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!
After our terrific stay in BBRSP we journeyed east on FM 170 (farm to market) alternatively known as Farm Road 170. The local folks just call it the River Road. It is also a segment of the Texas Mountain Trail. Regardless of what name you reference it by it is an absolutely stunning drive. The road is an undulating strip of asphalt winding its way between the mountains of BBRSP on one side and the Rio Grande and Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains on the other.
Big Bend National Park is an expansive park with remarkable diversity in regard to the terrain and species of wildlife and flora. While it is wild and rugged it is far more accessible than Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are visitor centers, a gas station, drinking water, paved scenic drives and more people. The one thing that both parks have in common is the spectacular scenery.
We would rate this park as a “must visit” national park. A couple things to keep in mind – this is not a summer park due to the South Texas location and it is a spring break destination for many Texas families (making mid-March the busiest time).
Re-assessing our itinerary based on developments with Covid-19.
Be seeing you!
Video Clip: FM 170
Video: Chisos Basin Road, BBNP
Boquillos Canyon, Rio Grande, Mexico on the Right
On Wednesday afternoon we drove the Kolob Terrace Road to take in the views of the terrace and Zion NP to our east. The road ends at the Kolob Resevoir after 24 miles and an elevation gain of over 1000 ft. We traveled to mile 18 where the road is still closed due to remaining snow making the road impassable. Great views and a refreshing drop of about 10 degrees in temperature from the desert floor below.
On Wednesday we ventured down the Hole in the Rock Road for 26 miles to canyoneer in several exciting slot canyons. This environment was a dramatic change from the tall Ponderosa Pines of the Box Canyon in Dixie NF where we hiked on Tuesday. The road is a washboarded bone rattling dirt track but fun to drive none the less and provides dramatic views of the Straights Cliffs section of the Fifty Mile Bench and Fifty Mile Mountains. Once at the trailhead we tackled the three slot canyons which can be accessed from the Dry Fork Gulch below the trailhead. We hiked Dry Fork first as an out and back as the slot became impassable due to water. We then made a loop by climbing up through the Peek-a-Boo slot and then traversed across to Spooky Gulch and then down climbed Spooky slot exiting into Coyote Gulch and returning to the trailhead from there. As you can see from the photographs below the slots provide some challenging terrain with the tight spaces and chimney descents but make for great fun and excitement.
Today we attempted to drive the Hells Backbone Rd. We knew that it was unlikely we could make it through but wanted to see if we could make it to the Hells Backbone Bridge which spans Sand Creek. The Bridge is 109 feet long and 14 feet wide. The drop is 1500 feet on both sides! Unfortunately due to a late winter storm the road is closed just short of the bridge. We spoke with another traveler who proceeded past the road closure sign but turned back when he saw a vehicle ahead of him stuck in the snow.
On Thursday road conditions allowed us to venture into the remote Cathedral Valley district of CRNP. The terrain in this area consists largely of Bentonite which when wet is virtually impassable for any vehicle. So with several days of dry weather behind us we set out to reach the Sun and Moon Temples. Our average speed was only about 15 MPH due the significant washboarding present along with the many washes that need to be carefully negotiated. We again had many hours of solitude and beauty in this very unique portion of the San Rafael Swell.
Strenuous hiking today with several miles of moderate to steep climbing but well worth the effort with tremendous views. We first climbed to Cassidy Arch and then continued the hike to the highpoint of apx. 6400 ft on the Frying Pan Trail.
Cassidy Hiking Map
Sunday’s weather provided a beautiful backdrop for our drive and hike within the Waterpocket Fold District within CRNP. Our drive began with a thirty mile trek down the sandy and occassionally muddy Notom Road which provided spectacular views of the Reef and the Henry Mountains. We turned east at the junction with the Burr Trail to drive the incredible switchbacks to the top of the Reef. We then left the Burr Trail to journey up the 4WD track to the Strike Valley Overlook trailhead. After hiking up to see the impressive view of the full length of the valley we hiked back down and then hiked the Upper Muley Twist Canyon stopping at the Saddle Arch before returning to the jeep and back down the wash to the Burr Trail. The Burr Trail becomes paved after several miles and winds its way through numerous canyons ending at Rte 12 in Boulder. Boulder is an impossibly small town 40 miles from any other town but fortunately is the improbable home to a highly rated Zagat restaurant – Hell’s Backbone Grill. We had a great dinner and bottle of wine before heading north over the 9600 ft elevation of Deer Mountain within Dixie National Forest. A great way to celebrate Stephen’s birthday with a beautiful day and a wonderful dinner.
Stike Valley-Waterpocket Fold
Strike Valley and Burr Trail
Upper Muley Twist and Saddle Arch
Upper Muley Twist Hiking Map
Today we hiked the Capitol Gorge Trail from the trailhead to the boundary of the park. Beautiful day with temperatures in the high fifties – perfect for hiking. After the hike we drove to Pleasant Creek on a 4wd track.
Capitol Gorge Hiking Map