Friday, August 2, 2013

Thurmond (by way of Matewan)

In the late ‘80s, I enjoyed watching an interesting film entitled “Matewan,” about labor strife in the coal fields of West Virginia. If you haven’t seen this movie (directed by John Sayles and starring James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Kevin Tighe, and others), I highly recommend it, because it provides a glimpse of the “mine wars” that gripped southern West Virginia nearly a hundred years ago. “Back in the old days” when I had West Virginia History in the eighth grade (a requirement for all West Virginia students), there wasn’t much mentioned about this controversial era of our history—it was only when I went to college that I finally learned about this fascinating period (complete with colorful characters such as Mother Jones).

The folks from Hollywood who made this movie decided that they couldn’t film it in the actual town of Matewan, but instead decided to use the old preserved town of Thurmond, which is located in the National Park Service’s New River Gorge, as the backdrop for some of the filming (including the pivotal scene of the “Matewan massacre”). I’ve been past the town of Thurmond several times while rafting down the New River, but other than the bridge, you can’t see much of the town from the river. I knew that someday I wanted to drive down into the gorge and explore this historic location, and recently I finally got the opportunity to do so.

The National Park Service has tried to preserve the buildings which still stand to provide a history lesson about this once bustling river town. They offer guided tours of the town from time to time, but we just parked at the train station and roamed around on our own, reading the interpretive signs that explain the background of each remaining building. Be aware that while time has seemingly stopped in Thurmond, the trains have not stopped—two eastbound trains and one westbound train went by while we were visiting—so look both ways when crossing the multiple tracks!

Among the most interesting of the few features remaining in Thurmond are the old train station (where you can still hop aboard an Amtrak train bound for Chicago or New York), the former National Bank of Thurmond, and the railroad coaling tower, which held 500 tons of coal in elevated storage, allowing steam engines to pull underneath to have their coal cars refilled. However, each of the buildings has its own story to tell about the city during its prime.

The road we took to visit Thurmond starts in Glen Jean and follows Dunloup Creek to the New River. About a mile or so from the river, the creek topples over a nice 20 foot waterfall adjacent to the road. If you know where to look, you can catch a glimpse of these falls from the road, and with the radio off and the windows down, you can definitely hear them. Fortunately, there is a pull-off area big enough for a couple of cars. On the way back up, we parked and explored the rocks and trails around Dunloup Creek Falls—I love the sights and sounds of waterfalls! It was the perfect end to an interesting day exploring the town of Matewan—oops, I mean Thurmond.

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