Every October, tens of thousands of spectators show up in Fayetteville, West Virginia to watch several hundred brave souls leap from the 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge. Just as stunning as the parachutists’ courage on Bridge Day, however, is the scenery at the gorge. It’s breathtaking on the scale of the Grand Canyon. Lush forests line the steep walls. The river roars through the bottom far below, creating world-class rapids. What you see from high above, however, is a remanufacture of sorts, a take two that shows how fast man abandons exhausted land and nature moves to reclaim his ruins.
Left: Bridge Day, photo courtesy C. Barnett; Right: The New River Gorge Bridge, photo courtesy S. Shaluta
The New River is, oddly enough, one of the world’s oldest. For millions of years, the river has been cutting its own gorge, exposing layers of rock that make up the bulk of the Appalachian mountains. Some of those strata are, of course, coal, which 19th century industrialists coveted, but it wasn’t until 1873, when the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad completed lines to the New River, that extracting the black rock became profitable.
At once the lower New River Gorge was transformed from a remote, lightly-inhabited backwater to a series of coal boom towns situated between their two reasons for being: the coal seams and the railroad tracks. Thousands of people came to the gorge for work, those who had money looking for investments with big payoffs, those without money looking for a steady paycheck.
The towns, sporting names like Elmo, Nuttallburg, Alaska and Fire Creek, were rough-and-tumble, blue collar hamlets that existed solely to provide for workers’ families. Many of the villages near active mines became relatively large and populous. Some had 500 residents or more and all the schools, post offices churches and saloons to serve them. Most of the towns were squeezed in the tiny space between the train tracks and the steep canyon walls. When towns expanded, they had to do so along a line parallel to the river; there were few other viable options for building. A few places had a “top” and a “bottom” and residents and workmen used a sort of tram to travel between the two.
The New River Gorge today. Top: Towns were between the train tracks (still there today) and the steep mountainside. Ruins amid the growth. Bottom: The hint of a haulage or tram between a town’s top and bottom.
A number of mine owners lived in the gorge and built resplendent mansions. Joseph Beury, who opened at least six mines and founded the town of Beury, built a 23-room home there that rivaled the mansions of the well-to-do in large cities. But most homes were far more modest affairs. While Joseph Beury enjoyed his home’s greenhouse, swimming pool and stables, workers who daily descended into the dark and dangerous mines returned to board-and-batten hovels with only four rooms, some measuring merely 150 square feet.
Often nearby were hundreds of coke ovens that belched sulfurous smoke nonstop and laid a permanent blanket of dark haze over these towns. Meanwhile, lumberjacks denuded the gorge walls to furnish the extensive amount of wood needed for the mining operations and to sell timber to distant markets. Much of the New River Gorge of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was developed and freshly-logged, a far cry from the wild landscape there today.
The episodes in these small towns were the stuff of legend. A poker game at the Dunglen hotel in Glen Jean was played nonstop for 14 years. One lucky coal operator received a check for more than $1 million for his holdings from an excited investor. He promptly went to the nearest saloon, bought a round of drinks for the house, and boarded a train, leaving the coalfields forever.
When the coal seams pinched out, though, there was little reason to stay, and as mines closed, the gorge became one long ghost town. Time and the elements rotted miners’ ramshackle homes and they fell in on themselves, melted into the mountainside or riverbank. The bigger infrastructure–company stores, churches and tipples–took a while longer, but those, too, couldn’t withstand wild growth, precipitation, seasons. At certain places on the rim of the gorge it’s possible to make out the outlines some old building, a clearing where hundreds of families once spent a good portion of their lives.
Ruins in the New River Gorge. Images courtesy Chris DellaMea at coalcampusa.com
By mid-century, the gorge was a virtual ghost town. In 1978, the National Park Service took ownership of the spent land, and since then the New River Gorge National River has afforded protection to this national treasure and allowed the natural world to cover the tracks of man’s exploitation there. Ruins are hard to find, so complete is nature’s reclamation, but they are there. Among the many trails on National Park Service property is one winding through the ruins of Kaymoor–the last mining town to be abandoned–but soon enough these ruins will be obscured by natural forces, too. The website Coal Camp USA has done a great job documenting the abandoned coal towns of the New River and all around the Appalachian coalfields.
Thurmond was once an important stop for steam locomotives that needed fuel and water. But the town entered a slow decline thanks to the advent of diesel locomotives and the abandonment of the gorge. A handful of folks–five at last count–still live in Thurmond. 462 residents lived there in 1930. The National Park Service has opened a seasonal visitor center at Thurmond and restored some of the buildings–the closest you’ll get to walking the streets of the vanished towns of the New River Gorge. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the gorge is as important to us as a natural wonder in a postindustrial economy as it was to the miners and businessmen who took so much from it.
Scenes from restored Thurmond