West Virginia’s National Coal Heritage Trail
Coal may not be king anymore in West Virginia but its physical imprints can still be seen all over the southern part of the state, the site of my latest road trip from Washington, DC.
I traveled to this part of the country specifically to tour the National Coal Heritage Area, which covers 13 counties in the heart of Appalachia. Through this region runs the 187 mile-long Coal Heritage Trail, one of 126 distinct roads, or byways, in the United States designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as having significant “archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.”
Was I driving off to become a coal miner? No, but I wanted to at least see the region for myself and get an understanding of the state’s coal mining history. My plan was to get off the interstate and drive down into the steep valleys through the old coal mining camps with their historic districts, railyards, factories, and other physical remnants leftover from the coal boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I also wanted to catch a glimpse, even if it was only a quick and superficial one, of the proud heritage of the people who literally powered the country through two wars and later economic prosperity.
I was a bit apprehensive about going, knowing that the counties I’d be driving through were among the poorest in the country–one of the counties, McDowell County, is the seventh poorest county when measured by median family income. I’m sure I’d get some quizzical stares from people wondering why a guy with DC plates was walking around taking pictures of run-down buildings. I didn’t care too much about that though. My main concern was my car, a 10-year old Saab that’s not in the best shape. What if the hills were too steep or my car broke down on a deserted stretch of forest road? The waiter at the first B&B I stayed at in Bluefield dismissed these concerns and reassured me that the roads were not steep and even if I did break down someone would drive by soon after to help out.
My plan was to begin the route in Bluefield, at the southern end of the byway, and head west on Route 52 and then north on Route 16 deep into coal country up to Beckley and then Fayetville.
Overall, it was a fun trip and satisfied my need for exploration. I also learned a lot and took tons of pictures. Here’s an account of what I saw along the way:
After a five hour drive from DC, I was excited to visit the first city on the Coal Heritage Trail: Princeton. There was not much going on when I arrived in town on a 4:30 on a Friday night. I parked at the town square and walked around, taking pictures of the county courthouse, the bail bonds signs, and the attorneys offices. There was a also a WWII era tank on the lawn, which provided an interesting prop for my pics.
I pulled into the city of Bluefield (population: 10,448) at dusk, a little too late for the good photographic light of “golden hour”. I did manage to take a few shots of some abandoned buildings in the northern area of downtown, across the street from the huge rail yard.
Afterwards, I checked into my B&B, The Bluefield Inn, situated on a steep hill above the city. An old Victorian mansion, the inn used to be a boarding house for women at a time when it was considered improper for single women to live alone.
There aren’t a lot of actual restaurants (i.e. not fast food) in this part of West Virginia, so come dinner time, I had trouble finding a place to eat. I sought out a particular restaurant, which turned out to be gaming hall in a strip mall next to a Dollar General and a vacant super market. I thought of walking in, but something about the girl inside the empty establishment, sitting at a booth and staring out the window at me, smoking a cigarette in the orange tinted light alerted my instincts to turn around and get back in the car. Then I remembered having seen an Italian restaurant in downtown Bluefield, right across the street from the huge railyard, and decided to head over. The restaurant, called Portabellos, served really good food for very cheap–I recommend the garlic knots and the lasagna.
Out of all the places I saw along the Coal Heritage Byway, this little town of 364 people was the best. It sits in valley surrounded by steep hills overlooking a little main street with a single row of three story brick buildings. Branching off from the main street are side streets containing a dozen or so or mansions formerly owned by the rich and powerful in the coal industry. At one point in the late 1800s, Bramwell had the highest number of millionaires per capita of any town in America.
I arrived into Bramwell at about 9am. The town was basically deserted. A friend of a friend had recommended going to the Main Street Cafe for a bite to eat. I had already eaten breakfast at the Bluefield Inn, so was just in search of a pastry or something for the road. There was a $10 buffet, but I didn’t need any more eggs and bacon after my big breakfast. “Do you have pastries or anything?”, I asked the waitresses. “What do you think this is?, one of them said. New York? We don’t have pastries!” She was just joking, of course, sensing correctly that I was not from these parts. There were no desserts other than a pecan pie, which would not have been the best road food, so I just went with a coffee to go.
Outside on the still-empty street, a woman walked by as I was taking pictures and smiled. She asked me if I was getting any good shots of the town. I asked her a few questions about Bramwell and she gave me a run down of the town’s history. After a few minutes of conversation, she casually mentioned that she used to be a tour guide and was now Bramwell’s mayor. I could see why this woman, so well put together, with her charming demeanor and sweet southern accent, ran the show in town. Louise Stoker her name was. She said her father and grandfather were involved in the coal industry in Bramwell, and that her father died of a coal-related injury or illness, I cant remember which. Continuing on with our conversation, she asked me if I wanted to see the town’s post office (where she was originally going before running into me) to see the original wooden interior and antique mailboxes that are still in use today.
We parted ways and I headed to the Bramwell Train Depot, the of the town’s visitors center and Coal Heritage Area museum, which was about to open at 10am. A few minutes later the Mayor drove by in her little Smart Car, came to a full stop, looked down at her watch, and reassured me that the woman who runs the Visitors Center would be there in a couple of minutes. She drove off with a wave. Two minutes later, the woman running the visitor’s center drove up.
At the Visitor’s Center there is also an impressive little museum of the National Coal Heritage Area with a lot of artifacts like photos and newspaper articles that really hammer home the human aspect of the coal industry.
Further up Route 52 is an impressive little city of Welch (population 2,500). Aside from Bluefield, I think Welch has the best downtown on the Coal Heritage Trail. At one point in the 1940s, the town had three times the number of people as it does today. Not a lot of people overall, but in a compact urban core nestled in the valley, the population density there rivaled New York City. The black and white photos of the city recall bustling times. Girls dressed up to the nines, fancy cars parked outside of a theater. Today the city was basically empty of people, like a movie set without actors.
The town of Welch had been in steep decline even when Jonn F. Kennedy came to visit in 1960 as a presidential candidate. For those who have read the book The Glass Castle, you would have heard of Welch.
Today Welch is a bit run-down and was surprisingly devoid of people on a Saturday afternoon. It has excellent examples of turn-of the century architecture though. I’d recommend walking up the step steps to the McDowell County Courthouse, the site of Sid Hatfield’s assassination in 1921 to get a good view of the downtown core and the valley it sits in. There’s also a couple of huge murals near the river, commemorating the town’s founding.
Pineville and Mullens
These two towns, about halfway between Welch and Beckley on Route 16, are worth stopping for. Pineville for its impressive county courthouse looking over the city, and Mullens for its downtown core. Mullens has some cool old banks and hotels that are now vacant. I was looking for something to eat in the town but couldn’t find any restaurants. There was a sign for a tavern but it appeared closed.
Beckley is the biggest city on the Coal Heritage Trail, and sits right in the middle of the north-south route I followed. Its downtown area is well developed, and a little less run-down than the smaller towns I had just seen.
For lunch, I went to Tamarack, which I can best describe as a rest-stop complex with a cafeteria, art galleries, and stands selling locally made West Virginian products like wine and honey and jams. Who knew that the state had so many wineries? The food at the cafeteria was really good. As I usually do, I went local, choosing the fried trout plate. So good.
A little north of Beckley, Mount Hope has a historic district worth stopping for. Check out the old football stadium on the outskirts of town. It has walls and stands made of entirely of stone, making the complex look like a castle built into the hillside. Completely abandoned now.
New River Gorge Bridge
Before checking into my B&B for the night, I made a stop at this very impressive bridge that soars 867 feet above the the New River Gorge a few miles north of Fayeteville. I recommend going to the Visitors Center for a quick history of the site and then walking down the wooden stairs to the overlook where I got these pictures:
Dubbed “The Coolest Small Town in America”, Fayeteville is a haven for white water rafters and other adventure seekers taking advantage of the state’s natural beauty. It also has some really good restaurants and cafes within its downtown core. Some of its buildings are still abandoned, especially across the street from the beautiful Fayette County Courthouse, but the town is in better shape than the other cities on the Coal Heritage Trail.
I stayed at the Morris Harvey House Bed and Breakfast, only two blocks away from the center of town. I loved this place, not only for the beauty of the one hundred year old house, but because of the really friendly owner who cooked me and five other strangers a tasty quiche breakfast in the morning.
I discovered an amazing cafe in Fayetteville called Cathedral Cafe, which as the name suggests is located in a former church. You can stare up at the stained glass windows as you sip your coffee. What a cool place.
For dinner the night, I found this really great pizza place was like two blocks away from the B&B called Pies and Pints. I sat at the bar and had my choice of 20 drafts on tap and about 20 different types of pizzas. I loved the vibe inside. There were a lot of adventure seekers there enjoying the weekend in town.
Pictures along the way
Stops I made on the way there and back:
My first stop on this road trip was Lexington, Virginia, right off I-81, home of the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. After walking around the beautiful campus of Washington and Lee, I ate lunch at Counter Culture Cafe, a lunch counter in the back of Healthy Foods Market and Cafe. My wife is a vegan and would have absolutely loved this place. I went for the avocado and roasted artichoke sandwich, which was amazing.
Babcock State Park
On my way back to Washington I stopped at Babcock State Park, the site of West Virginia’s “most photographed location”, the Grist Mill. Babcock was a lot further out-of-the-way than I had bargained for but I had all day to get home so I decided to head there. As I descended into the deep valley, I realized I was the only person there and had the entire place to myself. This provided a wonderful chance to take great pictures without anybody in the background. It was a little above freezing and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground. The air was crisp and the evergreens on the hillsides made the place look like somewhere in northern Canada or something.
Continuing on, I stopped in the town of Lewisburg, West Virginia, dubbed by Budget Travel magazine “The Coolest Small Town.” It had a nice historic center with old 19th century buildings. It was Sunday morning so most of the shops were closed but the highlight of my visit was Wild Bean Cafe coffee, the town’s cozy hang out place.
Suggestions for the route
For those of you who are just dying to get down to coal Country and want to follow in my footsteps, you can embark on the Coal Heritage Trail from one of two directions. I began in the south and work my way up north on Route 52 and Route 16 all the way up towards Fayetteville. This route will bring you to Bluefield, Bramwell, Kimball, Welch, Pineville, Mullens, Beckley, Mount Hope, Oak Hill, and Fayetteville, in that order.
There weren’t many restaurants on Route 16, the most remote part of the Coal Heritage Trail, so I’d recommend waiting until you get to Beckley to eat and bringing some water and snacks for the road.
For anyone who is interested in touring this region, you can’t beat the website Coalcampusa.com. From the looks of it, the author has traveled to every coal region in Appalachia and documented just about every town with a big selection of photos.
I’m really glad I decided to make the drive down to coal country to get a introduction to the area’s geography and its history. This region will have its challenges for years to come, especially as the country continues its shift away from coal. From the preponderance of dollar stores, strip clubs, and an overcrowded food bank parking lot I saw on Route 16, it’s going to be a long time coming until this region can invent itself economically.
Map of the route