Coal Country

West Virginia's down-at-the-heels mining towns hope to cash in on tourists who appreciate the proud history of a bygone time.

By Julia M. Klein

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Downtown store fronts in Bramwell, W. Va. about 6 miles north of Bluefield

Credit: Gina Candelori

Bluefield, W. Va., isn't exactly a tourist mecca. When I visited on a Friday afternoon last September, the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau was closed. So too was the Arts and Science Center, also in Old City Hall, an imposing, three-story classical revival structure built in 1924. The Eastern Regional Coal Archives, which houses photographs, documents, and artifacts relating to this region's most precious commodity, was shut for the day because the archivist had other plans. Even landmarks on the National Register—the Bluefield Daily Telegraph building and the former People's Bank of Bluefield, a soaring Romanesque revival edifice—were boarded up. Trash overflowed from entrance porticos, and signs warned trespassers away.

As is true of so many West Virginia towns, Bluefield's current economic gloom is as oppressive as its heyday once was glorious. In the 1920s, Bluefield was the regional hub for the Norfolk & Western Railway and perhaps the most prominent town in the area. To proclaim its exalted standing, Bluefield erected "skyscrapers" (at 12 stories, the West Virginian Hotel looms highest), but nowadays such architectural confidence seems misplaced.

Years ago West Virginia began to push its "wild and wonderful" outdoors to whitewater rafters, skiers, hikers, hunters, and anglers. The state has been slower to trade on its coal mining history and the pride and nostalgia of now-obscure towns like Bluefield. But with the establishment of the 11-county National Coal Heritage Area, created in partnership with the National Park Service in 1996, and the 98-mile Coal Heritage Trail in 1998, West Virginia is trying hard to attract a new sort of tourist.

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