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 Clio.com
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!