Saturday, November 5: During our fantastic communal breakfast prepared by Bernie at The Historic Morris Harvey House, we meet several couples who are either traveling through or staying in West Virginia for the weekend. We keep our conversation light and carefully avoid discussing the upcoming election, which is sure to cause disagreement. West Virginia is definitely Republican territory, and we’ve seen many signs for Trump-Pence in people’s yards.
We have a lot planned for today, and though the weather forecast calls for sunshine and temperatures in the low 60s, it is quite foggy this morning. I’m never happy about fog, but I guess it does lend an appropriately eerie atmosphere to our first destination, the almost-deserted town of Thurmond.
We enter the town on the one lane bridge adjoining the railroad bridge, which crosses the New River. The town, nearly deserted now, is preserved by the National Park Service, but in its day it boasted opera houses, two banks, two hotels, saloons, restaurants, clothing stores, a jewelry store, a movie theater, several dry-goods stores, business offices, and over 400 residents. As of the 2010 census, only five people lived in the town.
According to the National Park Service website: During the first two decades of the 1900s, Thurmond was a classic boomtown. With the huge amounts of coal brought in from area mines, it had the largest revenue on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. Having many coal barons among its patrons, Thurmond’s banks were the richest in the state. Fifteen passenger trains a day came through town — its depot serving as many as 95,000 passengers a year. The town’s stores and saloons did a remarkable business, and its hotels and boarding houses were constantly overflowing.
The 1987 movie Matewan was filed here, depicting miners’ struggles in the early 1900s.
The two-story Thurmond Depot was built in 1904 after the original station was destroyed by fire. The upper level housed the signal tower and the offices of the dispatcher, train master, and conductor. The lower level served travelers coming and going from Thurmond. The ticket agent’s office, baggage room, waiting rooms, restrooms and a snack/news room were at track level.
In 1995, the building was restored by the National Park Service for use as a visitor center. Sadly, it isn’t open this morning, making the place really feel like a ghost town.
We walk along the railroad tracks despite the warning in the Park Service brochure to “use extra caution when crossing the road and the railroad line” and to “Cross only at the designated railroad crossing and do not walk on the track line.” The track is still a CSX mainline, with over a dozen trains passing through Thurmond daily. We’re lucky enough to have one come through while we’re here, but we’re not on the track at that time!
We come first to the U.S. Post Office building. In its prior life, it was a commissary built by Fitzgerald & Company to provide supplies to the hundreds of railroad workers in Thurmond in 1929. When fire destroyed the Lafayette Hotel and the town post office, this building became the Post Office. In the late 1900s, it housed the last business in Thurmond — Thurmond Supply.
There isn’t much happening in the town this morning, but we do see festive signs of Halloween in front of the post office.
We approach the Mankin-Cox Building, which marks the southern end of the commercial district. Built in 1904, this building is the oldest in the district. The Mankin Drug Company was on the right side and the New River Banking & Trust Co. was on the left.
There are hundreds of engraved paving stones in the walkway that commemorate the happenings in Thurmond. You can see a few of them below. Click on any of the photos for a full-sized slide show.
We see a wooden house set on a hillside above the commercial district. I’m not sure if it’s inhabited today.
We continue our short walk past the commercial district and find the tall coaling tower. Tracks ran underneath the coaling station to allow as much as 500 tons of coal to drop via chutes into the coal tenders of the engines. The tower was abandoned by CSX in 1960.
While we’re at the far end of the town, we feel the earth reverberate under our feet and hear a rumble in the distance. Before long, a CSX train roars through the town, reminding us of the lost spirit of the town.
We come upon the Fatty Lipscomb House, built around 1900 and used as a boarding house. For a number of years the Littlepage family lived on the first floor and rented the second. At least through 1984, it was used as a guesthouse for whitewater rafters.
The James Humphrey Jr. house was built around 1920 and was said to have been the train master’s house, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior National Register of Historic Places.
We make our way back to the Depot, getting a view from across the tracks, climbing to the second level, and then checking it out from the railroad bridge.
With the Great Depression, several businesses in Thurmond closed, including the National Bank of Thurmond. The town’s economic vitality waned after two large fires wiped out several major businesses. In addition, roads improved and Americans began to favor automobile travel. The C&O Railway changed from steam to diesel locomotives in the 1940s, leaving many of the rail yard structures and jobs obsolete. The town is still incorporated and hosts a reunion for former residents each year, according to a National Park Service pamphlet, “Thurmond: Heart of the New River Gorge.”
We make our way down Route 25 for 7 miles, where we catch glimpses of a stream feeding the New River, along with a pretty series of waterfalls.
We return to the town of Glen Jean, scattered with a few stately buildings.
For thirty years, from 1909-1939, the Bank of Glen Jean provided financial power for the mines, towns and people along Dunloup Creek. The McKell family provided the land on which the bank stands and William McKell served as the bank’s president for its entire existence. When William McKell died, the bank closed. During the next 50 years, the building changed hands ten times. In 1986, The Nature Conservancy purchased the bank and donated it to the New River Gorge National River to be preserved as a visitor center and park offices.
Our next destination is Babcock State Park on the east side of the New River. Since we’re on the west side of the river and have to pass through Fayetteville to cross the New River Gorge Bridge, we stop for lunch at the Secret Sandwich Society. Here, we share a Truman sandwich: Turkey, peach jam, blue cheese spread, and crispy onions on a toasted baguette. We order a side of pimento cheese fries.
Now the sun has broken through the fog, and we’re on our way to Babcock State Park.