Tuesday, October 25, 2022


West Virginia Ghost Towns

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the riverbanks of West Virginia's New River Gorge were alive with the activity of coal mining. Workers toiled in processing facilities and mines while trains constantly rolled through the area transporting the black gold being excavated from the surrounding mountains to far off destinations fueling the nation's industrial revolution. Residential homes and town amenities abounded supporting the coal miners and their families making the New River Gorge a place filled with vibrant communities. 

Nearly a century has passed since the heydays of the coal mining industry within the New River Gorge and this stretch of West Virginia is now a part of a National Park. The towns and mines that stretched along the river are abandoned now with nature reclaiming the area reverting its terrain back to a wilderness. Now the main industry for the New River Gorge region is tourism as the area is being promoted as a playground for white water rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking.

The ruins of a number of coal mining ghost towns though can still be explored by adventurous spirits visiting the New River Gorge. For example, the National Park Service has preserved the train depot and some historic buildings within the deserted community of Thurmond. For the first two decades of the 20th Century, Thurmond was a boom town considered the richest city in West Virginia. Fifteen passenger trains per day made stops in Thurmond with an average of 95,000 people per year coming and going through the city depot which is now a visitor center for New River Gorge National Park. Once a civic and commercial hub, now the only visitors passing through are those wanting to check out the haunting remnants of bygone years within this New River Gorge ghost town.

Thurmond Ghost Town

For those up to taking a hike through the woods, you can explore the ruins of the Kaymoor mining community also located on the grounds of the New River Gorge National Park. Overgrown by nature now, the area looks like the relics of a lost civilization. Once filled with the noise of people at work, the only sounds you will hear today are water flowing by along the New River, birds chirping and wind blowing through tree leaves. A walk along the Kaymoor trail makes you feel like Indiana Jones on an archeology adventure. There are some stunning views and interesting sights to discover when visiting this ghost town.

Kaymoor ghost town

During an Adventures on the Gorge vacation with my son, we took some time to visit the ghost town of Henry Ford's coal mine which is across the New River from Kaymoor. We did some rock climbing near the mine entrance and later took a hike through a forested ravine to check out the spot where coal from the mine was loaded onto trains. Being a gearhead who grew up in the Motor City, we had to check out a mine that had been owned by Henry Ford to supply the coal that fueled his gigantic River Rouge industrial complex in Michigan which was the largest factory in the world at the time Ford Motor Company managed this West Virginia coal mine. 

Ford controlled the mine from 1920 - 1928. During that time, he modernized the infrastructure of the mine creating a long automated conveyor to transport coal from the mine down to a tipple that loaded the coal onto trains that would transport it to Michigan. The National Park Service has invested in restoring the conveyor and tipple so they look as if production at the mine just stopped yesterday. The presence of this infrastructure leaves an essence of Henry Ford on the site. With both Henry Ford and his son Edsel Ford having been at this mine, my son and I wondered if we were walking in the same footsteps as where these two automotive barons had traversed. We most likely were standing in spots they had been before.

henry ford coal mine
henry ford coal mine

While the mine, a weighing station, the conveyor and tipple are still intact, most everything else is gone from the Henry Ford Coal Mine. The town of Nuttallburg where the mine workers and their families lived is mostly gone except for the stone foundations of buildings and ovens that were used to bake coal into ash. The walls for the first floor of the company store still remain but you would never know without a park service placard identifying the site. Interestingly on that note, Ford's mine was the first in West Virginia to begin paying wages in government currency instead of company script. Though employees were still encouraged to spend their paychecks at the company store, for the first-time coal miners in the New River Gorge could also save money for their future or have funds to purchase land, or as Henry Ford hoped to buy a car.

After about eight years of operating the mine, anti-monopoly regulations were preventing Ford from achieving his goals of controlling every aspect of the automobile production process. At one point he was even trying to buy a railroad to control bringing in supplies to his factories and transporting out cars. Ford Motor Company began divesting non-essential business elements, such as coal mining, to be outsourced instead. The coal mine at Nuttallburg held on for a couple more decades until the site was abandoned in the 1960s.

While what is left may not seem like much, this site is actually one of the most intact coal mining complexes from its era left in the United States. It really is an interesting place to explore and an adventurous trek to get there. There is a serenity to wandering about this ghost town, but also a spooky vibe knowing that what was once such a vibrant place is now an isolated, out of the way spot on a hiking trail within the forests of a national park. 

Would you be geeked to explore the ghost towns of New River Gorge? Add in some adventure sports like whitewater rafting, rock climbing mountain biking, ziplining, and the infamous walk across the iconic New River Gorge Bridge and you are sure to have an exhilarating visit to West Virginia. There are a lot of adventures to be had at the New River Gorge! 

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