Oct 6, 2012

Where is Andrew?

The town that I am living in currently was once the second richest city in West Virginia. Thurmond was the proud capital of the New River coal industry and the financial pivot point of the fossil fuel revolution that occurred in this region slightly over a hundred years ago but all that remains of its past glory are a dozen buildings straddling the Chesapeake-Ohio (C&O) railroad. Though plenty of coal can be found along the trails of the New River National River park, Thurmond was built on the railroad, not on the railroad's principle product. Because coal was only a black rock if it couldn't get out of town to lucrative urban markets, the railroad commanded a monopoly of the Appalachian coal supply. They'd buy it up at the mines, transport it to the market and sell it with a substantial markup. Railroad barons got just as rich as coal barons did. Of course, all of the hard work that produced that wealth was done by miners who were exploited on a colossal scale. The town of Matewan on the Southern edge of West Virginia was the site of a famous union-company battle that resulted in several deaths, including that of a sheriff (a member of the Hatfield clan) who was shot on the courthouse steps. Due to his having favored the unions, he was never prosecuted by a judge who was bought off by the coal company. The scandal became the subject of the movie Matewan starring Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones and in fact, the movie was filmed in the restored town of Thurmond.

The Park Service staff house I live in is just across the New River and it stands on the site of what used to be the swanky Dun Glen hotel reserved for lascivious enterprises deemed too risqué for the respectable downtown which was officially dry. Across the river in the area surrounding the Dun Glen, an abundance of free flowing cash ensured that Thurmond quickly gained a reputation for cards, booze and women. Dun Glen itself was known to have fresh fish and oysters brought in by rail every day to satisfy affluent clientele and it is also said that the longest running card game in history took place here, lasting fourteen years until the hotel burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1930. Eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that the billiard table somehow escaped the blaze. At one time, you would never have seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Untitled Poem
by Captain H W Doolittle, a conductor on the C&O Railway 1902

You have heard of the California gold rush,
Way back in forty-nine,
But Thurmond on New River
Will beat it every time.

There’s people here from everywhere,
The colored and the white.
Some mother’s son bites the dust
Almost every night

On paydays they come to Thurmond
With a goodly roll of bills
Some gamblers get their dough
And then sneak back to the hills

Some though ne’er return alas,
And they meet a thug
We find them on the railroad track
Or in the Thurmond jug.

Where handy is the black jack
And the price of life is low,
At Thurmond on New River
Along the C&O
Where men are often missing,
After the drinkers’ fight.
And the crime laid on the river,
And the trains that pass at night.
Today, the town of Thurmond has (depending on who you ask) only about seven permanent residents. I had dinner with the mayor, a long time resident, and realized that the town could assemble at a single dinner table. A two-thirds majority would take just five people. After a peak population of about 450 residents in the 1920s, Thurmond became a ghost town by the 1950s.

 The coal railway is still in use and can be heard about every hour. The much more seldom passenger line for Amtrak still connects passengers to New York City, Washington DC and Chicago. I've been told that Amtrak employees are very hesitant to let people out at Thurmond. Are you sure this is where you want to get off? Of course, traffic for mountain bikers, rafters and the occasional ghost hunter is still pretty high even in the off season.

I moved in to this place this past weekend where I’ll be staying until I find some place that isn’t in the basin of a gorge separated from the rest of the world by seven miles of undulating, terrifyingly narrow roads.  Falling walnuts bombard the thin walls and thinner roof giving one the impression I live under a bowling alley and the site is isolated from route 19 by eight miles of twisted, lane-and-a-half-wide roads. Despite the beautiful scenery and friendly neighbors, I still have good motivation to hit the town and find myself a better place. Stay tuned for more information about my job, coal mining and the environmental impacts of the industry. In the meantime, I'm going to go for another hike and make biscuits. I have my priorities in order.


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Ideas are too important to keep to yourself. I'm eager to hear your side of it, especially if you disagree.