After spending a good few hours exploring Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, we headed a short distance away to visit a ghost town named Thurmond, now in the care of the National Park Service.
The drive to Thurmond was beautiful. In fact, throughout our travels in West Virginia I was struck by just how arrestingly beautiful the landscape was. Perhaps it reminded me a little bit of Scotland and was stirring some homesickness for hills and glens and thick forests of trees. The road to Thurmond was also very reminiscent of the single track roads we were very familiar with from living in Argyll for over a decade, winding and bumpy and with a new vista opening up around every corner. It also took us, however, past scenes of pretty dire poverty. There were lots of run down shacks and trailers, some looking to be derelict to the point of collapse. I don’t think I have seen poverty like it in America since visiting reservations in the South West.
We crossed a single track road bridge that was attached to a rusty iron rail bridge and emerged on the other side of the gorge at the railway depot building that serves as the NPS office and small museum. We chatted to the friendly Park Ranger and had a look around the small museum and saw a three dimensional map of the area, demonstrating the extreme curve that trains have to take around the curve of the gorge and Thurmond nestled on the edge. Trains still come through Thurmond including Amtrak passenger trains which people can board at Thurmond a couple of times a week. Thurmond, fact fans, is America’s second least used train station after one in Texas. Looking at the map again, it seemed to me a bit of a marvel that trains could make that bend at any sort of speed and still keep on the track.
Thurmond was once a bustling and thriving Appalachian town. Its economy was dependent on the interrelated business of the local coal mines and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. It was at Thurmond that all the trains from the surrounding mines would be coupled together to form one large train for shipment elsewhere in the nation. In its heyday, there was a strip of commercial buildings along the line of the railway track and then residential buildings on the hills behind. A hotel – long since burned down – was famous as the site of the longest card game in history, lasting something like fourteen years. This hotel, the Dun Glen, had made Thurmond a resort town but when it burned down in the 1930 and one of the town’s two banks failed the following year that was the start of the town’s rapid decline.
As we set off to explore the remaining buildings, we were warned that the heat had brought out lots of rattlesnakes in the area to bask in the sunshine. This set up the kids to have high expectations of a dangerous snake encounter. When none materialised, they became somewhat irked. This was because they were already annoyed at not being able to access any of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town. Back home in Argyll, one of their favourite spots had been the abandoned crofting village of Arichonan and then there were all the ruined castles in the vicinity too so they were used to being able to get into places and quite annoyed that Thurmond did not permit that. The grumps swiftly set in and, in the baking heat, they were soon fractious.
Then, just when the kids were nearing peak crankiness, a train saved the day. We heard the train hooter (that’s not what it’s called, is it?) echo long before we saw it but soon a coal train came into view and stopped just beside the depot briefly before setting off again. Apparently these trains only come through eight times a month so we were lucky to be there to see it during our visit. It was massively long and the boys enjoyed trying to count the coal wagons as it hurtled past us and one of the boys even tried to race it for a bit.
Following our visit to Thurmond, I risked inciting the wrath of the children by dragging us on a bonkers detour. We had noticed on the map that there was a place nearby named Lochgelly. Since I am from Fife, I knew the original Lochgelly well and thought it would be fun to go and see a town in West Virginia that had been named after a coal mining town in Fife. A bit of googling reveals that the town was originally named Stuart but a mining explosion in 1907 that killed 85 workers led to a difficulty in hiring miners to the mine there. The name change was, therefore, a way to remove the taint of disaster. The mining connection meant it was named for Lochgelly in Fife. There was really no purpose to our excursion to Lochgelly other than for me to be able to say I had been. We pulled up at a mulch company which was handily right next door to a frozen custard place. The kids were plied with frozen custard which cooled them down and put an end to their cantankerousness.
Having gone as far as Lochgelly, Mr Pict and I decided it was not much further to the New River Gorge Bridge so we should go check it out. It was once the longest single span arch bridge in the world, is the second highest bridge in America, and stands 876 feet above the New River that runs beneath. Having got the idea from driving across the bridge, the kids refused to get out of the car to see it. I, therefore, wandered out to the viewpoint on my own to see a vista of it. There were steps that would take my down to the bottom for a worm’s eye view but I decided that I had neither the time nor inclination to descend and ascend hundreds of wooden steps just to get a different perspective on a road bridge.
We ended the day with a challenge. Dining at a local steakhouse in Beckley, our 9 year old pleaded with Mr Pict to try their steak eating challenge. Mr Pict initially resisted and placed an order for an entirely different meal. Our 9 year old loves cookery competition TV shows so he was disappointed. Between his pleading chocolate brown eyes, pouting lip, and his broken arm, his Dad capitulated and changed his order. He had to eat a 31 ounce steak plus the sweet potato fries and salad that accompanied it. Every. Last. Morsel. And he managed it! The kids were over the moon and our 9 year old declared him to be his “idol”.