Friday, November 28, 2014

Coalwood: Then and Now

I grew up during the “space race” of the 1960s, and was always interested in the space program—even building and flying my own model rockets. I was even fortunate enough to work for NASA for a few years during the 1980s, before moving back to my hometown in West Virginia.

Given my love for my native state, and my interest in the space, it should come as no surprise that I was captivated when Homer Hickam’s book “Rocket Boys” first came out in 1998. Everyone should read this book! I enjoyed the entire Coalwood Trilogy (“Rocket Boys,” “The Coalwood Way,” and “Sky of Stone”) as well as the movie version entitled “October Sky” (plus I saw the new musical version performed onstage at Fairmont State). Although I wasn’t born until after Sputnik, I could readily identify with the Rocket Boys and their adventures (see for more on this topic).

One of the historical markers in Coalwood.

We had driven to Coalwood about ten years ago to attend the Rocket Boys Festival when it was still being held there. In recent years, the festival location has moved to Beckley’s Exhibition Coal Mine. This year, they offered a bus ride from Beckley to Coalwood with one of the original Rocket Boys. Roy Lee Cooke is now in his 70s, and was the “ladies’ man” of the Rocket Boys. He is still quite a character!

Roy Lee telling us all about the launch site.

We loaded onto the bus and he regaled us with his stories all the way from Beckley to Coalwood, through the beautiful mountain scenery on a glorious fall day. For example, there is a long, winding hill crossing a ridge that separates Coalwood from the county seat of Welch. He told us about being so familiar with this curvy stretch of West Virginia Route 16 that he would drive it at night with his headlights off just for the challenge. [That is not the smartest thing to do, but that is what they did for fun back in the late ‘50s.]

When we arrived in Coalwood, Roy Lee gave us an entertaining guided tour, pointing out all the highlights of the town as it was nearly 60 years ago, including the launch site outside of the town. He also told us about acquiring the moonshine that was a critical ingredient in their homemade rocket fuel.

The company's clubhouse with the church just beyond.

Unfortunately, what had been a proud and booming coal town has been on the decline since the mine shut down. Nature is reclaiming much of land that is no longer being used. Unfortunately, hoodlums are destroying some of the vacant buildings as well. It seemed even more run-down than when I had been there a decade ago. I wish I could have experienced it in its glory days!

Some of the local residents provided lunch for the bus tour group in the basement hall of the Coalwood Community Church. Not only was the food good, but it was interesting to talk with them about the problems they face today. Life isn’t easy in Coalwood without good paying jobs nearby—a dilemma faced by too much of West Virginia. It makes one wish we could go back to the “good old days”—or does that make me sound like a grouchy old man?

A picture of our tour group, with Roy Lee on the right (hugging the young newspaper reporter). That's me with my University of Charleston shirt. Notice that this was taken under Roy Lee's street sign. By the way, this story appeared in the December issue of "Two-Lane Livin'" magazine.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Flat Stanley" visits Morgantown

[I went to the University of Charleston with a woman who now teaches school in Connecticut. Her students are doing a “Flat Stanley” project, where they color a paper cut-out of a boy and send him through the mail to another state ( By hearing about their Flat Stanley’s adventure, they learn about different states. I took the Flat Stanley that was sent to me for a weekend in Morgantown, WV, where I attended grad school and law school at WVU. Here is the report I’m sending back to the STEM Academy in Connecticut.]

Stanley accompanied me over the weekend to Morgantown, West Virginia. Anna and I had a great time showing him around town. Morgantown is best known as the home of West Virginia University.

The original part of campus is known as Woodburn Circle, where Woodburn Hall and two other nearby buildings on either side formed the original college when it was founded in 1867. This is a picture of Stanley at the circle with old Woodburn Hall in the background (when I was a WVU student, I had classes in there).

Near Woodburn Circle (which can be seen in the background) is the silver mast that was removed from the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia (look close to see the "crow's nest" just to the left of Woodburn Hall's center tower). This ship was sunk by the Japanese in World War II, but was able to be repaired and later fought during the war.

The building on the left in the picture above is the “Mountainlair”—the student union building at WVU, where students can eat, attend events, see movies, go bowling, etc. Here is a picture of Stanley on the sidewalk between Woodburn Circle and the Mountainlair, showing the front of the Mountainlair with old Stewart Hall in the background. Stewart Hall is where the president’s office and other administrative functions are located.

A famous statue is located adjacent to the Mountainlair. Here is Stanley with the larger-than-life West Virginia Mountaineer.

I took Stanley to the top of Law School Hill, which overlooks the football field where the WVU Mountaineers play their home games. Here is a view looking down into the stadium. The press box is located above Stanley’s arm.

The other major sports venue is the WVU Coliseum, where the basketball, volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics team perform (plus numerous major concerts, etc.). This picture of the Coliseum was taken from the parking lot of the WVU Creative Arts Center (CAC), where students learn theater, music, art, etc. Big name acts often perform at the CAC—Sesame Street Live was there over this weekend.

In front of the Coliseum is a statue of WVU’s most famous athlete. West Virginia native Jerry West graduated in 1960, and became a star player for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. He was such a big star that they used a picture of him to form the red/white/blue logo of the National Basketball Association which is still used today.

The WVU volleyball team had a home game against Baylor University on Saturday evening. The Mountaineers ended up winning the match in three straight games. Here is Stanley on the far left watching the pre-game warm-up (which is why there are more than six players on the court). The Mountaineers wore their white jerseys with gold trim around the blue numbers, plus their blue shorts, for this game. Notice the bottom of the large hanging scoreboard, the big WV symbol on the court, and the crowd that was already there before the game started. Stanley got to sing John Denver’s “Country Roads” along with the team and the crowd after the victory, which is a tradition among all major sports at WVU.

One of the most unique things about WVU is the PRT, which stands for Personal Rapid Transit. It is a transportation system built in the early ‘70s to take students around the campuses (the main downtown campus was running out of room, so they expanded on a nearby hilltop area that now comprises about as many buildings as the old downtown campus). The PRT uses small robotic cars that run on elevated trackways to various stations. Here is a picture of Stanley as the door opens up on one of the cars that just arrived at a station (if you look close, there are a few students sitting inside this car, waiting to get off at a different station).

This picture is taken from Stansberry Hall, the old fieldhouse where Jerry West played basketball for the Mountaineers. This photo lets you see an outside view of a PRT station, along with the elevated concrete roadway that these futuristic cars run on. In the upper right corner is the old observatory where astronomy students used to look through telescopes at the night sky (WVU recently got a brand new observatory atop a different building).

There is more to Morgantown than just the university. We took Stanley to see the Civil War Memorial, because the Civil War is what allowed West Virginia to become a state. Originally, this mountainous area was part of the state of Virginia. However, the rugged landscape here was very different than the flat lands in most of the rest of Virginia. They had big plantations and owned slaves. The western portion of Virginia always felt like the rest of Virginia didn’t like us, because they had been settled first, and they controlled the state government. Most of our state tax money seemed to be spent on better roads in the east and harbor improvements along the waterways. About the only major government expenditure made by the old state of Virginia was to build the state’s insane asylum in the western counties.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Virginia government in Richmond decided to secede from the United States and join the Confederate States of America. This was primarily because of they wanted to keep their slaves. However, the mountainous counties of western Virginia had few slaves and wanted to stay in the Union. At first, we broke away and declared ourselves to be the loyalist state of Virginia. Then, we asked Congress to consider us as a new state—the state of West Virginia. It was somewhat controversial as to whether it was legal to carve us out from the state of Virginia, but since Virginia had opted to join the Confederacy, the Congress passed our statehood act and President Lincoln (after much deliberation) signed it. We officially became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.

The Civil War is very important to West Virginia, because it was also similar to a war of independence for us. Had the Confederates won the war, not only would slavery have continued, but the new state of West Virginia would surely have been declared invalid and absorbed back into Virginia. Our state’s early leaders would have been persecuted as traitors, and Virginia would really have looked down on us from that point onward (even worse than when they looked down on us before).

So West Virginian’s had a vested interest to win the war, and my forefathers fought hard for the Union. That is why this large statue is here—to remember those who fought to defend the Union. However, this is not the only war that West Virginian’s fought hard in—West Virginia has always sent among the highest percentages of its population into the military. There is a strong sense of patriotism here.

Another spot we took Stanley was near the locks on the Monongahela River. Morgantown grew up along the banks of this river, which flows northward into Pennsylvania where it joins the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River. Locks along this river were built primarily to enable barges of West Virginia coal to be sent downstream to the steel mills in the Pittsburgh region. Coal mining is a big business in this state.

There is a high peak of exposed rock in Morgantown known as “Sky Rock.” We hiked to the top of this pinnacle to let Stanley get a 360 degree view of the area. Here are some pictures from that adventure.

Notice the Monongahela River hundreds of feet below (look close and you might notice the bridge carrying Interstate 79) in this view towards the west.

If you look real close in this easterly view, you might notice a baseball diamond down below. There is a federal prison located near Morgantown, and this baseball diamond is inside the fences surrounding the prison. Interstate 68 is also visible in this picture. Although they don’t show up in this picture, there are about a dozen large wind turbines generating electricity along the mountain ridgeline to the northeast.

West Virginia is quite hilly. We would have taken Stanley to beautiful Coopers Rock to look down into the Cheat River Canyon, but the access road is closed from November through March. However, we did take Stanley to see some of the rapids and waterfalls while hiking along Cobun Creek in Morgantown. West Virginia is known for its scenic beauty.

Stanley also got to eat some local delicacies while visiting West Virginia. One food that West Virginia is known for is pepperoni rolls. Many immigrants from Italy came to work in our little coal towns when the coal mines were booming in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was easy for the coal miners’ wives to take pepperoni, wrap it in bread dough, and bake it, to make a tasty snack for the miners to take underground with them. It became a traditional food in West Virginia. Pepperoni rolls are found in just about every gas station and supermarket around the state, as well as on some restaurant menus. Here is Stanley with a partially eaten pepperoni roll.

Another food item that is prevalent in West Virginia is to order a hot dog with sauce (sometimes called chili, but not chili with beans) and cole slaw on it. Here is Stanley with a couple of West Virginia style hot dogs.

Because November 22 was the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, we took Stanley to a local park along the riverside bike trail that has a nice memorial to JFK. West Virginian’s had a strong affinity for President Kennedy, and his victory in the 1960 West Virginia primary helped to propel him to his party’s nomination. This memorial shows him (a “flat JFK”?) on a granite wall, with a statue of his little son John facing the wall as he was seen at the funeral saluting his father’s casket. Here are front and rear pictures of Stanley consoling John-John.

Finally, on Sunday evening, Stanley got to experience the WVU Mountaineer basketball team defeating the NCAA defending national champion UConn Huskies in an ESPN tournament championship game held in Puerto Rico. It was a nice way to finish off a fun WVU weekend. Even if Stanley might be a Connecticut Huskies fan, he sat silently and politely refused to cheer for them while his host cheered on the Mountaineers!

I hope Stanley enjoyed a safe trip home to East Hartford, Connecticut. More importantly, I really hope Stanley had a good time visiting and learning about my home state of West Virginia!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Turnpike Turmoil?

The West Virginia Turnpike has been an important part of my life. This important route was the golden pathway to Myrtle Beach and other southern vacation spots, even back in my youth when much of it was still just a two-lane highway (with an occasional third lane for passing trucks lumbering up the hills). I can also remember the paper ticket given to drivers when you entered the turnpike, which determined how much you would pay, based on where you exited.

Even though it has been upgraded to Interstate highway standards over the years, it still follows the same basic path, from the upper Kanawha Valley to the Cabin Creek hollow first, and then crossing over (formerly through the Memorial Tunnel) into the Paint Creek watershed to get up to Beckley (check out my story about Paint Creek). From there, it goes past Flat Top Mountain and on to Princeton. [Did you know you can see Pipestem Resort (if you know where to look) in the distance from along that section of the Turnpike?]

This hilly, twisty highway goes through some of the most impressive surroundings in the state. I’ve always enjoyed the rugged scenery of this mostly undeveloped area. However, in recent years, I’ve been noticing more encroachment by nearby surface mining. If you look closely along the ridgelines adjacent to the turnpike, you can often tell that they are actually the edge of an active surface mine on the other side. For example, just north of the Pax exit (on the western side) one can see the edge of the mining operation that I stumbled onto when driving to Whitesville (read that story here). Thankfully, there seems to be an effort on the part of the mining companies to avoid infringing too much on the “viewshed” of the turnpike, but these obvious man-made activities along the ridge tops still take away from the “wild and wonderful” aspects of this amazing territory.

This juxtaposition of scenic beauty/surface mining was hammered home to me yesterday during a brief stop at the Morton travel plaza on the northbound side of the Turnpike, in the southeastern part of Kanawha County. On that warm November afternoon, I decided to hop the fence bordering the parking lot (there is an obvious low spot in the fence that people use to get over it) and follow the path to explore nearby Paint Creek.

After crossing the fence, I noticed one of the travel plaza employees enjoying his “smoke break” looking at the creek. He told me about the turtles that are often sunning themselves on the downed tree along the opposite bank, and about the big trout that he often sees there (he also cautioned me about the copperhead he claimed to have killed there recently).

I carefully roamed around the water’s edge and took a few pictures, while marveling at nature’s splendor that is so close to a busy roadside rest area. Most travelers are totally unaware of this paradise beside the parking lot. In addition to offering all those slick travel brochures inside the travel plaza touting West Virginia’s scenic beauty, perhaps the Turnpike Commission should develop a simple walking trail out back along Paint Creek to let visitors see the real thing!

As I got back to the car, I was startled by a huge explosion that reverberated across the hillsides, followed closely by a second similar explosion. This was definitely not a hunter’s rifle, or merely a backfiring truck!

At first I was unsure what had occurred, but then I saw the smoke rising from the top of the ridgeline. I had not previously noticed it, but apparently there is yet another surface mine just across the Turnpike from this travel plaza. A major chunk of the mountain had just been destroyed. The black smoke from the explosive charges and the white rock dust (at least that's my best explanation for the two colors) mingled together as they slowly rose into the air. Soon the wind picked up the smoke plus the ensuing dust, draping it across the narrow valley used by the Turnpike (I was already in the car and getting ready to leave, so I didn’t take a third picture showing the maximum coverage of the smoke and dust). I’m sure many drivers wondered what had caused this unexpected blanket of smoke to temporarily darken the area.

Thus, just a few minutes removed from enjoying West Virginia’s autumn splendor along the edge of Paint Creek, listening to the melody of the water flowing over the rocks, I had been starkly confronted with the ongoing destruction of the nearby mountain.

At some point, will the mining interests start removing the majestic mountainsides that border the Turnpike? It also makes me worry about the unseen countryside just beyond the edges of the Turnpike. Plus, if strip mining is so prevalent along the edge of the busy Turnpike, how bad might the destruction be getting in the less visible areas of our state?

Friends from Ohio who traveled the Turnpike recently posted on Facebook on how much they enjoyed their drive back through West Virginia’s fall colors. Others have shared similar comments about their love of the Turnpike terrain over the years (and not just in the fall). I can only hope that all of us will continue to be able to enjoy the Turnpike viewshed for many years to come, and that our temporary need for coal today does not leave West Virginia with a devastated lunar landscape in the future.

I’d like to think that most folks feel this way, and that such a simple desire for West Virginia's future does not automatically label a person as a “tree hugger” or some other pejorative political term.