West Virginia Coal Country – McDowell County – Part 1

July 22, 2012 Travis Dewitz

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.

Continue to part 2 of 4

Container Train Through the Dark West Virginia Night

Bluestone Coal Mine in Keystone, WV

Coal Truck Getting Ready to Start Their Day in Keystone, WV

Downtown Keystone

Old House Overlooking Keystone

Coal Train Through Kyle, West Virginia

Powhaten, West Virginia

Home in Upland, West Virginia

Coal Through Switchback, West Virginia

Abandoned Power Plant in Maybeury, West Virginia

Coal Over Maybeury, WV

Norfolk Southern Through Welch, West Virginia

Storm Over Welch, West Virginia – Also Home of the Book the Glass Castle

Upland, WV

Abandoned Church in Switchback, WV

Switchback, WV

Abandoned Home in McDowell County

Painting on the Side of a Building Depicting the Heyday of Coal in Bluefield, WV

 Continue to part 2 of 4


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

Abandoned Coalwood High School

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


More of my Railroad Imagery can be seen here.

Photo series of Coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.

Travis Dewitz Powerlines Portrait Thumb PhotographThrough 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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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 (36)

  1. Dennis A. Livesey

    You fully captured the ugly beauty of the coal land. A giant leap from pretty choo choo photos to something that has depth. Outstanding work Travis.

    • Thank you, Dennis. Sometimes it is hard to portray something you love in a dark or degrading way but I think it tells the right story.

    • Elaine Livesay Hill

      I wonder if you are related to Francis Lee Livesay and Ollie Livesay. My father was Roby Monroe Livesay. He was born in Eckman, West Virginia.

  2. Even though this is my home state, I have not spent much time in the southern part….. But I can tell you, I can tell you your photos tell a story of how hard life is in this area…. My Dad worked on the B&O for almost 40 years and I can relate to each shot

  3. Andrew Nelson

    Have you ever seen Coal Miner ‘s Daughter? If not, you should. These photos remind me of that film.

  4. Travis Dewitz

    I use my blog at times to show a series of photos and to tell a story as I did with these. As you can tell I actually processed the photos differently throughout the blog. I tried to keep the same look and theme while trying to show the story of how I felt when I was there. I actually was sadden and overwhelmed by how depressed the area really was. I have never seen a place like this before. Coming from Wisconsin I have seen abandoned homes and small town almost completely abandoned. They just didn’t compare because you could drive a mile and see something shiny and new. It balanced itself out. In this part of West Virginia there was nothing shiny and new. There was darkness everywhere I looked. Most of the time you are in a valley and that those abandoned homes went up the steep sides and you felt completely surrounded. The roads there are also very narrow with no shoulders so I really felt trapped. This is what I wanted to convey to you, the viewer and no single photo that I have seen ever prepared me for what I was going to see. You also need to know that I do not think this about the people that live there or are from there. A group of children boarding a bus in Keystone could really wipe some of that sadness away. Talking to the Elkhorn Inn owners really gave me insight and a lot of history of the area. It was a great experience. I processed my photos to try and convey these feeling and to put your focus where I wanted it. I guess I sometimes process as you would see in a movie like Batman. Very dark. I am sure being there in the fall with out the green mountains side made it feel much less darker then it really is or maybe that just helps to brighten up the dark corners. As a side note, back to back major floods hit the area in 200 and 2001 which was a very hard hurdle that needed to be overcome. Thank you for viewing.

  5. Travis Dewitz

    If anyone ever travels to this area and want to learn a bit of history of it make sure you stay at the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre. The owners will love to tell you and they also have a small museum about the area as well.

  6. Dennis A. Livesey

    You are almost apologetic for how you presented what you saw. Don’t be. It is a honest, artistic reaction to what was around you.
    Since you did it so well and truthfully, we feel what you feel about this terrible beauty in the coal lands.

  7. Many folks try to tell a story with their photographs by capturing some (usually defunct) piece of equipment, architecture, or infrastructure. Mr. Dewitz, you have done something I found truly remarkable that left me feeling somewhat melancholy. You not only tell a story with your photography, you tell THE story of the area. There are trains in your photos to be sure, but if a visitor only looks for the trains, they will have truly not appreciated visiting this work.

  8. Andre Gatewood

    I was born and raised in Mc Dowell County. enjoyed growing up in the area, but the only work there was the coal mines and times were changing. the mine companys took there money from our county and spent it everywhere but our county and state. Most of us from there would have stayed if there was work and a better future. I love it there, and it will always be Home.

  9. Cynthia Copeland Snyder

    Travis, thank you for the photo journey of McDowell Co….my mother grew up there and my brothers and I spent summertime and holidays there with our grandparents and many aunts, uncles and cousins…..I haven’t been back since 1983, when my grandmother passed and we took her “home”….she had been in NC with my parents for a few years…..it is very bittersweet seeing the abandoned buildings. I knew at lot of the homes were gone in Powhatan Keystone and Northfork but it is still shocking to see. All were thriving communities when I was a child….my mother graduated from Elkhorn High School…..they had a great Drama Program!! Thanks again for your great pictorial…Cynthia….

  10. Janine Barnett Burgan

    This is what I put on my facebook….one of the problems besides drugs that have taken over, some people there (granted there are plenty who still care)…but many don’t give a crap about how they live, or what they live in…they don’t care if their house is falling in…or that they have trash all over their yard…maybe the poor can’t afford better…but picking up trash is FREE!! Not throwing it out your back door in the first place would be nice! Buy a can of paint…paint over the filth..anything is better than nothing. How sad does it make those of us who care to read articles and stories about how our home is nothing but poverty…the painful thing is…it’s the truth. Pictures do no lie. You have an empty house (and sometimes not empty) or building and what do the wonderful druggies of McDowell county do??? They burn it down..they strip it of all the copper they can possibly get. I once loved McDowell county…but now it makes me sad..and depresses me to even go home. God bless those still trying to make it something.

    • But I didn’t. I photographed what I saw. I documented what is there. I didn’t go look for the bad and I didn’t go look for the good. I will admit my photography leaned towards what I felt was interesting but those are not negative. I believe my photos document reality in that area. It doesn’t mean the people are broken in any way.

  11. Bill Vaglienti

    I was so sad also when I went back thru there while going to a Northfork HI School reunion. I lived in Keystone and could not believe what I was seeing. There was only one
    thing open and that was a gas station. Brickrow looked like the only place that kind of kept the place looking good. WOW thanks for the pictures.

  12. Amy Gentry

    Just for the record, there are many beautiful homes and churches not portrayed in your pictures. You said it right when you said you photographed what *you* saw. There are many beautiful churches in the same area as the abandoned one you captured in your portrayal of us poor pitiful McDowell County folks. We are not a bunch of pitiful and unintelligent people. Like any other county, most of us have homes, clothes, shoes, and an education. Everyone is so interested in the poverty here, so ofcourse that’s all anyone sees. There is beauty here in who we are. We are raised to be honest…and to tell the truth, the WHOLE truth, when we tell a story. We work hard and we help one another. I hope if you ever return to McDowell you will photograph some of the nice places here. This really gets old for us who live here. It’s sad that the nice homes, churches, and buildings are simply overlooked. I had a nice home, my father worked at Keystone Tiple, I graduated from the Nazarene Christian Academy (Btw, that was inside a beautiful church in Welch that you overlooked.) and had everything I needed and most of what I wanted and still do. We are the kind of people who make a way when there doesn’t seem to be one. We are a proud group of people here in McDowell County during the *rises AND the falls*. We have pride in who we are. Sure we could pack up and live somewhere with no run down homes or businesses…but this is our home and we love it. So please, next time you visit us, visit some of the nice places in Welch and surrounding areas….please try to see something besides how *pitiful* we are. You see sadness and depression…we see beautiful mountainsides in the fall, vast blankets of snow in the winter, gorgeous flowers and deep green grass in the Summer….and though you feel trapped within our valleys…we feel protected and free. When spring comes…vines wrap themselves around what’s left of broken down, abandoned homes…fragrant honey suckle fills the air…and our children play freely in the backyard without fear because we grew up with our neighbors…..and that is true peace, beauty, and freedom. We are not depressed….we are still trudging forward…even though things have went down around here. We continue to climb…and we are good at it because we were raised in the mountains. Beauty and happiness can not be bought and paid for…it is not expressed by material things that are shiny and new….it is found in the character of people and in the condition of the soul. We see beauty in ashes….even if they are coal ashes. That is OUR story. Thanks.

  13. Gary Dixon

    Your pictures weigh heavy on my heart! My my memories are of communities like Keystone, Upland and Northfork when the homes were always painted and the people poor by todays standards were always ready to lend a helping hand.
    I am very thankful we had McDowell Vocational School it set me on a path to further education and the ability to provide for my family.
    King Coal fell hard in McDowell County
    Gary Dixon

  14. Kitty Burke

    I was born in Elbert, WV in McDowell County and raised in Welch. My Dad was a coal miner in Maitland. This article brought back a lot of memories. Thanks for your article

  15. I love these pictures, I grew up in Bluewell WVA, My daddy was a coal miner for over forty years, Thanks so much for sharing these pictures, Kay

  16. Fred Parmenter

    Do you think it is safe to drive throughout some of the poorer counties of West Virginia? Is a little two seat roadster from Massachusetts just asking for trouble? Thanks.

    • born in berwind, visit friend in war,,with out riding around with him,,I would be uneasy by myself,,in fact might not go,,drive miatas and z3 z4s for years,,want to visit in convertible but kinda afraid to,,and if there were a problem,,you are outa luck,,cell phones do not work,,when I cross stony ridge and go into bishop start feeling uneasy,,but last time there .2yrs. now called pillbillys not hill billys ,, doubt that it will happen,,

  17. Glen Stone

    Hey! I was born in Pineville WV, just a couple miles from Welch. There is a pic of Welch here on part 2 showing the railroad bridge going over the road. The road makes a big dip so that cars will clear the bridge overhead and this would often flood whenever it rained! When I was a kid I was always afraid when my parents drove under this bridge because it was always flooded! We would sometime see cars stuck in the water under the bridge. We moved out of the coal fields when I was 8. I wonder if it still floods?

  18. Lisa Davis

    Thanks for the great pics! It gives one such a sense of a bygone era! My daughter and get husband recently moved there to work with the mission community crossings and help the families there

  19. Lillian Ross-Robinson

    I’m from Anawalt would like to see some pictures of Anawalt if you have them. you did a wonderful job. Keep up the good work. Best Wishes!

  20. Gloria F Saatman

    Loved all the pictures.Igrew up in McDowell County. It’S sad to see the the way things are there now. I still have my homeplace to stay in when my family comes to visit. Will be there soon for my 56th class reunion from Welch High School. I now live in Hartly DE,

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