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Traveling in West Virginia Coal Country

January 3, 2005

After a long, winding, rainy drive on an strangely warm mid winter day, I cross into McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell is the poorest county in one of the poorest states in America. The median household income here, about $17,000 a year, is barely more than a third of the national average, and 38 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

It is also, in my view, one of the most beautiful landscapes in America. But I seek distressed towns; I've come to Mc Dowell because its county seat, Welch, was recommended to me by a native as a place I should photograph because, she said, "it's a ghost town."

First I arrive in Bramwell, so far south in the state it's nearly Kentucky, and pronounce it wrong all day. (The locals say "Brammul.") It's a tiny, charming enclave in a misty holler, its "downtown" surrounded by an oxbow of the Bluestone River. Bramwell was once known as "the richest small town in America," home at the turn of the last century to 14 millionaires, coal barons with restrained good taste in Tudor and Victorian architecture. There's a one-block Main Street recently accepted into the state Main Street program. I see evidence of streetscape improvements: about 20 expensive-looking benches and fancy new light poles. The benches are excessive. I cannot imagine 20 people sitting there even in springtime.

Downtown Bramwell in West Virginia was once known as the richest small town in America. Today
Bramwell residents are seeking help from the state Main Street program as the town has seen better days.
Photo: Sandy Sorlien

Later I hear from a resident that the plywood covering the front windows of two of the Main Street buildings may be there for some time. "Go around back," he advises. "The brick walls are collapsing and the buildings are open to the weather. The owner is our former mayor. We're trying to find a way for the town to take over the buildings, but we can't afford it."

I don't understand the relationship between the Main Street program and the hierarchy of improvements, so later I write to the former director of the National Main Street Center, Kennedy Smith, and ask why towns like Bramwell get new benches and lampposts before major buildings are repaired. She replies:

"Unfortunately, lots of small-town governments seem to believe that improving public spaces alone will leverage private-sector building improvements. In rare instances it does, but generally it only succeeds if an aggressive economic development plan, marketing program, and solid organizational partnerships are also part of the agenda. The Main Street program is about comprehensive action, addressing problems simultaneously in four broad areas: design, organization, promotion, and economic restructuring. But public money is more readily available for physical/streetscape improvements than for business development, so many towns decide to spend it to dress up their downtowns with benches, brick sidewalks, historic-looking streetlamps, things like that.

"Not surprisingly, many of the small towns that launch Main Street programs do so several years after going through one of these 'cutification' spells, realizing that the bricks and streetlights alone didn't do anything to increase business or attract new investment. I also think there's an element of not understanding historic preservation involved in this, e.g., thinking preservation means 'quaint,' instead of preserving and promoting the best possible design of each era -- including the current one."

January 4

Today I'm looking for Northfork, the town represented in a 1958 image called "Main Line on Main Street" by O. Winston Link, the train photographer. I hope to find the tripod holes, as photographers say, used by Link for his picture, so I can reshoot it. The place doesn't look quite right when I get there; the train tracks seem too far from the Main Street buildings, and the buildings themselves don't match up with the photograph, even accounting for the boxy Dollar Store and related modern types obviously infilled since then. Still, it's the only Main Street they have, so I set up my camera and shoot for about 45 minutes before the friendly mayor, 82-year-old Nick Mason, comes over to ask what I'm up to. He says, "You're on the wrong side of the tracks. The town Northfork was over there [he points], and this side you're shooting was called Clark. Clark was absorbed into Northfork, but the original Northfork is gone." And so it was, save for some foundations against the cliff and one collapsing half-building with a large flock of pigeons on the roof. Mason remembers all the businesses in old Northfork and ticks them off left to right from the Link photograph.

The trains still run. The mayor tells me the "railroad pigeons" are the first to hear a train coming. "Watch them," he says, "When they stir, that means they hear it. Then, they all fly over to a grain car and ride it, pecking at the grain as the train moves through town. But they don't ride it too far; when the train gets to the town limit, they fly back to their home roof to wait for another train."

A train comes; I watch, and he's exactly right.

January 5

I drive to Welch through morning fog on winding two-lane Route 52. If Welch isn't a ghost town it's getting there. The layout is almost medieval in the narrow valley, a one-way main street in and a parallel street out. There's a magnificent limestone courthouse on the hillside, and a few staunch buildings, but the air of seediness is heavier than the fog. I am drawn to the facades on McDowell Street that show layers of civilization and, literally, signs of despair: "Loans $25 to $800" says one; "Medication Assistance" says another; "Apartments for Rent, HUD Approved" a third.

One of the 21st-century problems in these mountains is lack of technology, including cell-phone coverage; however, the Welch public library has a lightning-fast Internet connection. I stop in and check email, then head back east on 52 to photograph Kimball, a tiny burg along the creek. There's a classical World War I Memorial Hall, rising in contrast to the plain brick Main Street buildings, scattered along 52 with barren gaps between them. I'm told that towns like that, which appear to be numerous in this region, were first decimated by the collapse of the coal industry (leaving its workers without equity, as most did not own their houses), and then by several devastating floods. From studies done after the 2002 flood, it seems likely that local surface mining and timbering contributed to the runoff.

I set up to shoot the few stores left on Main. A boy rides up on his bike. "Those buildings ain't worth takin' a pitcher of," he says.

January 6

As I've noted on other trips to West Virginia, the built environment is different from other states; there's very little sprawl. It's too mountainous, too remote from the cities, and too poor to attract development. One imagines that any development, in any form, would be welcome.

I sometimes think a dead town could revive if a university extension, arts colony, or research center would locate there -- the kind of institution that attracts young people or artists who don't mind living in dilapidated apartments and warehouses. In other words, bring the First Wave of gentrification in quickly by bringing the institution first.

In fact, on my last day in McDowell County, I find out that two new institutions are planned for the area. Both are prisons. "Prison jobs pay very well," says my host in Bramwell. "They will help."