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Thurmond

Fayette County, West Virginia

 

by

Gary B. Speck

 

            Located in the heart of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, Thurmond is an easy-to-find, not be missed ghost town. It is on the east side of the New River, 12 air miles northeast of Beckley. From Glen Jean, take State Highway (SH) 25 east, down to the bottom of the New River Gorge.  At the river a vehicle/railroad bridge crosses the New River.

            Thurmond is unique.  Most ghost towns - and living towns for that matter - have a MAIN STREET lined with buildings.  Thurmond has the buildings, but no main street.  Because of the narrowness of the canyon, railroad tracks run through what normally is that main street, leaving a narrow space between the tracks and the buildings fronting the tracks.

            Thurmond began in the 1870s when Captain W. D. Thurmond surveyed land in the gorge for the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railroad. Instead of money, he took acreage adjacent to the railroad as pay. He felt strongly the area would serve as a valuable railroad junction and envisioned his acreage serving as the nucleus for a future railroad junction town. Coal and timber interests also eyed the route as a perfect place for railroad branch lines to reach the river bottom.

            Thurmond operated a ferry at the confluence of Dunloup Creek with the New River for about ten years, making up to 15 crossings a day.  In 1889, his ferry was replaced by a railroad bridge, which spurred development of a town.  The future had been forecast correctly as within a couple years, several railroad branch lines were built and a railroad junction began to develop on land owned by the Thurmond family.

            The Thurmonds opened a store partnered with Charles and George Jones, as well as 30 or so houses and cabins for folks to live in.  Thurmond quickly grew, and neighboring Glen Jean also expanded down into the gorge.  Since the Thurmonds were strong advocates of clean living, vices settled on the Glen Jean side of the line. 

            The boom began.  A post office was established in the Jones-Thurmond Store in 1888, followed in 1891, when the wooden Hotel Thurmond and a railroad depot were built.  The hotel burned in 1899 and was rebuilt of brick, reopening in 1901, at the same time as the 100-room Dunglen Hotel on the south side of the river.  When that hotel opened, it included a bar that never closed, much to Captain Thurmond’s displeasure.

            By 1898, 175 folks lived here and the town had the following listed among its businesses:  Adams Express office, two coal company offices, three general stores, a Western Union telegraph office, a barber, two dressmakers, hotel, jeweler, lawyer, photographer, railroad depot, restaurant, saloon and a shoemaker.  There was also a constable and a justice of the peace.

             In 1903, Thurmond incorporated, partially to reap the benefits of incorporation, and partially to protect its own physical interests from encroaching “civilization.”  The town of Glen Jean then officially extended its boundaries right to the corporate limits of Thurmond, protecting its saloons, gambling and other vices, all of which fed off the Thurmond residents and visitors who did not follow Captain Thurmond’s staunch Baptist morals.

            Through the early 1900s, Thurmond continued to grow. In 1903, the Armour Company built a wholesale meat shipping office; the three-story, brick Mankin building was built; the railroad depot burned, but was quickly rebuilt. 

In 1908, the railroad bridge washed out when the New River flooded, but despite that setback, Thurmond continued development into a major railroad center.  By 1910, Thurmond was the C&O RR Company’s number one freighting center and passenger hub, with over 75,000 rail passengers passing through a town consisting of two banks, two churches, a clothing store, coal sales agencies, two doctors, several dry-goods stores, electric light plant, two hotels, jewelry store, post office, restaurants, several different types of stores, a telephone exchange, theater, Western Union office and a huge railroad depot as well as train yards. 

            In 1914, the state of West Virginia enacted a state-wide prohibition against alcohol use.  This didn’t directly affect Thurmond, but did affect the saloons snuggled up against, but just outside, the city limits south of the river.

            By 1915, the washed-out railroad bridge had been replaced, increasing access to the town.  Until 1917, access to Thurmond was only by rail or the river, when the road down from Glen Jean was completed

            In November, 1922, fire devastated the Glen Jean-side river bank business district, including the Collins Cash Mercantile, Lykens Drugstore, Collins Mortuary, the movie theater, Panas’ Shoe Shop and some apartments.  The area was not rebuilt.  This was the beginning of the end for Thurmond.  Even though the 1920s were kind to the town, it began to fade.  The 1930s were most unkind to Thurmond, starting when the Dunglen Hotel burned.  Then in 1931, the National Bank of Thurmond.  In 1932, the Armour Company pulled out.  In 1935, the New River Banking & Trust Company moved to Oak Hill.  In 1938, the telephone company moved to Beckley. Additional fires destroyed some of the housing stock.  As businesses and train traffic diminished, Thurmond’s prosperity followed suit.

During the 1940s the railroads switched from coal to more efficient and reliable diesel-powered locomotives, so the need for service and repair yards declined.  In 1958, Thurmond’s light went out, when the last remaining steam locomotive in the New River Gorge made its last run.  As Thurmond’s prosperity evaporated, the physical toll also continued. In April, 1963, the Lafayette (Thurmond) Hotel and the old Armour building burned.  In 1984 the C&O Railroad closed its offices in Thurmond and in 1993, the massive engine house burned.  The Thurmond Post Office finally closed in 1995, but, the National Park Service restored the two-story railroad depot for use as a visitor center/museum that same year. 

            Census figures share the graphic story of Thurmond’s decline:

·        1910 - 315

·        1920 – 285

·        1930 – 462

·        1940 – 339

·        1950 – 219

·        1960 – 189

·        1970 – 86

·        1980 – 67

·        1990 – 39

·        2000 – 7

 

            For ghost town trivia buffs AND movie fans, the John Sayles movie “Matewan”, was filmed in Thurmond, about 100 miles from the real coal town of Matewan. The August 1987 movie told the gritty story of a 1920 coal miner’s strike and an attempt to unionize the mine workers.

 

            SO, what’s left?

 

The huge, two-story railroad depot has been restored; several three and four-story rock and brick buildings face the still active tracks; the vine covered coaling tower and a pile of wrecked railcars sit on a siding where the roundhouse and car barns used to be; houses and a picturesque, white clapboard church sit up in the trees. Many details such as faded wall signs and window signs bring back the feeling of a town once on the move.

            Coal brought the trains - coal powered the trains that gave Thurmond its life - lack of coal brought its death.  Today, only river-rafters and curious ghost towners visit where thousands once strolled.  Plopped deep in the heart of West Virginia’s New River Gorge – Thurmond is a classic ghost town that is well worth a visit. 

 

            This was our Ghost Town of the Month for Jun/Jul 2008

         This is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.

 

LOCATION:

·        Latitude: 37.9615016 / 37° 57’ 41” N

·        Longitude: -81.0823220 / 81° 04’ 56” W

 

 

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FIRST POSTED:  June 12, 2008

LAST UPDATED: November 17, 2012

 

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