Saturday, November 5: After lunch we head to the east side of the New River to visit Babcock State Park. The visitor center is closed for the season, but we can still walk around the Glade Creek Grist Mill and the paths leading to the rental cabins.
The light is such that it’s difficult to get decent shots of the Grist Mill, so of course I’m disappointed. The Glade Creek Grist Mill is a new fully operable mill built in 1976 as a re-creation of Copper’s Mill, which ground grain on Glade Creek long before Babcock became a state park, according to West Virginia’s official site for Babcock State Park.
Today’s mill was created by salvaging and combining pieces from three mills which once dotted the state: the basic structure from Stoney Creek Grist Mill near Campbelltown in Pocahontas County, dating back to 1890; the overshot water wheel from Spring Run Grist Mill near Petersburg, Grant County; and pieces from the Onego Grist Mill near Seneca Rocks in Pendleton County.
The Glade Creek Grist Mill produces freshly ground cornmeal when it’s operational, available for purchase. Today, the season is over, so the mill isn’t operating.
We walk along a paved path behind the mill and find a lot of cozy-looking cabins, hunkered down in the midst of moss-covered boulders. Firewood is piled up in preparation for the cold months ahead.
We finish our little walk, stop for a parting view of the Grist Mill, and head up the road to Nuttallburg Coal Mining Complex and Town Historic District. We drive quite a distance down a two-lane winding road and then walk a bit along a wooded trail.
Nuttallburg was one of fifty towns that sprang up along the New River to meet the nation’s growing need for coal.
John Nuttall arrived here in 1870, and anticipating that a railroad would be built to run along the river here, built two mines and a town to serve the miners and their families.
Born in England in 1817, John Nuttall worked in mines — starting at age 11 — for most of two decades. When he came to America in 1849, he worked in a silk mill for seven years, saving enough money to open his own coal mines.
The large metal structure in the picture below is Nuttallburg’s tipple, where coal was sorted, stored, loaded into rail cars, or transferred to the site’s coke ovens. The name tipple comes from the practice in some mines of tipping ore cars to unload them.
The mine evolved over its 85 years of operation, with management changing hands along the way. At one point, the mine was owned by Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company fame.
In 1873, the C&O Railroad was built and Nuttall began to ship coal. He prospered until he died in 1897 and passed the company along to his heirs. They operated it until 1920, when the Fordson Coal company leased the mine and modernized the facility. This led to a steep increase in productivity.
In 1928, Maryland New River Mining Company took over, renaming it Dubree No. 4. In 1954, the Margie Coal Company acquired the mine but quickly sold it to Garnet Coal Company. Garnet operated it for four years but closed it permanently in 1958. The mine sat vacant until the Nuttall estate transferred ownership to the National Park Service in 1998. In 2005, Nuttallburg was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The railroad track in this picture is the C&O Railway’s main line. Without the railroad, there would have been no Nuttallburg. By carrying coal to market, the railroad made coal mining in the New River Gorge possible.
The large structures seen here today, the tipple and the conveyor, were built during Henry Ford’s ownership in the 1920s. He was attempting vertical integration, a practice whereby an industry controls all aspects of production, from raw materials to finished product. Ford needed coal to power his automobile factories. By purchasing coal mines, including Nuttallburg, he hoped to control his coal supply.
Ford’s plan didn’t quite work as planned because he didn’t control the railroads. He sold his Nuttallburg rights in 1928. During the eight years he ran the mine, he sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into upgrades, including the tipple and the conveyor. Because of these upgrades, Nuttallburg is recognized today as a nationally significant National Historic District.
New River coal was highly desirable because it had a high carbon content and contained little waste. The railroad carried it from here to many destinations. Nuttallburg coal heated homes and fueled iron furnaces, train engines, and factories throughout the East. Because New River coal emitted little smoke, the U.S. Navy valued it as ship fuel, since enemy submarines were less likely to spot ships with little smoke (from a placard at the park).
The large structure that climbs the slope was a 1,385 foot-long conveyor, one of the longest such conveyors ever built. An innovative and expensive device, it carried coal from the mine entrance high up the gorge wall to the tipple. The tipple was the operation’s centerpiece.
Completed in 1926 under Henry Ford’s ownership, and his son Edsel Ford’s management, the conveyor employed a state-of-the-art “button and rope” technology that replaced an obsolete, more dangerous, labor-intensive system. The conveyor minimized breakage; New River coal was very “friable,” or breakable, which increased operation costs.
The long, low masonry structure shown below is a bank of 80 coke ovens and is the only structure that survives from Nuttallburg’s earliest days. Workers used these ovens to convert coal into a hot-burning fuel called coke. Coke is made by baking coal under a regulated flow of air. Raw coal is loaded through the top of the oven, the oven is sealed and allowed to burn for several days, then the coke is pulled from the bottom. Impurities (volatiles) have burned away, leaving only high-carbon coke, which burns hotter than coal.
Used extensively by iron furnaces, coke was highly marketable, and added value to the coal mining operation.
Workers produced coke here for nearly 50 years, but changing markets and new technology made coke ovens obsolete. Historians believe these coke ovens have been idle since about 1920.
After leaving Nuttallburg, we drive back up the long winding road to the main highway, passing some mountain streams along the way.
We’re heading for the Endless Wall Trail, a 2.4 mile loop which is supposed to offer great views of the New River Gorge.