The Mining Towns of Southern West Virginia
Black Coal may have built these parts, but today it's the Blue rivers that lure the adventurous crowds—and keep them coming back for more.
John Denver immortalized West Virginia's country roads with the song that's become the de facto state anthem, one that even visitors know by heart. My colleague Moira, who's riding shotgun and taking photographs, and I belt out the lyrics repeatedly during the course of our trip. South of Charleston, country roads crisscross raging rivers, bisect towns too small to show up on a map, and roll over the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The triangle between Charleston, Beckley, and Lewisburg is almost heaven (as Denver croons and the state's license plates advertise), and not just because of the pleasant driving. There's also enough history to keep us intrigued, enough adventure to keep us active, and enough kitsch to keep us entertained every mile of the way.
Day 1: Charleston to Beckley
After landing in Charleston midmorning, we head straight for Beckley, home to Tamarack, a 60,000-square-foot circular mall dedicated to West Virginia arts and crafts. Though architecturally bizarre--its roofline resembles the Statue of Liberty's crown, painted fire-engine red--half a million visitors a year come to buy crafts (blown glass, quilts, and wood carvings), listen to musicians, and watch the artists-in-residence work in their glass-walled studios. Our loop through the building ends at the buffet restaurant, where Moira and I fill up on fried-green-tomato sandwiches and pan-seared locally farmed trout before hitting Coal Country.
By the 1880s, the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads had brought thousands of miners to southern West Virginia. Beckley is the gateway to what's now known as the Coal Heritage Trail, a 100-mile stretch of boom-and-bust towns reaching south to the Virginia border. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine museum--a working mine from 1890 to 1910--we hop a battery-powered tram and venture 1,500 dark feet into the mountain, past mossy walls and under a dripping ceiling.
Our guide, Joe Norkevitz, who worked for various local coal companies for 40 years, explains that Beckley miners spent their 16-hour shifts on their knees or backs, as the average coal deposits were only waist high. I start to feel claustrophobic, and it only gets worse as he goes on to explain the dangers of collapses and methane gas explosions. Above ground, a walk through the museum and coal camp provides a look at the stark life miners lived outside of the mountain. A simple stove, desk, and a narrow single bed somehow fit in a tiny shanty, no more than six feet wide by nine feet long. At the Country Inn & Suites nearby, Moira and I have a renewed appreciation for our standard room's size.
- Country Inn & Suites2120 Harper Rd., Beckley, 800/456-4000, countryinns.com, from $75
- Tamarack OneTamarack Place, Beckley, 888/262-7225
- Beckley Coal MineNew River Park, Beckley, 304/256-1747, open April-October, $15
- Southern West VirginiaCVB 221 George St., Beckley, 304/252-2244, visitwv.com
Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg
Today's plan is to take scenic Route 3 toward Lewisburg. At White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays, in Shady Spring, manager Joe Clinebell shows us the proper handling of a 12-gauge shotgun. Shooting clay targets is the fastest growing gun sport in the country, says Clinebell, who describes it as "golf with a shotgun." We walk through the woods from station to station, firing at targets that, depending on how they're launched, simulate the movement of rabbits, ducks, or pheasant. Moira has never picked up a gun before but still manages to hit a few. I don't do much better even though I've shot skeet several times recently. Clinebell suggests that keeping my eyes open as I pull the trigger would help my aim.
Using up our 50 rounds takes about two hours. By then, we're good and ready to move on to Hinton, a railroad town founded in 1873 at the point where the Greenbrier, Bluestone, and New Rivers meet. On the outskirts, we stop for lunch at Kirk's. The restaurant proper isn't much to look at, but the view from the back deck--it juts out over the New River--is spectacular. Ducks float by below us, and the water churns near the rocky shore. I've heard that Kirk's has the best hot dogs around, and I'm not disappointed--the bun is perfectly toasted, and there's a heap of fries on the side. On Temple Street, the Railroad Museum--which displays old signals, pieces of track, and Pullman uniforms--doubles as a vistors center. We pick up a map and explore the many Victorian buildings that have put Hinton on the National Register of Historic Places. Ten miles past Hinton, we drive over the 6,500-foot Big Bend Tunnel, which John Henry helped construct in the early 1870s. There's an eight-foot bronze statue of him--bare-chested, with a steel-driving hammer in hand--at a turnoff just before Route 3 dives into Talcott.