Finding Our Lumps in West Virginia
After a brief stay outside of Springfield Ohio, we continued our trek east and found ourselves passing through the states first, and third, capital before pushing into coal country.
Nathaniel Massie and a party of 39 men laid out the town of Chillicothe, with 456 lots, in the summer of 1796. He named it from a derivation of the Shawnee word “Cha-la-gaw-tha,” which means town or gathering place.
This region had been home to the Hopewell and Adena native culture and later the Shawnee, before European settlement. You can see a glimpse of the native life, including the Hopewell Mounds at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park just north of town.
The town grew rapidly, becoming a center of political influence within the Northwest Territory. By late 1796, several taverns, stores, and artisan shops had been built.
In the summer of 1798, Ross County was incorporated, and Chillicothe became the county seat. Two years later, when Indiana Territory was split off of the old Northwest Territory, Chillicothe was named the capital of the remnant Northwest Territory. When Ohio moved to statehood, Chillicothe was named the state capital. However, politics lead to the capital being moved to Zanesville in 1810, only to be moved back in 1812. It was permanently moved to Columbus in 1816, however, Chillicothe continued to grow.
By this time, Chillicothe was known for its paper producing industry, however, it would cement that status when the Mead Paper Company purchased a facility there in 1890. Mead merged with Westvaco in 2001 and has changed hands a couple of times since then, and is now the Pixelle paper mill and the town’s largest employer.
There is a lot more to Chillicothe, including its military importance as a training center during the War of 1812, its ties to the Civil War, and Camp Sherman, which was active from 1917 to the 1920s. Read about the rich history of Chillicothe HERE.
A Hard Life in Coal Country
That's Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, as we passed through on our way to Beckley. We were on a mission to one of our first "primary destinations", coal country.
The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine (Phillips-Sprague Mine) opened in 1889 and was commercially developed in 1905 with the first shipment of coal in January 1906.
We took the mine tour and learned quite a bit from our guide, who is a veteran miner, about the early days of the mine and the daily responsibilities of past and present coal miners. Just how hard of a life? Well, imagine crawling through a space only tall enough for you to sit on your knees, see only what could be illuminated by your single flame, dig out coal from the walls, picking out the rock, loading a cart, and hauling it out. And for all that effort, the early miner was paid 20 Cents per ton and worked 10 hours a day.
During the tour, we heard about the advances in mining methods throughout the years, and how even with the newer methods, coal mining is still a hard and dangerous operation. The guide took us through this drift mine on tracks going 1,500 feet up and around the mined-out areas, stopping along the way with fascinating stories and examples of the mining methods and equipment used through the years. The tour lasts around 30 minutes and is well worth it. Be sure to dress accordingly as the mine is a consistent 58 degrees.
This mine was active until 1953 when the property was sold to the city of Beckley. The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine opened in 1962, as the first historic site wholly dedicated to educating the public about coal mining, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. If you are not into the tour on rail, you can still see and learn quite a bit in the museum, period coal camp buildings situated throughout the grounds, and a youth museum opened later. Plan ahead as tours are seasonal, running April 1 to November 1, and start about every half hour during peak tourism. You'll need around 2 and a half hours to do the tour, museum and visit the period buildings on the grounds. They also offer group tours during the off-season depending on the weather.
Welch, A County Seat Before it was even a town.
Welch, Wv - Saturday afternoon street scene, 1946
On one of our day trips from Beckley, we squirreled down 49 miles to the Southwest on WV 97/16 to explore more coal mining in Welch. Named for Isiah Welch, a former captain in the Confederate States Army who came to the region as a surveyor, the town got an early start as the McDowell County Seat when voters approved it in 1892. The town was incorporated in 1893.
Welch, Wv -Young boy around 13 working the trip rope for Welch Mining in 1908
McDowell County began to decline after the post-WWII boom in production as coal was being replaced with oil in many parts of the country, and the tasks of mining were seeing the fruits of improved methods and Mechanics in mining.
President John Kennedy toured Welch and McDowell County in 1960, seeing first hand the loss of jobs to machines. Despite being the nation's top producer, residents were struggling, which led to the nation's first food stamps and begin our government's "War on Poverty". During a speech in Canton, Ohio on September 27, 1960, Kennedy said "McDowell County mines more coal than it ever has in its history, probably more coal than any county in the United States and yet there are more people getting surplus food packages in McDowell County than any county in the United States. The reason is that machines are doing the jobs of men, and we have not been able to find jobs for those men."
Losses in the steel industry, as well as the closure of US Steel Mines nearby in 1986, resulted in over 1,200 job losses and major declines in income and real estate values. This forced many miners to abandon their homes and search for a new life elsewhere.
Today, the McDowell County Courthouse and Welch Commercial Historic District are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Welch is known for several "firsts". The first children's playground in West Virginia in 1913, the first memorial building in the U.S. honoring World War I soldiers in 1923 (since burned down), and the first municipally owned parking building in the United States, opened in 1941. Welch was also home to Minnie Buckingham Harper, who became the first black woman legislator in the United States in 1923 when the Governor appointed her to replace her deceased husband.
You'll pass through plenty more West Virginia coal towns in this area, and it's worth the time to plan out a route to explore. Just know these roads are really curvy and some are narrow, so make sure to park your travel trailer before trying this stretch if you have one. And plan on a long day of exploring. There will be several other towns in this area we'll write about soon I'm sure.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Our second day trip took us north and east of Beckley to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, where we found the historic town of Thurmond.
A former railroad community, Thurmond was a prosperous town with numerous businesses but is a West Virginia ghost town today.
The settlement was established by Captain William D. Thurmond after he was commissioned to survey the land on the north side of New River in the heart of New River Gorge. As payment for his services, he received 73 acres of land in April 1873. The same year, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad opened its main line from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River. When the railroad bridged the New River in 1888-1889 just a couple hundred yards east of Thurmond on the south side of the river, things began to change. A railroad station was built in 1888 at the bridge location, and soon Thurmond’s land became an asset yard for the railroad. A post office called Arbuckle also opened in 1888.
The Mankin-Cox Building was built in 1904 at the southern limits of the commercial district. The structure was built by Dr. J.W. Mankin and housed the Mankin Drug Company on the right side, and Tom McKell opened the New River Banking & Trust Company on the left side. The Mankin-Cox Building is the oldest building in the commercial district.
This four-story building was constructed by the Bullock Realty Company in 1917 and housed a jewelry company until 1922 when it was acquired by the National Bank of Thurmond. After renovations, the first level was initially cast-iron storefronts, but the bank remodeled their half into a limestone classical revival facade. After the Bank closed in 1931, a clothing store later operated out of the space, and residents lived in the upper floors until 1959. In 1975, the building owners connected it to an adjoining building and formed The Bankers Club, a hotel and restaurant that closed in 1988.
Thurmond has seen its share of fires, which have destroyed more than one hotel and the depot over the past century. The two-story Thurmond Depot was built in 1904 after the original station was destroyed by fire. Today the station is a landmark structure in the town, practically unchanged after more than a century. Re-habilitated in 1995, it now serves as a National Park Visitor Center and an active Amtrak station. Much of the interior is still in place including the round, tongue and groove ticket windows and some waiting room benches. We missed the summer hours being here in October, so the depot was closed during our visit.
In 1978, the National Park Service established the New River Gorge National Park to conserve and interpret the natural, scenic, and historical values of the New River Gorge. Thurmond was identified as a prime historical site, and in 1984 the Thurmond Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This town has a great history! Read our new article about Thurmond HERE.
And by the way, we found our lumps of coal on the tracks of Thurmond. I'm sure one will find its way into my stocking this holiday season.
The New River Gorge Bridge on US 19 was completed in October 1977 and was a major improvement to the lives of West Virginians. The bridge reduced a 40-minute drive down narrow mountain roads and across the river to less than a minute. When it was finished, the New River Gorge Bridge's arch made it the longest steel arch bridge in the world, a title it held until 2003 with the construction of China’s Shanghai’s Lupu Bridge. It is currently the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country. It remains the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the third highest in the United States. One of the most photographed places in West Virginia, the National Park Service listed the New River Gorge Bridge in the National Register of Historic Places in 2013 as a significant historic resource.
While in West Virginia we stayed at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine Campground, a small 17 space campground open April 1 through December 1. Full hookups are available, but some COVID restrictions are in place as of this writing, including a ban on tents. All sites are paved and shaded. The campground is a little tight, but well worth it if you can plan ahead. It appeared to us only a few of the 17 spaces would handle longer rigs. We parked in a 55-foot space, but up the hill, the spaces were shorter. For more information, see their website here.
Cya on the road!
Keywords: Arch Bridge, Beckley, Chillicothe Ohio, Exhibition Coal Mine, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, Thurmond, tour, Welch
My husband is from West Virginia but hasn't lived there for over 50 years. We found you trip there very interesting. On your next trip there you might want to visit his former home town of Petersburg. There that area is more known for farming and is the home of the Golden Trout. The fish hatchery there first bred the Golden Trout and still do.
Really like you news!etter.
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