Abandoned Coalwood High School | Coalwood, West Virginia

July 1, 2012 Travis Dewitz

Coalwood, West Virginia in McDowell County has become a famous coal town due to the true story in the book, Rocket Boys. A story by Homer Hickam who nurtured a dream to send rockets into outer space.  Homer fell in with a group of misfits who learned  how to turn scraps of metal into sophisticated rockets which led them to being an engineer with NASA. The Coalwood High School was built-in the 1920’s and was later turned into  Coalwood Elementary School.  In 1985, Caretta Elementary was merged with Coalwood, only for Coalwood to be closed in 1986. Students were then bussed to War Elementary beginning in 1987. During the 1950s and 1960s, Coalwood School was where grades 1st through 9th were taught by the Great Six. These six teachers taught many students and also many of their parents. At its peak, Coalwood had a population of over 2,000 but a 1990 census puts the population now at 900. This population explosion and decreased was caused by the opening and then later closing of the  Consolidation Coal Company coal mine. Once a year, in October, Coalwood hosted an October Sky festival in honor of the accomplishments of the Rocket Boys.

During my trip through Southwest West Virginia, I ran across many abandoned school buildings. The main reason for all of these abandoned schools was the population collapse when smaller coal mines were closing and the surviving ones where streamlining their processes. The population of McDowell County peaked in the 1950’s with nearly 100,000 people and has fallen to under 30,000 people today. The Coalwood High School was one of the more unique and larger schools I came across and could not help myself but to venture in. I would have loved to have seen this school in its heyday with full hallways.




I would love for you to see more of my photo series from West Virginia below.

Prince, WV Art Deco Amtrak Station

New River Gorge

Coal in McDowell County – Part 1

Coal in McDowell County – Part 2

Coal in McDowell County – Part 3

Coal in McDowell County – Part 4

Arson Destroyed Coal Company Store

Abandoned Switchback High School

Travis Dewitz

My name is Travis Dewitz and I am from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. My specialty is commercial photography with a love for expressive portraits. My work is Conceptual, Emotive, Editorial, Surreal and Eclectic. I am passionate about fashioning new worlds through photographs as I extend my visions beyond the realm of the camera. I have incredible vision, which you can see in all of my photos.

Comments (17)

  1. Art Asbury

    Thanks for putting up the pictures. I started school at Coalwood in 1942. What a great School! Mrs. Zick was my first grade teacher. Gladys Cox taught 2nd grad and ther was another Cox in 3rd. We came to Coalwood from Portsmouth, VA. My father worked at the US Navy Yard where they built ships. When John L. Lewis struck the Southern coal fields, the Navy was sent in to run the mines. George L. Carter’s son, “Jimmy” locked himself in a Hotel room in New York and would’t negotiate and the UMW held out. There was no real violence but they called the workers “scabs.” There was a pedestrian bridge over the railroad instead of the steps shown… Mr Likens was principal and we often heard the sound of a paddle “whapping” someone’s bottom…Likens was an avid tennis player and kept his arm in shape with his version of “applied psychology!” I do not remember any of my classmates getting out of line but there was an older boy, Bill Tickle, who got more than his last name.

    We left Coalwood in 1947 but I thought that it was one of the nicest places we lived. George L. Carter owned Coalwood and Caretta. He was from Hillsville, VA and a large number of Carter Coal Company employees were from his home area. I remember the sanitation grew headed by “Ham” Cox- when they made rounds, my mother called the group “Coxey’s Army” like the NY politician…
    I remember when Bill Bolt came back from the Army and bought a new Chevy with a sun shield. Bill’s father, Fielden ran the planing mill/lumber yard running up “mudhole.” Bill’s sister had a new Chrysler “woody” convertible. Those were great days in Coalwood…. The school may look sad, now, but there were lots of happy memories within those walls and in the community called COALWOOD!

  2. Jay Noonan

    This school is where I actually started my teaching career in 1978 when it was a Coalwood Elementary. I taught 6th grade my 1st year and 5th grade my second year. I was from Western New York and arriving in McDowell County was a culture shock for me. After 35 years of teaching I truly would never trade my experience teaching at Coalwood Elementary. Mr. Toney was my 1st principal I worked under. I also resided at the Coalwood Club House before I found a place to live in Welch. I will say that I met some of the nicest and gracious and giving people ever!!! I will never forget my experiences in McDowell County. It is sad to see the school in that condition and I had no idea that this occurred. The photographs of the hallways gave me so many memories of my classes and students. Thanks Travis for bringing back some visions and memories.

    • Laura DeHaven Booth

      Mr. Noonan,

      My mother Carol DeHaven, who still resides in Coalwood, texted me and told me she found your comment on this page. I am Laura DeHaven Booth who was in your 6th grade class.
      As I mentioned, my mom and dad still live in Coalwood in the house I grew up in, up from the Club House (which is no longer there).

      I have often thought of you and looked for you on Facebook. Hope you are doing well. I would love to hear from you.

      Laura Booth

  3. Sue Evans Honaker

    I grew up in McDowell county-attended junior high (9th grade) at Coalwood . I remember visiting my cousins who lived in Coalwood, in the summers. Sadly, we are all scattered now, and haven’t had contact for many years.

  4. Tammy Fleming

    too bad you have none of when it was up and running, what a great school, teachers and building it was

  5. Beverly Richardson

    Some of my fondest memories are of my days at Coalwood Junior High School. I forged life long friendships there! I was there from 1964 to 1967. Looking at these pictures brought tears to my eyes for all the sweet memories!!!

  6. Thomas Barr

    I grew up in Gary WV, (mine number 3). I lived in the second house on Lovers Lane. From our front porch I can see the mine machine repair shop. Further on was the Gary Power plant. It generated 25 Hz current. Power was generated by two steam turbans and two corliss (sp) engine generators. I am looking for some pictures of the inside of this power plant. If you know of any please contact me.
    Thomas Barr, 4618 Panorama Drive, Huntsville Al 35801, Phone 256-534-5698, [email protected].

    Your pictures are wonderful and bring old memories.


  7. Jim

    I’m thinking of shutting down my career and enjoying the finner things in life now. I’m thinking Coalwood would be a nice small town to retire to. Never been there so anyone with words to share of Coalwood would be greatly appreciated. Please reply here or email me at [email protected]

  8. Mark Alderman

    I attended the Coalwood School from 1960 to 1969, then attended Big Creek High School from 1970 to 1972. It was a wonderful place with such wonderful people. I will always love those memories.

  9. X P L R

    Is it weird that me and my friends break into illegal places for the thrill/adrenaline and this summer im going to queen mary room b340 aka THE MOST haunted place in america and im staying overnight there

  10. Born in Welch 1951, Thanks to all who shared their memories. Times were different we had time for our family and neighbors. The coal mines were our living. People were kind, honest and appreciated what they had. West Virginia is the heart of my soul! My memories will always be special to me! Gone but never forgotten ❣️

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *