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Abandoned, Acquired, Abandoned Again: A talk with Tighe Bullock, one of Thurmond, West Virginia’s five remaining residents.

By Isaac Fornarola   Thurmond is a small mining town in southern West Virginia. In the late 19th-century, Thurmond exported more coal than...

By Isaac Fornarola

 

Thurmond is a small mining town in southern West Virginia. In the late 19th-century, Thurmond exported more coal than Richmond, Charleston, or Cincinnati. Hundreds lived in worked in the town, with hundreds more passing through every day. In the late 1980s, as part of multi-million dollar plan to preserve Thurmond’s history and bring tourists to the area, the National Park Service acquired the majority of the property in the town. Over the course of a decade funding ran out, and the project was effectively ended. But the majority of the residents had already sold their homes to the government and left. Today, only five residents remain. I interviewed Tighe Bullock, one of those five, about everything from the history of the coal industry to the long-term effects of the National Park Service’s acquisition. Note: The interview has been cut down and edited for clarity.

 

Q: How many people live in Thurmond? Some things I’ve read say seven, some say five.

 

A: So, the town was bought up by the National Park Service. When I was born there [in 1989], there were about 80-some people. You can tell all the houses that are owned by the Park Service. They have shiny new roofs, and new paint, but they’re rotting on the inside. And all the normal-looking houses are privately owned. The Park Service has restored a couple of them, and they’ll put rangers in. I don’t know, those people claim that they live in Thurmond. But it’s five.

 

Q: So, it was 80 when you were born there. What happened? Did people leave for a specific reason?

 

A: The Park Service. It was related to when Robert C. Byrd was our U.S. senator. He was the king of cork barrel. He’d passed a lot of addendums to bills, and one of those was for the New River Gorge National Park to receive funding for certain projects. The idea was that they were going to try to buy the whole town up and turn it into some sort of walking museum. It sounds really hokey to me. But they did it, and then the funding ran out. And so, they just kind of displaced all these people, and it was really messed up. This was in the 70s and 80s. They offered people 15, 20 thousand dollars for the homes. It could’ve been a ticket out of the town for some people.

 

Q: Was what they offered comparable to the value of the house?

 

A: I think that’s debatable. I’d say no. I think it was more money than those people had ever seen in one lifetime.

 

Q: Who are the people still living there?

 

A: It’s a quick story, because there’s only five of us. The mayor, her name is Melanie Dragan. Her daughter, Missy, is on city council. Missy’s husband, Chad McCune, is the town recorder. And the fourth person is Cindy Dragan, who is Missy’s aunt, and Melanie’s sister-in-law. They’re actually the family that started the white-water industry on the New River, which is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

 

Q: Is there a general idea that it’s important to stay for the sake of the town, or is it more, “This is my home, I shouldn’t have to leave it?”

 

A: I’d say it’s a little bit of both. I think that we all enjoy our lives there and our relationships with each other, with the land around the town, the river. They say we’re the smallest town in America, and we could easily just not be a town. But we really do care. We’re trying to avoid losing our autonomy, essentially. We’re living the lives that we want to live, that we probably couldn’t live in larger cities.

 

Q: After this election, there’s been a lot of talk about bringing the coal industry back. Would that have implications for Thurmond?

 

A: No. The industry here died out a long time ago. There were special seams that were highly sought after around the turn of the century, high carbon content metallurgic coals. They emitted very little smoke, which was very valuable during the first World War when big smoke stacks gave your position away. That was probably the zenith of the town: 1910 to the mid-1920s. The general feeling in West Virginia, I think, is that we’re being played. That people are promising that coal is going to come back, and it’s just not true. Again, coal has always put food on my table, and it’s how I grew up, in the coal industry. But I think a lot of progressive-minded people in the state view Trump saying, “Guys, coal is going to come back, and we’re going to bring it back,” as one of the worst things that could’ve happened to us. People hate that here. Because for the first time, we weren’t bogged down in this mentality that we’ve always had in West Virginia for the past 100 years. Now that coal was falling off, it was opening up some new dialogues. We just passed a medical marijuana bill in the last legislative session. That would not have happened if the coal industry wasn’t on a decline: people had to start thinking about different avenues of revenue.

 

Q: What did you go to school for?

 

A: I’m an attorney now. I do historic preservation in Charleston, which I actually credit my upbringing in Thurmond. Growing up, I was always just kind of sad that the town ended up like that. I wanted to be able to change things. Physically change buildings. And give people, and buildings, second chances. I think Thurmond kind of led me to that.