By Isaac Fornarola
Chapter One: What Do We Do With Thurmond?
It’s late March, and the ashen coal fields of West Virginia that surround a vast gorge are covered in white, heavy snow. The visitor center of the New River Gorge National River is nestled in a thick forest looking out over the expanse of frozen water. The National Park Service has built a wooden stairway down to the river, which is covered in slush and patches of black ice. A posted sign near the entrance of the park warns visitors of the danger of the hike to the bottom. “The way down is easy,” it reads. “The way up is strenuous.”
Another sign at the entrance to the visitor center details the history of the region. “Until 1873, the slopes of the New River Gorge were virtually untouched. Railroads and coal changed that.” By 1900, it says, the region had become a bustling and prosperous region. “Then, coal profits dwindled, people left, the towns died. Now, forest is reclaiming the abandoned towns.”
The Coal Heritage Trail, a stretch of highway preserved by the park service, winds through 100 miles of mountainside towns. Some are barely indistinguishable from any small American suburb. Corporate supermarkets are set against a backdrop of abandoned general stores. But some are desolate, though not destroyed. They’re quiet, but not silent—on Main Street after Main Street, you’ll find vacant movie theaters and restaurants without patrons. But up on the hillside, a front door will open and slam shut, cutting the silence with a sign of life. [i]
As I drove through the coal fields, struggling to anticipate sharp turns through the mountainside, pickups took note of my New York license plate and tailed me with aggressive vigor. I was overwhelmed by beauty and danger at once, trying to hug the shoulder. I imagined what the other drivers must have thought I was doing there. They probably thought I was a fugitive, or terribly lost. Or, that I was yet another Northerner, ogling at the desolation and offering nothing, using their story to advance my own.
The Coal Heritage Trail runs through every major company town in the region. In these communities, coal companies owned everything there was to own: grocery stores, banks, hotels, and real estate. When the industry was at the height of its prominence and profitability, more than 78 percent of all southern West Virginia miners lived in towns owned by coal companies. Residents could use their hard-earned money to buy buckets of Staple Brand Peanut Butter, tin jars of Folger’s Eight O’Clock Coffee, and 1-cent Hershey’s chocolate bars from the same company that paid it to them. So long as the company was doing fine, the families had food. And when railroads like the Chesapeake & Ohio made their way to southern West Virginia in 1873, industry profits soared. By 1917, there were nearly 90,000 documented coal miners in the state. [ii]
I was on my way to Thurmond, West Virginia. Thurmond is a formerly-thriving company town in Fayette County just north of Beckley, West Virginia. In its heyday, it was one of the most prosperous and active towns in the region. Today, only five residents remain. I’d first heard of Thurmond in 2015, when the town became the smallest in the nation to ban discrimination against the LGBTQ community.[iii] The country’s presidential election cycle was in full-swing and, as a transgender journalist who’d been watching the political discourse about LGBTQ people devolve into a partisan shouting match, the story moved me. All five residents in the deeply-red state voted in favor of the protections. In nearly every article I read about the vote, Thurmond had been referred to as a “ghost town,” a desolate community ravaged by the decline of the coal industry. But how can a town be a “ghost town” while there are people living in it? I wanted to know why the people of Thurmond were still so dedicated to the democratic process and why they felt civil rights protections were important. But mostly, I wanted to know why the five remaining residents hadn’t left.
Thurmond’s five residents are Mayor Melanie Dragan, a 73-year-old Thurmond native. Then there’s her daughter, Missie, who is on the city council. Missy’s husband, Chad McKeon, is the town recorder. Cindy Dragan, who is Melanie’s sister-in-law and Missy’s aunt, also stayed in Thurmond. The fifth resident is Tighe Bullock, a strikingly-handsome 28-year-old lawyer, and the only resident who isn’t a member of the Dragan family.
Tighe (pronounced tie) Bullock’s father was a coal miner and outdoorsman who moved to Thurmond in the late 1970s. Seeking another source of income outside of the mine, he opened a hostel for tourists who came to enjoy whitewater rafting on the New River. One such tourist was Tighe’s mother, a New Yorker who came to Thurmond on vacation, fell in love with the hostel’s owner, and never left. Tighe lived there with his family until he was four. When he was born in 1989, there were 80 people living in Thurmond. After the National Park Service started buying property in the early 1990s, the population began to dwindle. When the Bullocks moved away in 1993, the members of the Dragan family were the only remaining residents.
For nearly a century, West Virginians have struggled to discern between what is viable and what has been promised. In the 2016 election, the revival of the coal industry re-entered the national conversation. West Virginia, a state that Hillary Clinton had won by over 150,000 votes in the 2008 Democratic primary, was up for grabs, and any candidate who wished to run a successful campaign in the region would have to address the coal crisis. [iv] The industry had lost over 50,000 jobs between 1983 and 2012. The rise in popularity of clean energy, the lack of international demand, and new mining technology took a significant toll on coal.
But the truth was coal mining towns of southern West Virginia had been gasping for air for nearly a century. In Thurmond, the first nail in the coffin was the shift to diesel in trains in 1923, exacerbated by the advent of the automobile. Thurmond, in those days inaccessible by car and without a single road, no longer produced enough profit to support its population. Workers moved their families to neighboring towns with active mines, and the population dropped by the hundreds.[v] Today, Thurmond is still without a road, and is only accessible by foot. Visitors have to pull off on the highway and walk to finish the journey.
Thurmond, once producing more coal than Cincinnati, Richmond, or Charleston, now serves as the headquarters for the New River National Park. [vi] The effort to redevelop Thurmond as a protected region and preserve the land surrounding the New River Gorge began in the late 1970s, when long-time senator Robert Byrd took it upon himself to champion the cause in Congress. Though Byrd sought to preserve and redevelop the region, his plans for Thurmond were met with resistance from constituents, who cited concerns about federal control of private property. The federal government, too, was hesitant to allocate the millions of dollars it would require to revitalize a town with less than 100 residents. [vii]
But in 1978, after nearly ten years of effort, Byrd found a way to please both the residents of Fayette County and skeptical legislators: If the government designated the region as a National River, it would allow landowners to keep their property, and though it would ban the creation of new mines, existing mining operations could continue. In 1978, the Senate and the House agreed to create the New River Gorge National River and allocate funds for a national park, headquartered in Thurmond.
It took another ten years to start the project. In 1989, the United States Department of the Interior drafted a 70-page plan for the redevelopment of Thurmond called the “Development Concept Plan: Interpretive Prospectus/Environmental Assessment of the New River Gorge.” It outlined three alternatives for renovating Thurmond: Plan A would only preserve Thurmond’s train depot, remodeling the interior and creating a museum, visitor center, and gift shop. Plan B would renovate a select number of buildings built between 1910 and 1930, the time at which the region was the most prosperous. [viii]
But Plan C, the plan the government would approve in time, would turn the whole town into a museum. It outlined a full-scale rehabilitation of the majority of the buildings in Thurmond and allocated funds to purchase commercial and residential property that were deemed historically significant. The approved plan allocated over $14 million for the rehabilitation and purchase of property. The plan would “illustrate the significance of the town as part of the regional railroad network from 1873… through the period when diesel replaced steam in firing engines to the present day.” With the nearly $31 million in total funds, it said, “Thurmond would become a major destination within the national river…the adapted buildings would make the town come alive and ensure preservation of remaining elements of this unique railroad community.”
Within the first three years of the project, residents and park rangers began to question the viability of the plan. The first obstacle was the health and sanitation problems that plagued the long-neglected natural surroundings. The overgrown foliage surrounding the gorge was covered in cadmium and lead from coal seams.
In 1991, a woman fell headfirst off of a 30-foot ledge [ix] into the New River while picnicking and developed a lung condition from toxins in the water that later took her life. The family filed a $5 million lawsuit, claiming authorities knew the river was contaminated and did nothing.
Afterward, a landowner from Fayette County wrote a letter to the National Park Service expressing his concern: “In this day and age, we still have raw sewage being dumped into the New River (in the county) on a daily basis…it would be interesting to know what the reaction of the tourists using this beautiful river would be if they were aware of this serious health and sanitation problem.”
The cost of eradicating the sewage in the area, unaccounted for in the fiscal plan, seemed astronomical. In a 2004 interview, cultural resource specialist David N. Fuerst expressed his concern that the project was ultimately impossible: “You have to be selective and really go back to the point of what the park is about, and that is to interpret a story for the public,” he said, “not to preserve everything in place, and there are purists in the Park Service, purists who will say I have to. Every time I run into a situation or I walk through the woods and I see a collapsed coke oven…I’ve got to spend money. That isn’t really reasonable.” [x]
The other major challenge to the project was whether the level of public interest would truly justify the millions in federal spending. In 1991, director of the National Park Service James Ridenour expressed his concerns in a letter to the district: “I wonder if the size of the dollar commitment to doing everything that I have heard described for the area would be justified in terms of the tourism potential. It is too bad that there isn’t an easier way to access that property and provide interpretation, at a cost that would be reasonable in terms of the benefit.”
Slowly over the course of ten years, it became apparent that the project was unrealistic, and residents became frustrated with the fact that the government wasn’t making good on its promise. At a meeting with the National Park Service, Mayor Melanie Dragan’s husband Jon expressed that anger: “Literally, I remember being at that meeting (with)…representatives, people out of Washington D.C. ‘Yes sir Jon, don’t you worry about this. We got the train coming through; we’re going to do this,’” he remembered. “We were told when they bought the property from us that…I said what are you going to do with it? ‘Cause we really didn’t want to sell it… Hell, all they did was buy the people out and board up the houses… It just seems like every time we get promised something, it just doesn’t happen, or it doesn’t happen to the extent that we are promised it would happen.”
In 1996, the project finally fell through. One of the properties that the government had purchased, a large engine house, burned to the ground. The government insisted that despite the destruction of the building, which was an integral part of the plan, the project would move forward. But in 1999, the government withdrew the majority of the funds allocated to Thurmond. The $35 million plan was reduced to $1.1 million, and the majority of the buildings that the Park Service had already purchased were left untouched.
“They just kind of displaced all these people, and it was really messed up,” Tighe told me. “They offered people $15,000, $20,000 for the homes… It was kind of like a FEMA buy-out, but without all of the good things that really come along with that.” To the remaining residents, it’s still clear which buildings are owned by the government and which are not. “They have shiny new roofs and new paint,” said Tighe, “but they’re rotting on the inside.”
The same could be said of the blue hills of southern West Virginia, bordered by the roaring New River, with hidden cascades along its banks. The drive through Thurmond and the surrounding Fayette County is unequivocally beautiful. But the towns along the Coal Heritage Trail are rotting, filled with residents trying to claw their way out—or find a viable way to stay. In Thurmond, it’s hard to know what is more miraculous: that the five residents managed to stay, or that they didn’t want to leave.
Tighe says the answer to why the Bullocks and the Dragans didn’t leave was simple: “I think it was because we didn’t have to.” Tighe’s parents both earned living wages and could resist the buyout, opting to keep their home instead. Today, the Bullocks live full-time in nearby Charleston, but wanted to keep the house for family gatherings during the holidays. But the other residents of Thurmond at the time of the buyout, mostly elderly couples, needed the money. It was a ticket out of town, and their biggest and only asset was finally worth something. “I think it was more money than those people had ever seen in one lifetime,” says Tighe.
At a 2016 campaign rally in Logan, West Virginia, Hillary Clinton made a speech that drew the wrath of thousands. “Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these underserved poor communities,” she said. “So, for example, I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?”
For many West Virginians, these were the words that lost Hillary Clinton the election. This statement, wrenched from context by the 24-hour news cycle, was played over and over on radio and television stations for weeks. How could a candidate come into West Virginia and promise to decimate the area, to take as many jobs as possible? These words, and Clinton herself, were the danger of the East coast elite, embodied—yet another millionaire who made promises to disregard the white working class. It was a gaffe from which, in West Virginia, Clinton would never recover, and in the state that had voted for her overwhelmingly in the 2008 primary, she lost to Bernie Sanders by nearly 36,000 votes. In the general election, she lost to Donald Trump by 300,000 votes. [xi]
But what didn’t make the news was her statement that followed: that the miners who had dedicated their lives to the industry, often at the expense of their health and well-being, should not be forgotten, and that whatever comes next has to serve those people. That any plan to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy should aim to benefit those who built their lives and communities around coal. “Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels,” she said, “but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”
In her attempt to look forward, Clinton had dredged up the traumas of the past. Still, the damage had been done. West Virginians opted, instead, for a promise—a promise of restoration and revitalization which came from a Northeast billionaire who would later win the presidency. But like the Park Service’s plan to turn Thurmond into a new Harpers Ferry, there is question as to its viability, and whether the rallying cry for coal will leave the region worse than before. “I think a lot of progressive-minded people in the state, one of the worst things that could’ve happened to us was Trump saying, ‘Guys, coal is going to come back. And we’re going to bring it back,’” said Tighe. “People hated that here.”
The state had just begun to consider alternate sources of revenue, like investing in clean energy. Another example, said Tighe, was the fact that West Virginia had passed legislation to legalize medical marijuana, an industry that could bring millions to the state. “We were just kind of bogged down in this mentality that we’ve always had in West Virginia for the past 100 years. Now that coal is falling off, it was opening up some new dialogues,” he said. “Now that we’re moving back to the coal thing, people are going to start hunkering down, be more risk-averse with new ideas.”
Every election, politicians campaign on reviving the coal industry to its prior glory, promising West Virginians that with time and investment, things can be just how they were. Robert Byrd and the National Park Service promised to revitalize the region when they begged residents for their support in turning Thurmond into a museum, preserved in time, never moving forward or back.
But the story of Thurmond shows us that the coal industry has been declining for nearly a century. Is it possible that fixating on reviving the coal industry is, like the plan to renovate Thurmond, both impractical and detrimental? Is this narrative that, on its surface, seems to champion Thurmond’s cause, actually injurious? To understand how Thurmond can move forward, it’s important to trace its rise and fall, a history that began just after the Civil War.
[iii] All five residents of a West Virginia town voted to ban LGBT discrimination. The Washington Post, 2/12/15. Accessed 5/3/18.
[iv] Clinton Beats Obama Handily in West Virginia, The New York Times. 5/14/2008. Accessed 5/3/18.
[v] Coal Country’s Decline Has a Long History: The Atlantic. 10/31/13. Accessed 5/2/18
[ix] Opening Doors in Brick Walls, 12/12/2017. Accessed 5/3/2018 https://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=meder-dempsey&id=I52851
[xi] In context: Hillary Clinton’s comments about coal jobs, Politifact. 5/10/16. Accessed 5/3/18.