Coal-country ghost town preserved for tourists

THURMOND, W.Va. — Traffic didn’t stall when a long freight train ran through downtown at 5:43 p.m. on a recent weekday. There were no motorists or pedestrians to watch the clattering convoy whip past the bank and mercantile store, and the crows and pigeons had taken wing for the high ground behind this place on the New River.

Thurmond, population five or seven (depending on whom you ask), is a coal-country ghost town killed by changes in technology … and sustained by recreation. As a political debate over mining’s future roils West Virginia, the preservation of this once-thriving town of 500 fits quietly into state and federal plans to promote heritage tourism.

Thurmond is at the end of W.Va. 25, a slim, twisting path that mirrors the last 6 miles of Dunloup Creek before reaching the New River, a prime Appalachian destination for adventure travelers. In 1978, New River Gorge National River was established to protect its many rapids for whitewater sports. Other land along this stretch of the mountain-flanked river became two state parks and a national reserve of the Boy Scouts of America.

New River Gorge drew 1.3 million visitors last year, according to Dave Bieri, district supervisor for the Park Service property. That and Gauley River National Recreation Area (downstream) and Bluestone National Scenic River (upstream) generated $58.6 million in tourist spending, and New River Gorge “accounts for about 95% of that,” says Bieri.

Downstream to the north, the U.S. 19 bridge far above the deep gorge draws up to 70,000 folks to see daredevil leapers at the autumn base-jump. There’s a kayak/canoe put-in across the W.Va. 25 car/rail bridge from intriguing but often forlorn Thurmond.

Death by changing technology

Thurmond was founded in 1873 at a sharp bend in the New River, where shores were wide enough to hold a community. The mighty Chesapeake & Ohio Railway put tracks over the gorge and a rail yard made Thurmond an important depot for area coal and lumber. In 1910, Thurmond produced more C&O freight tonnage than Cincinnati and Richmond, Va., combined.

Thurmond had two banks, two hotels, stores, a cinema and offices. Three-story brick buildings faced a “Commercial Row” — that was never paved.  As Bieri says, “Main Street was the railroad tracks.”

A combination of factors emptied Thurmond. In the 1930s, the Great Depression killed one bank and caused the other to move. Thurmond’s rail yard was built to handle steam locomotives, and that facility withered as trains switched to diesel. Key buildings, including the hotels, were destroyed in fires and never rebuilt. Their locations are now marked with foundation remnants and placards.

More: Rail fan fantasy: Driving a historic steam locomotive

 America shifted from rails to roads, and from coal to other forms of residential heating. The railroad offices closed in 1984. The post office lasted until 1995, the year the Park Service restored Thurmond’s two-story depot as a seasonal visitor center.

You see what remains of Thurmond when you cross the narrow bridge. The fast-moving New River is to the left, screened by brush from a gravel-topped lot where the long-gone rail yard was. Across three sets of tracks is now-empty downtown Thurmond. Straddling the tracks at the far end of Thurmond looms the massive CSX coaling station, built in 1922, where chutes dropped ore into coal cars that passed below it. It was abandoned in the 1960s, but unlike the railroad’s twin water towers was never taken down.

Imagine downtown without the dust and dirt, and you’re back in the 1920s. In 1987, movie director John Sayles shot Matewan in Thurmond. It was based on a violent 1920 miner-management conflict elsewhere in West Virginia.

Thurmond’s aging tracks are rusted on the sides but clean on the tops. CSX trains and those from the RJ Curman short-line use them, but cargo is transferred farther up the line these days. Amtrak will still make a flag stop when it comes through on Wednesdays.

 In 1910, 75,000 passengers passed through Thurmond.

Between the tracks and the hills immediately behind Thurmond is the four-story 1917 brick building that held the Bank of Thurmond, stores, offices and apartments. Next to it is the large 1908 brick Goodwin-Kinkaid building that once bustled with offices, restaurants and lodgers. Another substantial structure, built in 1904, housed a bank and drug store. Smaller buildings on that two-block strip include a store that catered to rail workers and later was the post office. A tiny cinder block building is the modern town hall. Thurmond is still incorporated; its handful of residents live on the nearby hills.

No businesses are open on the main street, where a stretch of sidewalk is set with commemorative bricks noting the rise and fall of Thurmond. The last engraved paver thanks the Boy Scouts for their sidewalk resurfacing project.

The Park Service’s Bieri says the handful of Thurmond residents are looking for an opportunity to get viable commerce downtown — though the large buildings that remain, all owned by the government, “would take a lot to get into shape.”

But the green mountains squeezing the New River rise 10 stories at a steep angle — a great vista — and an easy,  2-mile railroad-grade walking trail at the kayak put-in takes you to great overlooks of the deserted village.

Weekends attract cars, motorcycles and boats to Thurmond. A July Train Day event pulls 700 or so visitors. Bieri estimates that close to 7,000 people this past summer came to the place where time stands still — until a train barrels through.

More: Trains, glorious trains: Best rail photos and galleries

Preserving America’s Industrial Age

Other evocative Industrial Age places to visit in America include:

• Nearby Beckley, W-Va., on I-77. The Exhibition Coal Mine takes you 1,500 feet into hillside via a once-working coal mine. Above ground, a coal camp shows what life was like working there in the early 20th century.  Former miners lead guided tours.

Pullman National Monument in Chicago. The first planned industrial community in the nation, added to the national park system in 2015, was built in the 1880s as a company town to house workers who manufactured Pullman railroad sleeping cars. In 1894, Pullman was the site of a famous strike.

• In Massachusetts, Lowell National Historical Park preserves part of the textile industry that helped pave the way to American industrial preeminence; working conditions there and elsewhere led to the rise of the American labor movement. Boott Cotton Mills factory’s clattering weave room has 88 mechanical looms, each the size of an upright piano. An electric trolley takes you among buildings on the site.

• What was it like to work in Pittsburgh’s steel-making heyday? Rivers of Steel offers five self-guided Routes to Roots regional tours that take you into historic mining towns and even guided tours of a onetime blast furnace — the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark, in Swissvale. Closed November-April.

• The American Precision Museum in Putney, Vt., a onetime Civil War rifle factory, showcases lathes, rifling machines and other equipment once driven by water power that helped develop the concept of interchangeable parts. Closed November-May.

• The Henry Ford Museum of Innovation in Dearborn, Mich.,holds giant steam engines in its 12-acre Made in America exhibit. Learn how a Ford Model T was built.

• What was it like to live in a company-owned Carolinas textile town in the 1930s? Cooleemee is a walk-through blue-collar mill village preserved as a historic district just over an hour northeast of Charlotte.

• The Western Museum of Mining & Industry in Colorado Springs features an above-ground recreation of a below-ground gold/silver mine. See demos of machinery, from drills to hoist engines.

Copyright 2017