9 photos that’ll make you completely rethink the coal boom

During the coal boom, simple black rocks fueled the nation, and a revolution. But just how big was the coal industry in its heyday? Even bigger than you think.

Check out historic photos of these 9 coal mining-era sites from the rich southern WV coalfields to get a real sense of the industry’s massive impact on the region and nation.

Use the “then” and “now” buttons above each place to compare the history and life there today.

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1. Bluefield

mined 40% of North America's coal

Today, Bluefield is one of West Virginia’s official Certified Arts Communities, bursting with culture.

The high-rises still line the streets. They were marvels of their age, but they’re not as big as the ever-growing skyscrapers of today’s cities. You can find nods to the town’s mining heritage.


< Bluefield’s Chickory Square pays homage to the town’s rail roots, with artisan-designed rail cars and a mural from the city’s heyday.

History buffs can dig deeper into the town’s rich mining heritage at the Eastern Regional Coal Archives, where you’ll find artifacts and from the coal boom, including blueprints, coal scrip and more.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 12.14.30 PM The little Ridge Runner train will roll you along the rails at the city park.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 12.25.33 PMSee the historic Norfolk & Western Caboose.

Bluefield,“The Little New York,” was one of the first cities in the world to have a noticable skyline.

After the discovery of the largest, richest coal deposit in the world, the city sprung up almost overnight. In a single year, rail traffic exploded from fewer than 500 passengers to more than 13,000. It was so prominent, it was on Adolf Hitler’s air strike list.

It’s easy to see why: coal was the main source of energy, and at the time, Bluefield was responsible for 40% of the North American coal supply.

At its height, 60 million tons of coal passed though Bluefield a year.

That’s about the equivalent of 800+ blue whales— per day.


Keep in mind, a blue whale’s tongue alone weighs as much as an elephant.

2. Thurmond

Center of glamour (& grit)

Only a few residents remain in this “ghost town,” but you can still see most of the historic buildings on the near-abandoned streets .

Learn more about train history in town at the Thurmond Railroad Day. Or, compete in the legendary Thurmond Triathlon through the surrounding wilderness. The Dun Glen area is a great place to sit and enjoy nature.

< The old Thurmond Depot has been restored as a visitor center & museum.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 1.31.23 PMUncover coal & rail industry relics like the old coaling tower.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 1.29.20 PMHike to waterfalls and train. (Be careful— tracks are still active!)

As the most prominent stop along the C&O rail line, Thurmond was a bustling hub of culture and coal.

Nearly 100,000 people rolled into the station to visit each year, including the wealthy coal barons, who brought their glamorous living along with them. The banks became the richest in the state.

Thurmond saw more coal per year than Cincinnati, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia combined.

The Dunglen Hotel was a notorious and luxurious “den of sin,” where the gambling and alcohol reigned. It was the site of the world’s longest poker game— which lasted more than 14 years.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 1.09.32 PMDowntown was a hotspot, lined with busy shops.

3. Princeton

Richest Little Railroad in the World

The Princeton Railroad Museum in the reconstructed depot preserves the history of both the innovative Virginia Railroad and the company it eventually merged with, the N&W Railroad.

Innside, you can discover photographs, a working telegraph and switchboard, hundreds of rail lanterns, and even newspaper articles and PSAs from the time period.

You can even take a peek inside the retired caboose for a look around what would have been the conductor’s quarters.

The railway’s main machine shops were in Princeton, employing 800+ workers. The Virginia Railway Yard National Historic District preserves shops, engineering buildings and more.

Visit the Princeton Railroad Museum while you’re in town for events like the Princeton Autumnfest, Celebrate Princeton or the Princeton All Together Arts Week.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 11.03.39 PMPrinceton is home to a unique baseball rivalry.

Princeton was a major stop along the Virginian Railway, founded by one of the wealthiest men in the world. He invested $40 million in the “Richest Little Railroad in the World.”

The line took a different approach than it competitors: instead of linking major cities, they set a direct course from point A to B. That meant digging straight through mountains, and laying tracks through rural areas. Princeton happened to be a small town that prospered by being in its path.

It was one of America’s most innovative and prominent rail lines.


“Nothing is too good for my railroad.”

-Virginian Railway funder, Henry Huttleston Rogers

Creating direct rail routes was an intensive process. 64% of the materials the rail builders sliced through to built the tunnels were solid rock. It was mostly hand-cut, then carted away by mules.

The unique approach paid off. When the Virginia Railroad’s main route began, there were no mines on the line. They opened 91 themselves, and helped develop 47 mines on connecting lines.

4. Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

A real look underground

Take a mantrip car ride right underground and through the old mine for a tour, guided by real veteran miners who will recount their days in the industry.

Hear their tales about sticking false teeth in their water pails so no one would steal it, early miners’ innovations and the more harrowing details about the hard labor and harsh conditions of the job.

After that, you can explore the coal camp, and compare the meager miner shanties to the lavish superintendent’s quarters.

At the coal camp, you can explore a renovated church, coal house and school. There’s also a youth museum so the kids can learn hands-on. During the holidays, enjoy s’mores, decorations and other activities at Coal Town Christmas.

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When the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine was in operation, it was called the Phillips-Sprague Mine.

It was a fairly small family-owned mines. These were sometimes called “punch mines,” because they were “punched right into the hillside.”

In the depths more than 1,500 feet below the surface, the mine was less than 34 inches tall. Miners crawled on their sides to dig out carts full of coal.

< This is another mine from the Southern WV area that looks like Beckley’s back in the day.

Miners earned 20 cents per ton of coal, which only amounted to about $2 per day.

Donkeys, goats and even large dogs hauled carts out of the early mines. Sometimes, miners’ children would help at the mines, but they weren’t paid for the labor until they were 16.

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5. Hinton

Gateway to the gorge

Hinton’s 16-block historic district is the largest in the nation, with more than 200 buildings, including some unique and rare architecture.

Right at the heart of 3 major rivers and the National Parks of Southern WV, Hinton is becoming a popular destination as it revitalizes its quaint downtown scene with small businesses like the Otter and Oak general store & gallery, and the Market at Courthouse Square restaurant.

Add to the charm: stay up-to-date with the town’s historic AM radio station.

Ride the rails on the New River Train to Hinton’s annual Railroad Days festival.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 4.48.00 PMExplore C&O artifacts at the Railroad Museum

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 4.53.34 PMFollow a folk hero’s footsteps. Retrace John Henry’s legendary contest.

Hinton wasn’t directly involved in coal mining, but it’s a great example of the massive impact of the industry, because it wouldn’t exist without it.

Simply because of the massive amounts of coal being transported through the area, Hinton thrived as a stop along the rail lines to the New River Gorge coalfields. The line was prominent thanks to the work of famous locomotive magnate Collis P. Huntington, who wanted to extend the rail line coast to coast.

The folk legend of the Steel Drivin’ Man, John Henry, was born at the nearby Big Bend Tunnel. Here, he challenged a steam drill— and won! But he passed away from exhaustion shortly after.

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6. Whipple Company Store

a community's sole recource

Get a peek into life at the coal camp at Whipple, which is now a heritage museum.

This one-of-a-kind building is almost exactly as it was in the old days, like a time capsule from the coal boom. Explore its unique mysteries, like a secret 2nd floor and walk-in safe.

Walk in the miners’ footsteps and a postcard from the store, just like the town residents would when it was their post office.

The Whipple collection is always growing, because locals love to come in and share their family memories about the store. Learn about the day-to-day of mine culture through the lens of Whipple’s residents.

Roam the halls during haunted tours in October. Because the store was so central to mine life, there are literally hundreds of eerie tales about the place: ghostly cigar smoke, phantom footprints and more.

Instead of money, miners used to be paid in scrip, a company-specific currency that could only be spent one place: the company store.

The Whipple Company Store was the center of coal camp life by necessity. It was where you went to see the doctor, buy your grains and make a call.

Even in its early days, the multi-level octagonal architecture was unique and impressive, and made it easy to segment the shop for different goods and services.

The Company Store was only place mine families could shop for everything— from candy to caskets.


whipple3The lift to the basement and 3 floors was hand-operated, and it’s still intact today. Discover more of Whipple’s artifacts.

7. McDowell County

heart of the coal bin

McDowell’s population declined with the coalfields, but it’s still been in the spotlight.

#1 New York Times Bestseller “Rocket Boys,” Homer Hickam’s memoirs of growing up in Coalwood, was made into a Blockbuster move, “October Sky.”

Bestselling memoir “The Glass Castle” was set in Welch.

The annual Rocket Boys October Sky Festival (now in Beckley to accommodate the large crowds) celebrates the heritage of the McDowell coalfields.

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The coalfields of McDowell County, through towns like Welch and Coalwood, were in “The heart of the nation’s coal bin.” For a while, it was the largest coal producer in the nation.

At its peak, this county had 100,000 people, many of whom were foreign laborers who came to work in the mines.

Coalwood was known across the country as a “model town” because it invested in its workforce, which built up the local community and boosted productivity.

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8. Bramwell

most millionaires in the nation

The coal boom faded, but the lavish mansions still tower over “Millionaire Row.”

You can take a self-guided walking tour of the town, and marvel at the stunning detail of each historic abode. Twice a year, in the spring and around the holidays, these upscale homes open for tours.


< The old Bramwell Depot is a visitors center, museum and coal heritage interpretive center, so you can delve deeper into Bramwell’s rich (literally) past.

The Corner Shop is still open today, with its original woodwork and old-fashioned elegance.


The original marble soda fountain is the centerpiece– and it still works. Try a sip!

The annual Bramwell Oktoberfest is the longest-running beer festival in the state. Sample all the craft brews along the quaint cobblestone of the mansion-lined Millionaire Row.

It may seem like a typical small town now, but in its late 1800s heyday, Bramwell had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country.

The coal boom barons all settled right on the town’s main street, building a towering line of ornate mansions, with intricate details, ballrooms, wrap-around decks and more.

In the massive coalfields spreading 40 miles from town, more than 100,000 workers mined top-quality coal— so renowned, it was the preferred coal of Buckingham Palace and the US government.

Corner Shop, WV

The Corner Shop had such high-end clientele, it became the 3rd store in the country to carry the elite Chanel No. 5 perfume.

There was so much money in Bramwell’s banks, the janitor would wheel large leather bags of cash down the streets in a wheelbarrow.

Coal baron I.T. Mann’s mansion has a hidden safe, a leather studded den and “playhouse” for his children the size of a home.



9. Nuttallburg

world's longest coal conveyor

The ruins of Nuttallburg are now a ghost town, where you can explore the remains of its unique architecture.

The National Park Service stabilized the well-preserved buildings, and added interpretive signs to explain the history of the mines.

You have to hike out to this remote spot, but it’s worth it to discover old coke ovens and tipple under the shadow of the massive conveyor.

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Nuttallburg coke ovens

Nuttallburg was the nation’s second mine to shop smokeless coal, which traveled up the mountain 1,385 feet on what was then the world’s longest conveyor belt to be processed and shipped. The powerful conveyor could handle 125 tons of coal in a single hour.

The famous motor mogul Henry Ford bought Nuttalburg, in an effort to control every aspect of his auto empire. His “vertical integration” experiment failed, though, because he couldn’t control the rail lines that transported the coal.

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