Relics and inspirations from WV’s richest industry
Since Victorian times, coal has made history in West Virginia. That legacy continues today with subterranean tours, eccentric buildings, and unique pizzas. Who knew this glittery black rock was so talented?
These aren’t your normal tours.
Your introduction starts with the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. Until 1953, this was an active site. Not much has changed since then, but that’s not a bad thing; miners now serve as tour guides, and “man-trip” carts transport tourists instead of employees.
Deep below the earth, you’ll hear enthralling anecdotes about life underground. Your miner will also demonstrate vintage tools, like hat candles and brass lamps.
Above ground, you can also explore a recreated coal camp. All of the buildings are genuine. There’s a vintage schoolhouse, company homes, and miners’ shanties (tiny one-room homes for “bachelor” employees). Each one has period furniture, too. As you walk on your own, docents will volunteer facts about scrip and domestic life.
The Whipple Company Store in Scarbro is just as mesmerizing. A secret floor and safe, ballroom, creepy basement, and a ghost or 2 fill this odd Victorian building. Those are just side notes, too.
As you’ll find out on your tour, miners came here for provisions and mail. Most paid with scrip — a common form of company credit.
Tours range from 30 minutes to 2 hours, May through November. Go for the longest trip you can manage, since the Whipple Company Store gets more intriguing as you wander.
As if that’s not enough, you can even take haunted history tours in October. Your guide will take you into the darkest, deepest crannies of the store: the walk-in safe, embalming room, elevator shaft, and more! It’s all genuine, too.
Before repurposing was a trend
It turns out you can build pretty impressive homes with coal.
One of the best examples is the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. Locals and fans hail it as the Coal House, although that’s a bit of an understatement. At 65 tons, the structure is massive. It’s really made of coal, too.
Today, the 84-year-old building serves as a visitors’ center and gift shop. Stop by for Hatfield-McCoy feud facts and trip brochures!
A meeting of the mines
Take a close look; vintage mining equipment a beauty all its own. There are elegant brass lanterns, metal picks, and quaint lunch pails, just to name a few.
If you’d like to get your hands on some history, visit the annual “Coal Miners Appreciation Day Swap Meet” in Fairmont. Locals and vendors from surrounding states bring mining curiosities and memorabilia that you can buy. Or, bring items that you’re willing to swap or sell. It’s a marvellous opportunity to chat with fellow collectors — and ogle tables of goodies.
Start your tour in the New River Gorge area, where nearly 50 coal towns once thrived. Nuttallburg was one of them. In the late 1800s, the C&O Railway shipped its smokeless coal to cities throughout America. Henry Ford even leased the mines for a time.
Eventually, the Nuttall family sold the property to the National Park Service after decades of inactivity. It’s now one of the best preserved industrial sites in the nation. Hike along the trails, and you’ll come across a coal conveyor, trestle bridges, buildings, and foundations.
Kaymoor One was another major mine in the Gorge and one of the most lucrative. In fact, it produced more than 16 million tons of coal from 1900 to 1962. If you’re up for a short but very steep hike, you’ll find safety signs for miners, coke ovens, and a processing plant.
The hushed town of Stotesbury has more recent artifacts: company houses, stone piers, and foundations to St. John’s Baptist Church. Its mine closed in 2002.
Fresh from the oven
Some imaginative restaurants use coal as the star ingredient!
It can be a challenge to work with pizza dough. Unless you have the right oven and fuel, you won’t get a crust that’s crisp and light. Some chefs in West Virginia, though, have discovered the power of coal.
In fact, the black rock is just right for pizza. It can quickly reach — and maintain — searing temperatures. The results are delicious: an evenly baked crust with a delicate, smoky aftertaste.
If you’re intrigued, Mia Margherita in Bridgeport makes West Virginia’s “only coal-fired pizzeria.” Chefs take handmade dough, brush it with garlic olive oil, and load it with quality toppings before popping it into the oven.
This post was last updated on March 16, 2022