Coal mine heritage, mountain handicrafts, and a destination bridge all are woven together thanks to a very old river in West Virginia.
By Anna Lee Braunstein
The New River in West Virginia is a wondrous place to visit. But the New, as it typically is called, is not new. It’s most likely the oldest river in North America and possibly one of the oldest in the world.
We gleaned our first view of it from a height of 876 feet as we drove across the New River Gorge Bridge. Built of 88 million pounds of steel and cement, it is the longest arch bridge in North America, with a 1,700-foot span, and the fourth longest such bridge in the world. Before the bridge was completed in 1977, it took 45 minutes on a narrow winding road to drive from towns on one side of the river to those on the other. Now the crossing takes only a few moments, and the view is striking.
For late-19th-century communities along the New River, the beauty we see today was lost in a haze of gray dust. West Virginia is rich with coal. Back then the gorge was pocked with hundreds of mines, and the towns were clouded with coal dust. This was the land of John Henry, the “steel-driving man” honored in the old ballad.
Train tracks along the river acted as a superhighway carrying coal and lumber to the industrial Midwest and East. Many of the towns are now gone, and the depots of the remaining communities are closed, but trains still run along the tracks.
Today, where mines and towns had scarred the landscape, nature has restored its glorious greenery. A rich variety of trees and shrubs grow in the canyon. Flowers and bushes such as roses, dogwood, and rhododendrons, along with violets, trillium, and lady’s slipper, provide abundant colors. The gorge is replete with animals, from bears to mayfly nymphs. Anglers are tempted by bass, walleye, carp, and catfish.
In lengths varying from short strolls to steep hikes, trails lead to waterfalls, abandoned mines, ghost towns, and spectacular views. On the rock walls, climbers reach for top anchors as they scale the canyon. On the water, rafts, canoes, and kayaks are filled with riders of all skill levels. Many outfitters here offer white-water trips, and some also have RV sites at their headquarters.
The New offers many ways to enjoy its beauty. The best starting point for exploration is at any of the four National Park Service visitors centers. The Canyon Rim and Sandstone visitors centers are open year-round, while Grandview and Thurmond Depot are open from late May through August.
We chose to explore the canyon using our towed car, and fellow motorhomers should do likewise. The mostly one-way Fayette Station Road wends along the river’s edge as it has for a hundred years. It served as the main connection to those coal towns until the bridge was built. Drivers can still descend into the canyon, slowing for hairpin turns, crossing the narrow bridge, and climbing up the other side. An excellent audio guide, available free at the visitors centers, gives historical background as well as a nature lesson.
The gorge is spectacular in any season, but it really stands out in the fall. For more details about autumn activities, see the accompanying sidebar.
At Beckley, a town approximately 20 miles south of the bridge, beauty comes in the form of art. Tamarack cultural center is known as “The Best of West Virginia” for craft lovers. Since Tamarack opened in 1996, thousands of jury-selected artisans from all over the state have exhibited their work there. From the air, the building looks like a star quilt pattern. Inside are outstanding creations in wood, fiber, metal, glass, clay, and more. Many are one-of-a-kind; all are excellent. For those whose tastes are for edible creations, shelves are laden with jams, mustards, and other delicacies created by award-winning cooks. Small studios spoke out from the display area, enabling visitors to watch glassblowers, woodworkers, potters, and other artists. A Taste of West Virginia Food Court, managed by the acclaimed Greenbrier resort, serves delicious and affordable breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. The signature dish is fried green tomatoes; they even share some of their recipes. With all this on display, Tamarack is a pleasurable destination for the whole family, and it is open daily. For more information, call (888) 262-7225, (304) 256-6843; www.tamarackwv.com.
Beyond art, Beckley is rich in history, primarily the history of coal. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, start your tour at the visitors center. Displays feature the tools and items used in daily life by people in a company coal town. After looking at the exhibits, we rode a coal car deep into the cool, dimly lit tunnels where tons of coal were extracted. The tour paused at various stations, and the guide, a retired miner, explained the mining equipment on display by the side of the tracks. His narration included the risks and dangers faced daily by the miners.
After returning to the surface, we were transported to the early 20th century on a self-guided tour of three homes provided by the coal company for its employees. All workers — from the single man living in a cramped one-room shanty to the family living in three rooms with minimal furnishings — had their rent deducted from their salaries each month. The remainder of their pay was given in company scrip redeemable only at the company store. On the other hand, the mine superintendent was provided with a home filled with the latest furnishings as part of his benefits.
The second floor of the superintendent’s home contains displays from the doctor’s office, the post office, and the barbershop — all company-operated. Near the homes stand the Pemberton Coal Camp Church and the Helen Coal Camp School.
Housed in old railroad boxcars next to the Exhibition Coal Mine is the Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia. It is filled with excellent hands-on displays that engage young visitors.
Near that building is the Mountain Homestead, a re-creation of a 19th-century Appalachian frontier settlement. Docents bring the era to life by demonstrating how people worked and lived at that time. One ticket fee covers admission to the mine, the museum, and the homestead. The mine is open April 1 to November 1, and the Youth Museum is open year-round. For more information, call (304) 256-1747; www.beckley.org/exhibition_coal_mine.
State Route 25 is a narrow and curvy road leading down to the ghost town of Thurmond. It is best suitable for towed cars only. Directions from a local resident were to keep going down into the “holler.” The reward at the end makes the seven-mile drive worthwhile.
Called the “Biggest Little Town in America” in 1913 by the local Fayette Journal, and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this company town is frozen in the early 20th century. In its heyday it was a major business center for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, with up to 20 trains stopping each day. Coal was everything and everywhere. There was and still is no main street, just a leveled area lined with chunks of coal mere feet away from the train tracks — and from the town’s buildings.
A sign on the bank window lists the United States, the state of Tennessee, and Fayette County as depositors, along with the Ford Motor Company, and reveals that an interest rate of 3 percent was paid on savings. The 1920 census counted 285 residents; more recently, there were five.
Today the three remaining brick and stone buildings fronting the railroad tracks stand as testament to what was once a thriving town, and trains still thunder past the decaying coal tower and buildings.
The 1905 Thurmond Depot is now a visitors center associated with the New River Gorge park. A few houses perch on the hillside. Visitors who venture down the road get a chance to step back into time long gone and follow the footsteps of the miners, bankers, and rich company men for whom this now-vacant town was home.
A visit to the New and nearby towns is an adventure that combines nature, art, and history in a most enjoyable blend.
The New River Gorge Bridge is part of U.S. Route 19, approximately 18 miles north of where U.S. 19 meets the West Virginia Turnpike (Interstate 64/77) near Beckley.
New River Gorge National River
P. O. Box 246
Glen Jean, WV 25846-0246
The following is a sampling of campgrounds. Please check your camping directory or the RV Marketplace, published at FMCA.com and in the January and June issues of FMC, for more listings. The New River Gorge National River area also has primitive sites that can accommodate smaller motorhomes; inquire with the park office for details.
Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine Campground
513 Ewart Ave.
Beckley, WV 25801
Eagles Nest Campground
500 Wood Mountain Road
Glen Jean, WV 25846
Lake Stephens Campground & Marina
1400 Lake Stephens Road
Beckley, WV 25802
New River Campground
11218 Midland Trail
Gauley Bridge, WV 25085
286 Rifrafters Campground Drive (County Road 8)
Fayetteville, WV 25840
Shady Rest RV Park
650 Cloverdale Road
Shady Spring, WV 25918
Bridge Festival, Train Excursions In October
Each October on the third Saturday of the month, the New River Gorge Bridge Day Festival attracts visitors from around the world. It is the only day of the year people are allowed to legally walk on the deck of the New River Gorge Bridge. It is also the only day people who participate in extreme sports are allowed to use the bridge.
On Saturday, October 18, 2014, from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., visitors can watch as hundreds of BASE jumpers (BASE stands for building, antenna, span, earth) use the bridge as their jumping platform, while experienced mountaineers use ropes attached to the bridge to rappel down from it and, in some cases, even climb up to it.
Festival-goers take $2 shuttles to the site and also can peruse vendor booths with snacks and merchandise. The nearby town of Fayetteville joins in the fest by hosting a car show and a chili cook-off, as well as live music. For more information, visit www.officialbridgeday.com or call (800) 927-0263; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The annual New River Train Excursions take place October 18, 19, 25, and 26, 2014. Majestic fall colors will be seen along the former C&O mainline between Huntington and Hinton, which traverses through the New River Gorge. Ticket sales are limited, but as of August, coach, child coach, and deluxe seats were still available for some dates. Call (866) 639-7487 or visit www.newrivertrain.com for details.