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West Virginia’s National Coal Heritage Area

If you had asked me, before I moved to DC, which nearby state would be my favorite for road trips and weekend getaways, I can’t imagine I would have said West Virginia. I had never visited and had no idea just how beautiful and unique West Virginia is!


For this sponsored trip, my second with the West Virginia Department of Tourism, I headed to the National Coal Heritage Area in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains to explore the region’s fascinating history and culture. I visited charming mountain towns that boomed when coal barons discovered a coal seam in southern West Virginia (1870-1920), but then struggled to survive as technology replaced manual labor and the industries that built these towns abandoned them. Today, these resilient towns offer the perfect peaceful getaway and feature vibrant local cultural scenes, brimming with art, history, farm-to-table dining, and outdoor recreation. I also explored the nation’s newest National Park, New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, and took in the breathtaking scenery of the area’s very dramatic landscape!

For my first day of adventure, I hopped from one charming railtown to the next. I started in Hinton, where I was staying at the most delightful little B&B, The Guest House Inn, before heading to Princeton to explore their burgeoning arts scene and local railroad museum. Driving the dramatic mountain roads through the naturally rugged terrain into Hinton and on to Princeton, it is easy to see why this area was pretty much uninhabited by European settlers before the railroad. Of course, there were Native American settlements in and around this region as well as tribes pushed west by European colonization.

Both Hinton and Princeton owe their establishment to the railroad, which made this area accessible. I learned all about the history of these towns and the railroad at the Princeton Railroad Museum. This local museum, full of artifacts, pictures, and memorabilia donated directly from locals, traced the story of how the introduction of railways—in Princeton’s case the Virginian Railway—to southern West Virginia to access a newly-discovered coal seam created booming railtowns almost overnight. Building railroads through the area’s solid rock required a lot of labor, as did the coal mining and lumber industries the railroads were built to support. Coal and railroad companies capitalized on 19th century US immigration and offered new arrivals at Ellis Island a one-way ticket, immediate work, and housing if they came to West Virginia. This sudden influx of people and industry to the area created a lot of concentrated wealth and the creation of towns along the railway.


From Princeton, I headed to another boom railtown, Bramwell. After visiting their train depot and museum, I stopped for lunch at the town bakery and then headed to the restored historic corner pharmacy and soda shop for a milkshake. Afterwards, I strolled the town to admire the charming Victorian-style mansions. Yep, mansions. Bramwell was where the coal barons built their homes. Most of these homes are wonderfully preserved and make for a delightful self-guided walking tour.


From Bramwell, I stopped by the John Henry Historical Park on my way back towards Hinton. This park is the site of John Henry’s epic battle with a steam engine. The story goes that John Henry was a steel driver employed to help bore the Great Bend Tunnel through Big Bend Mountain for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. When a steam drill showed up at the site, a threat to the workers livelihood, John Henry challenged it to a contest. Most accounts agree that after about an hour he had out driven the steam drill by more than five feet. Legend also says that Henry then “laid down his hammer and died.” While this story is apocryphal, the legend and the park tell the important history of the workers and hard labor that made the railroad, coal, and lumber industries possible. It also illustrates an enduring struggle for workers in the region—manual labor continually being replaced by machine.


After a long day of exploring and lots of history, I ended my evening with a local farm-to-table dining experience at Pipestem Resort State Park.

My second day centered on the New River Gorge National Park. The park surrounds a rugged, deep canyon whitewater river—one of the oldest rivers on the North American continent—and offers an abundance of scenic and recreational opportunities. I started my day by stopping at the Sandstone Visitor Center, just outside of Hinton, to grab a map of the park and chat about the best route with a very knowledgeable park ranger. After formulating a plan to work north to south, I headed out. My first stop was a nearby state park, Babcock State Park. I couldn’t resist the gorgeous photo-op of the historic Grist Mill.


From the mill, I headed to New River Gorge Canyon Rim Visitors Center for the most epic view of the river and gorge. Then it was on to the Beckley Exhibition Mine. I donned a hardhat and descended deep into a vintage coal mine where veteran miners described how they worked and the unimaginable conditions they faced. As the miners warned, a good lunch was key to surviving a long day, so after learning all about coal mining and mining towns, I stopped for lunch and some souvenir shopping at Tamarack.


After lunch I head to yet another railroad boom town, Thurmond. Can you tell that I have a soft spot for cute small towns and their local histories? Like Bramwell, Thurmond was a classic boom town, owing their establishment and development to the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway mainline in 1873. As the coal and timber industries expanded, coal barons and industry tycoons made these tiny mountain towns home, bringing great wealth and prosperity to little mountain towns like Thurmond. Sadly, like many rail boom towns, Bramwell and Thurmond struggled as the Great Depression hit, cars replaced passenger trains, and industries evolved.


Fortunately, today these towns are being revitalized by tourism, albeit in very different ways. In towns like Hinton, Princeton, and Bramwell you can visit homegrown museums and cute local stores, admire historic architecture, and even hop on a 4-wheeler for some off roading through the area. Thurmond, however, has taken a different path. Almost completely abandoned, save a handful of residents, Thurmond has been protected by becoming part of the New River Gorge National Park. Basically, the entire town, or what remains, has been turned into an open-air museum and the rail depot is now a visitor center for the park. And according to the National Park’s website the town hosts an annual reunion for former residents.

I made one last stop on my way out of town to see “the best view of the river and gorge” at Grandview. The view did not disappoint! But there was something else I noticed at Grandview; nearly every visitor center and scenic overlook I visited in the park was handicap accessible! While you can certainly enjoy some epic hikes to reach these great views, you can also drive. From the parking lot, nearly all were just a quick 5-minute walk on a paved pathway to the scenic overlook.


All in all it was another incredible trip to West Virginia!


Have you been to West Virginia yet? If not, you must add it to your list!