Hidden in the lush Appalachian forest of south-central West Virginia, disintegrating bits and pieces of abandoned coal-mining towns reveal a bygone era.
This is where thousands of coal miners, lumberjacks and railroaders once turned the remote and rugged New River Gorge into a steaming, churning, smoking hub for industry and commerce.
Amid copious vegetation, the stouthearted visitor can still ferret out crumbling walls, cracked foundations of company stores and fancy mansions and caved-in entrances to depleted coal mines that for 50 years fueled a rough-and-tumble world.
Towns such as Rush Run, Fire Creek, Caperton, Red Ash and Kaymoor are long gone. New highway maps show only the V-shaped gorge, the river and the inhabited places. Those towns and their forgotten stories are only on faded topographical maps of the early 1900s.
More than 10,000 years after American Indians first traveled it, English explorer Abraham Woods stumbled upon the north-flowing waterway in the mid-1600s and declared it "new."
The New River's mile-wide, 25-mile rugged gorge remained almost impenetrable until "smokeless" coal was uncovered and the railroad arrived in the late 1800s. After that, everything changed.
In its prime, New River Gorge was highly active. European immigrants and Southern blacks laid track, mined coal and felled thousands of acres of timber.
Trains crisscrossed the sandstone gorge as mile-long banks of ovens purified coal into industrial fuel.
Day and night, coal-burning trains and coke ovens spewed soot and sulfur into the humid, foggy air above the towns. Many laborers died as the result of explosions and cave-ins. Others died in gunfights.
"The only difference between hell and Thurmond was that a river ran through Thurmond," the saying went.
"Miners came by railroad to the Dunglen Hotel," said district ranger Lizzie Watts of New River Gorge National River, a national park system unit since 1978.
"They'd come for a drink, gamble for a while, generally do whatever they wanted."
From the Dunglen Hotel's opening in 1901 until West Virginia prohibition tamed the place in 1914, liquor was poured around the clock and the stakes ran as high as $50,000 in seemingly nonstop poker games.
The 100-room hotel was host to many political meetings, fancy balls and social events, too, before an arsonist's torch destroyed it in 1930.
Alongside New River the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad's main line served as Main Street in Thurmond, home of the nation's only streetless town.
In its heyday Thurmond's population was about 500. The town was typical--a couple of banks, six saloons, two movie theaters, two hotels and several brothels.
As many as 20 trains a day arrived with fresh supplies of women, whiskey and cards, as well as the same-day editions of Cincinnati and Richmond newspapers.
In 1910, seven years after its incorporation, Thurmond shipped more than 4 million tons of "black diamonds" and lumber worth $5 million--almost triple the freight revenue of Cincinnati and Richmond combined.
Rumor has it that William Holland, an eccentric coal operator and engineer, buried thousands of dollars in gold coins and bank notes near his home in Nuttalburg, about seven miles from Thurmond.
After Holland died in 1918, a jar of gold coins was unearthed from the greenhouse. Later, five carpenters dug up $21,000 worth of gold and bank notes from the cellar and grounds.
But not all got rich in Thurmond. Laborers were paid in company script and housing was company-owned. Company stores prospered.
Murders were rampant. Corpses floated in the river or were eviscerated on the tracks.
"A dead man was found in the river with $80, a watch and a pistol," according to historian Kyle McCormick. "He was fined the money and the watch for carrying a weapon and buried in the potter's field."
As coal ran out and the United States switched to oil, the towns died. By the Great Depression of the 1930s most mines had closed and many houses and stores were dismantled. Some desperate people moved inside the igloo-shaped coke ovens.
About 80 old-timers and workers from a rafting company keep Thurmond from extinction. The fossil-like shell of a decayed dry-goods store, an abandoned passenger depot and a vacant engine house linger in the rapidly returning vegetation.
Chesapeake & Ohio freight trains still roar through town many times daily, and Amtrak stops three times a week.
Downriver from Thurmond, the regrowing forest has reclaimed mining towns such as Sewell, Beury and Kaymoor, the gorge's true ghost towns.
Unlike the arid West, heat and humidity, verdant vegetation and harsh winters have decomposed most of the cheap wooden structures.
"Towns like Sewell were still lived in 30 years ago. Now they look like a setting for a jungle movie, the woods have come back so much," said Ed Maguire, a director of the state's branch of the Nature Conservancy. "You can look at them as outdoor museums, in a lot prettier setting than those desert ghost towns out West."
You reach Sewell's crumbling ovens, a dozen old foundations and some stone walls by a long, narrow road down Manns Creek Canyon in Babcock State Park.
Nearby, only the concrete foundation remains of the once-beautiful 23-room Joseph Beury mansion, which boasted a greenhouse, a swimming pool and stables. As when the original coal baron's family lived there, a brook still flows underneath. However, someone burned the mansion down in the late 1940s.
One Old Woman
For decades a lone, elderly woman named Melciny Fields lived with no electricity, plumbing or neighbors in the jumble of broken boards, discarded bottles and crumbling stone walls that in better times had been Beury's company store.
When winter winds blew, she would dip quilts in the icy river and tack up the frozen blankets for shelter. Railroad men regularly left coal and food by the tracks until she died in 1982.
The National Park Service plans to add more trails, a visitor center and perhaps a scenic railway and an exhibition coal mine (the nearest one now is in Beckley, W.Va.).
The 3,000-foot New River Gorge Bridge--the world's longest single-steel arch, 876 feet above the river near Fayetteville--along with the recent completion of Interstate 64 make getting into the gorge easier.
In addition to exploring ghost towns, visitors can fish for small-mouth bass and trout, and hike, climb rocks, ride horseback or go white-water rafting.
Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited of Thurmond offers daylong historical rafting trips down the New River in late winter and early spring, and other rafting outings year-round. A 26-foot motorized launch makes seven stops along the way for exploring, picture taking and lunch.
The New River Gorge National River park is open all year. Guided four-hour hikes on the Kaymoor Trail leave from the Canyon Rim Visitors Center near Lansing at 9 a.m. on Saturdays from May through September.
On the third Saturday of each October (Oct. 21 this year), half of the New River Gorge Bridge closes to vehicles for a Bridge Day festival, highlighted by parachutists jumping from the bridge into the river.
Amtrak's Cardinal leaves Chicago on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:15 p.m., arriving in Thurmond about 16 hours later. Returning trains leave Thurmond at 9:02 p.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Round trips are $94 from Chicago, $72 from Washington, D.C.
The ghost towns of the New River National River park are near Oak Hill, W.Va., about 50 miles southeast of Charleston.
The federal park does not charge admission. Historic rafting expeditions, which run in the winter and early spring, cost either $78 or $148, depending on options. Reservations must be made at least 45 days in advance. Regular rafting trips, from April through October, cost from $48 to $199 (30-day advance).
Rates at motels, including the Fayetteville Comfort Inn and the Oak Hill Holiday Inn, are about $35 to $50 a night.
Reservations recommended for both lodging and dining, especially on weekends.
For more information:
New River Gorge National River park headquarters: (304) 465-0508; Canyon Rim Visitors Center: (304) 574-2115, and Wildwater Expeditions: (304) 469-2551.
Rafting, lodging and dining, call the Fayette Plateau Chamber of Commerce: (304) 465-5617. Free West Virginia Getaway Guide, call toll-free (800) 624-9110. Amtrak fares and schedules, call (800) USA-RAIL.
General information on travel to West Virginia, contact West Virginia Travel and Tourism, 1900 Washington St. E., Building 6, Room B-564, Charleston, W.Va. 25305, (800) 225-5982.