The New River Bridge is quite a sight to see and truely an engineering marvel. It is the fourth longest single arch bridge in the United States and sits at a jaw dropping 876 feet above the floor of the gorge.
But for our money, the real attractions of the NRGNR are the history and artifacts of a way of life that existed down in the gorge for more than eighty years. The gorge was scarcely inhabited until surveyors discovered coal, and not just any coal. The coal in the gorge was high quality “smoke less” coal – highly prized for its high carbon content with minimal waste.
Within the gorge the remains of the Nuttallburg Mine provide insight into the workings of a coal mine and the life of the miners and their families. It is considered one of the best preserved mining complexes in West Virginia.
Visiting the site is a commitment in and of itself. The mining complex sits deep in the gorge at river level and requires driving down a windy, narrow and sometimes steep one lane road.
The Nuttallburg Mine began operations in 1873 after the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio railine through the gorge was completed. The rail line enabled the shipping of large quantities of coal as the river was not navigable and getting coal up out of the gorge by road was not feasible.
Because mining in the early days was very labor intensive and the local population was small, the mine operators needed to import workers. Workers came from all over Europe and Canada to work at the mine in a variety of capacities. As a result, the mining workforce and their families were a very diverse population.
The mine also employed African American workers who worked side by side with the other employees. However, outside of work the black employees and their families lived in a segregated town on the opposite end of the mining complex with their own church and school.
The mining town here appears to be typical of mining towns in this era as it was self-contained with its own schools, doctors, blacksmiths, social clubs, athletic teams and company store.
The coal conveyor pictured above is 1385 feet in length and brought coal down from the mine 600 feet above the gorge floor. This conveyor was built in 1926 and could move 125 tons of coal per hour.
The company store was a necessity because the employees had no means to travel from the mine complex. Therefore, the company paid the employees in a company issued scrip and most likely significantly overcharged their employees.
Henry Ford leased this mine and others during the early 1920s in order to control the coal supply that Ford needed for automobile production in the Dearborn, Michigan plant. Ford made substantial investments in the mine including the state of the art coal conveyor.
Ford ultimately sold his lease back to the Nuttall family when he found that he could not control the the railroad companies and often could not get his coal to Michigan when he needed it.
The mine continued operations under three different owners until the mid 1950s when it became abundantly clear that the mine was “played out”.
Today the National Park Service manages the mine complex and is doing a good job protecting the area and providing research and education relating to the history of the mine and the town of Nuttallburg.
Thurmond, West Virginia
After our exploration of the remains at the Nuttallburg Mine site we ventured south and then east along the Dunloup Creek on County Road 25 to the town of Thurmond. The only way to get to Thurmond was by rail until 1921 when CR 25 was built. Crossing the New River today to Thurmond entails driving across a single lane bridge shared with the railroad.
At one time Thurmond was a rail center where short coal trains were assembled into longer trains that hauled coal out of the gorge. It was also the only place in the gorge where steam engines could load coal and water.
While the town “thrived” (population 462 in 1930) during the early portion of the 20th century the advent of the diesel locomotive rapidly diminished the need for the fueling and servicing of steam powered locomotives. From 1930 on the population diminished steadily although passenger trains continued to bring visitors who stayed at the two hotels that had been built during the prosperous days. Unfortunately, both of the hotels burned to the ground and those events put the finishing touches on the demise of the town.
While the town essentially vanished by the 1950s, the rail lines continue to be operated by the CSX Railway- still hauling coal out of the gorge from the many active mines that remain operational today (more on that topic in a future post about coal country).
Today the population of Thurmond is four and most of the property in the town is owned and managed by the National Park Service. The former depot pictured below is now a visitor center during the summer months.
Additionally, the Amtrak Cardinal train which runs three times a week from New York City to Chicago still stops at the Thurmond Depot. Not surprisingly, there is only one other stop in Amtrak’s entire system where fewer passengers board the train.
An interesting feature of the town is that it never had a main street. All of the commercial buildings in town sat directly along the railroad tracks because there was no room for a street in addition to the rail line in the narrow river gorge.
The Coaling Station pictured below was built in 1922 and could hold more than 500 tons of coal for re-fueling steam locomotives.
We enjoyed exploring the New River Gorge National River and highly recommend this area for its beauty and history.
We will spend the next several days touring “coal country” in the southern part of the state before turning east and heading for Lewisburg, West Virginia for several days of bicycling the Greenbrier River Rail Trail.
Be seeing you!