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After leaving the New River area, we drove through the dark to the Elkhorn Inn in Landgraff, West Virginia. Landgraff is in McDowell County in the southeast corner of the state. My fascination of coal and railroads made this ideal place for me to visit. McDowell County was once home to over 100,000 residents in the 1950′s that helped set many coal mining production records. Through the 1960′s and 1970′s the demand for the county’s metallurgical coal remained high. McDowell continued to lead the United States in total coal production. Increased mechanization of coal production had reduced the number of laborers employed, but miners enjoyed quality pay under improving conditions negotiated by the United Mine Workers. During the 1980′s the central Appalachian region lost more than 70,000 coal mining jobs. Between 1981 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the United Mine Workers union, coal mining employment in the state of West Virginia decreased by more than 53%. No county in the Appalachian region was more severely distressed by these losses than McDowell County. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1980, the rate of poverty in McDowell County was 23.5%. By 1990, the poverty rate in McDowell County had climbed to 37.7%, the highest rate of poverty for any county in West Virginia. By 1990, 50.3% of all children in McDowell County were living in families below the poverty level, up from 31.2% in 1980. The major losses in McDowell County during this period were the result of the closing of all mines and facilities operated by the United States Steel Corporation, terminating more than 1,200 jobs. Today the area is still one of the fastest declining populations.
Having arrived to this area in the night, I really did not have a clue what I was to expect to see the next morning. The area was far more depressed than I had expected. All the research I did before my trip did not prepare me for what I was going to see. There are no words to describe the area and my photos can’t even tell the story of abandonment and poverty. The coal is still the heart of the area where monster trains battle steep grades to bring the coal to outside markets. If you can find a way to look past the poverty in the area will allow you to see the beauty that was once there and which still remains. The area probably isn’t very high on many lists of places to travel but I know that there are many like me which would love to visit. For those that find themselves drawn to a place like McDowell County I highly recommend the Elkhorn Inn. The owners of the Elkhorn Inn are known for setting up their guest for great trout fishing and amazing ATVing on the many trails in the area.
I explored the portion of McDowell County between Bluefield and Williamson along the Norfolk Southern’s mainline. Neither of these town are actually in McDowell County but are just on the outskirts on either end. The first town within the county along the eastern portion of my route is Maybeury with Mohawk being the last town within the counties western edge. Highway 52, also known as the Coal Heritage Trail, parallels the mainline from Bluefield to Welch. Welch is roughly the halfway point along the route in McDowell county and also the largest city between both ends. The railroad mainline is where all the coal from feeder lines feed into the system to be transported east or west which also carries much other railroad through traffic between the east coast west to Chicago. This line was also part of the Heartland Corridor project which improved the line to handle intermodal traffic. Some of the coal mines are right on this corridor but most are located further away which requires the feeder lines also known as branchlines. This route goes directly through the Appalachian Mountain Range which is comprised of many steep and narrow valleys.
Most of my time was spent along the route between Maybeury and Welch. I was staying at the Elkhorn Inn which is located in Landgraff which is about halfway between Maybeury and Welch. From the Inn heading east are the towns of Eckman, Keystone, Northfork, Kyle, Powhatan, Upland, Elkhorn, Ennis, Switchback, and Maybeury. This is only a ten mile stretch of highway that has 11 towns on it, many of which have small post offices still in operation. Most of the these town are only a couple of blocks wide as the steep mountain sides restricts any further growth. Many of my photos illustrate how this forces many homes to be built quite a ways up the valley sides.
Keystone is a town in McDowell County, West Virginia, United States. The population was 282 at the 2010 census. Keystone is one of several incorporated towns in West Virginia with an African-American majority, with 72 percent of the residents being black.
Keystone was founded in 1892 by the Keystone Coal & Coke Company. Keystone was then incorporated in 1909 by the Circuit Court of McDowell County. Its name is derived from the name of a coal and coke company operating at that point. The town was formerly known as Cassville.
Northfork is a town in McDowell County, West Virginia, USA, located on US Route 52 between Welch and Bluefield.
The population was 519 at the 2000 census. Northfork was incorporated in 1901, so named because of its location on the north fork of the Elkhorn Creek at its junction with the south fork. It was consolidated with the town of Clark on March 26, 1948.
Maybeury is an unincorporated census-designated place in McDowell County, West Virginia, United States, located on US Route 52 between Northfork and Bramwell. As of the 2010 census, its population was 234. In 1890, it was the largest town in McDowell County with a population of 875. This was due to the coal mining start-ups in the town. Maybeury was the 5th largest town/city south of the State Capital, Charleston, and listed as the 31st largest town/city in the entire state.
John F. Kennedy stopped in Maybeury at the Esso station during his presidential primary campaign in 1960. During a speech in Canton, Ohio on September 27, 1960, he stated “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.”
The other stretch between Landgraff and Welch is also only 10 miles. Driving from east to west you will drive through Vivian, Kimball, Carswell, Big Four, Superior, and Maitland before arriving to Welch. Most of these towns are very small to non-existent besides Kimball but would still need to drive to Welch for most of your needs. Welch is a very neat town that is kinda divided by a mountain. The book Glass Castle also took place in Welch.
A couple of places of interest from the photos below include The Elkhorn Inn and the Elkhorn Tunnel.
Landgraff is one of many historical coal camps in the famed Pocahontas coalfield. The town is named after Constance Landgraff Andrews, the wife of a coal company executive. The Empire Coal Company Store, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was located in Landgraff but has since burned down. The Landgraff Post Office closed in 1951, and the town lost its zip code. The population of Landgraff in the 1960s was approx. 700. The Empire Coal and Coke Company Miner’s Clubhouse, built-in 1922 of brick to replace a wooden structure that had burned down, is on the West Virginia “Coal Heritage Trail” (America’s Byways). It was flooded in the 2001 and 2002 floods that devastated southern West Virginia, was restored in 2002, and opened as the “Elkhorn Inn and Theatre”, a historic inn (named for Elkhorn Creek that runs behind the Inn) that is the state’s only “Coal Heritage Trail” property offering lodging and dining. The Inn houses a small museum with mine scrip (company-printed coinage used to pay miners until the 1960s), books, documents, coal core samples, photos, artwork, and other memorabilia on the area’s history of railroading and coal mining. The famed “Pocahontas” line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad (formerly Norfolk Western) runs along Route 52 past the Inn. The Landgraff Mine coal tipple was located a short distance from the Inn. Coal trains continue to rumble through the heart of the area on Norfolk Southern Railway’s (former Norfolk and Western Railway) Pocahontas Division. Area attractions which draw tourists from across the USA and overseas include “railfanning” (train photography), fly-fishing for 24″-32″ record-breaking trout on Elkhorn Creek, ATVing, golf, hiking, and historic sites connected to the Mine Wars, books such as Homer Hickam’s “Rocket Boys” , and movies, including “October Sky”.
Kimball is a town in McDowell County, West Virginia, United States. The population was 411 at the 2000 census.
Kimball was incorporated in 1911 and named for Frederick J. Kimball, who was a president of the Norfolk and Western Railway. Kimball was the site of the first war memorial building erected in memory of the African-American veterans of World War.
Maitland was once the site of a large coal mine, which closed in the mid 1900′s. Maitland was almost demolished in 2001 and 2002 when horrific flood levels of the Elkorn River destroyed more than half of the community. In recent years, more than six houses have been torn down; with some more on the way. In 2009 Maitland received funding to improve their sewer, by adding new pipe lines. Before the change the waste flowed in the Elkorn River.
Welch was incorporated in 1893 and named after Isaiah A. Welch, a former captain in the Confederate Army who came to the region as a surveyor, and helped establish the plan for the beginning of a new town at the confluence of the Tug and Elkhorn rivers. Welch was made the county seat of McDowell County in an election by county citizens in 1892  even before Welch was incorporated as a city. The previous county seat was in Perryville (nowEnglish) near present day Coalwood. Results of the election were contested so to avoid violence county records were secretly moved from Perryville to Welch at night in two wagons by James A. Strother and Trigg Tabor.
The first recipients of modern era food stamps were the Chloe and Alderson Muncy family of Paynesville, McDowell County. Their household included fifteen persons. On May 29, 1961, in the City of Welch, as a crowd of reporters witnessed the proceedings, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman delivered $95 of federal food stamps to Mr. and Mrs. Muncy. This was the first issuance of federal food stamps under the Kennedy Administration, and it was the beginning of a rapidly expanding program of federal assistance that would be legislated in the “War on Poverty.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, McDowell County coal continued to be a major source of fuel for the steel and electric power generation industries. As United States steel production declined, however, McDowell County suffered further losses. In 1986, the closure of the US Steel mines in nearby Gary, led to an immediate loss of more than 1,200 jobs. In the following year alone, personal income in McDowell County decreased dramatically by two-thirds. Real estate values also plummeted. Miners were forced to abandon their homes in search for new beginnings in other regions of the country. In recent years, Welch has attracted the construction of new state and federal prisons which are creating some sources of economic renewal. The city has begun restoration of its historic downtown area.
From Welch west to Williamson is 65 miles. The mountains and roads have a different feel to them and do not follow the mainline as cleanly as they do to the east. I did not venture extensively west of Welch very much but did make it to Iaeger twice. I only made it to Williamson once which was on my drive out of West Virginia and across Tennessee. One famous town that we did visit near Williamson was Matewan known for the Matewan Massacre. On that last day in West Virginia we did come across a coal train backing up the Tug River Branch chasing a bunch of goats back home. As the goats ran down the tracks they ran right past me and back down across the road to their farm. They lived on this little farm with no fences and no one living there right next to the road. Apparently the chickens were really bad at keeping the goats off the tracks. Well I hope you have enjoyed this 4 part series of photos which covered my trip along the Pocahontas Route through McDowell County in West Virginia.
Through the creative lens of Travis Dewitz; he demonstrates time and time again how much splendor can be extracted from the interplay of the industrial world around us. In the most unusual and unexpected places Dewitz showcases images that embody the forgotten beauty of railways, factory floors, the rolling smoke of steel mills, and the cities that are built around them. He brings a certain magic as he invokes the very souls of these once-glorious industrial areas; his captures overflow with inspirational energy. Click here to view his personal series.
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