nature has reclaimed the land and sportsmen and sportswomen have the luxury of risking life and limb in the pursuit of adventure and physical accomplishment.

The comparison says a lot about the improvement in standards of living from the early 1900s to the early 2000s and how far the country has come economically. It also speaks to mankind’s continuing desire for challenge and risk, in an increasingly regulated and constrained society. But in between the thoughts of the relative affluence, comfort, and safety of modern society, I kept thinking back to the images I had seen of the old, the unskilled, and the uneducated, living in their collapsing homes and with minimal opportunity to improve their circumstances. Southern West Virginia seems to have a disproportionate share of these forgotten citizens, and our society at large seems a long way from knowing how to help ensure opportunities for everyone who is willing to reach for them.

Rick F.

PS: I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting road trip. Southern West Virginia lived up to the state’s reputation for fun roads and fascinating history, along with breathtaking scenery at every turn. And the 335i once again proved that it can handle any challenge, from brisk motoring across mountain passes, to puttering along slowly trying to find lost and forgotten sites on the most primitive of roads. In every respect, it was a memorable adventure.

PPS: “Hodophobia”: Fear of road travel. (Not relevant.) “Sesquinuntiusophobia”: Fear of excessively long trip reports. (Highly relevant.)


Written by Rick


  1. Rick


    You’re quite welcome—I’m glad you enjoyed it! West Virginia has so much fascinating history and scenery. But it’s tragic how so many of its towns are falling apart as a result of poverty and the opioid crisis. I very much hope that better days will return.


  2. Jim Daniels

    One of the best photo essays I’ve seen. I’ve been planning a road trip through WV and this is one of the best single-site resources I’ve found. Thank you!
    One tiny editorial recommendation – the John Nash story is A Beautiful Mind, not brilliant.

  3. Rick


    Thanks—I’m very pleased that you liked the report and found it useful for planning a trip of your own! I’m overdue for another trip to West Virginia. It’s just such a fascinating place.

    Thanks, too, for the correction regarding the movie about John Nash. I’ve updated the post accordingly.

    Happy touring, and please let me know if you have any questions about the specific places I saw, their locations, or anything else.


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