Developers see tourism in coalfields

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A two-lane road in West Virginia coal country plunges through some of the state's richest history, from old railroad towns to a courthouse where a pair of killings led to the largest U.S. insurrection since the Civil War.

The colorful past has a big burden: The hope is that it will help revive the region's struggling economy by turning remnants of the coal industry into tourist attractions.

Organizers call it "heritage tourism."

"A heritage trail such as this is going to bring a higher demographic visitor -- generally retired, well-to-do individuals," said Jim Holthaus, executive director of the Southern West Virginia Visitors and Convention Bureau in Beckley.

On a recent day, 136 eighth-graders from Bluefield toured the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine while senior citizens from Pennsylvania peered at a reconstructed coal camp nearby. The two groups are just the kind of people Holthaus and other members of the new Coal Heritage Highway Authority want to attract.

"Most of these kids are from Bluefield but they've never been here," history teacher Mary Vinciguerra said of her charges. "These kids don't know a lot about the industry."

Lawmakers created the authority this year to promote development along the Coal Heritage Trail, nearly 100 miles of U.S. 52 and state Route 16 from Beckley to Bluefield. The route, designated a national scenic byway in 1998, is steeped in history and includes bloody sites where union organizers clashed with private guards working for coal barons.

Among the buildings still intact is the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, where Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were gunned down by private guards in 1921 in an attempt to stop the United Mine Workers of America's effort to organize workers.

Civil insurrection

The deaths helped touch off a march by several thousand armed miners that culminated in a showdown with mine operators and their cronies at Blair Mountain, about 64 miles north of Welch in Logan County. By the time federal troops broke up the fighting, at least 16 people were dead.

The battle is regarded as the largest civil insurrection in American history, except for the Civil War.

The heritage trail cuts through four counties -- Mercer, McDowell, Raleigh and Wyoming -- hard hit by the coal industry decline. McDowell County has fared worst: It lost 22 percent of its population in the 1990s and 38 percent of its residents were below the federal poverty line in 1999.

But turning coalfield history into a tourist destination will require creativity.

"We're having difficulty in finding sites that are still intact, especially mining hardware, tipples or processing plants," said Jeffrey Harpold, executive director of the National Coal Heritage Area, a separate project that encompasses 11 southern counties.

Concerned about liability, coal companies have torn down tipples -- the structures where coal cars were tipped to empty their loads -- processing plants and other structures.

Heavy flooding over the past 18 months accelerated the losses.

"Right now, it's a disaster, a massive cleanup job just to make the beautiful scenery attractive again," said authority chairman Pete Ballard, a Welch native. "It's a big question mark right now."

One of the most striking buildings still standing is the former Pocahontas Fuel company store and office in Itmann. Built around 1917, the hand-cut stone building has two large wings connected by a covered walkway lined with arches. Today, it houses a homeless shelter.

State Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey bought the building to save it from demolition. "Several people offered to buy it but their intention was to tear it down and sell the stones," he said.

Funding is another challenge. A $6 million federal grant for the trail obtained in 1998 is mostly unused for want of matching funds from state, local or private sources.

Coal camps also have been lost, the company houses long since transformed into modern homes.

Today, the exhibition mine's reconstructed coal camp -- using original buildings hauled in from elsewhere -- is the region's best glimpse into life in the old days. But the mine is the anchor, the lure for tourists to travel deeper into the coalfields.

"If Myrtle Beach promotes their beach, we promote the exhibition coal mine," Holthaus said. "It is that strong an attractor."

Another resource is the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield. Diaries, pay records, shovels, mining lamps and other artifacts are preserved there, along with more than 50,000 photographs.

"The potential of this thing is unlimited, really. It's limited only by the imagination," Bailey said. He also wants oral histories collected from retired miners to bring the history to life.

"Will the stories be 100 percent factual? Probably not," he said. "Will they be entertaining? Probably so."


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