A Trip Back in Time
August 2004

After visiting Buffalo, we headed for West Virginia. Ah. Finally. Land of my birth and home of the hillbillies. The clan was gathering at the historic Pence Springs resort to celebrate my sister Mary's 50th birthday, and a lot of family from both sides were planning to attend. But I didn't want to head straight there. With so few chances to visit West Virginia, I had planned another itinerary.

The first stop was Oak Hill, a small town in Fayette Co. where my mother grew up and where my ancestors had lived since after the Revolution. It's on a beautiful rolling plateau in the middle of the Appalachians, a few miles from the New River. The New River is the oldest river in North America and it cuts a deep gorge through the middle of southern West Virginia.


 In the old days, it was difficult to travel across the gorge, but in the 1970s that they built a bridge, at the time the longest single-arch bridge in the world. Every year they close the bridge for parachuters to jump off. Talk about crazy...

My great-aunt told me a story once of my great-great grandparents coming from Floyd Co, Virginia to settle here in Fayette Co. in the early 1890s. They came by wagon, and first settled on the east side of the gorge at Lansing, but decided to move over to the other side. This meant taking the wagon down a long steep switchback to the bottom of the thousand-foot gorge, then climbing back up. Apparently, the brakes quickly overheated on the way down, as my great-great grandmother Laura remarked to her husband "Jake, I know we're going to hell, because I can already smell the brimstone!". Just a bit of family lore.

My purpose in Oak Hill was to locate some old cemeteries where various family were buried. With a bit of help from the locals, I did manage to find the old Bibb cemetery, which dates from the 1850s. Fortunately, it's been partially maintained, though sections of it are still overgrown. I have always enjoyed cemeteries. As my Grandma used to say, it's not the dead ones you have to worry about.

In another cemetery near there, I even managed to track down my great-great-grandmother Laura Boothe, she of the "brimstone and hell" remark fame.

Right next to her was the tombstone of her daughter Bertha, born in May 1897. Laura died in June, then Bertha died in October. I can only imagine the sadness in that family at that time. Notice that the math was off on the tombstone: 1856 to 1897 is 41 years, not 46 years. So young.

Then it was on to my main purpose of the trip--to try and locate my grandfather's town where he lived as a boy and where his mother died when he was just 3 years old. The town is called Fire Creek, and it was one of the many coal mining towns that sprung up in the New River gorge after the C&O railroad was completed through there in 1872. Fayette Co. is in the heart of one of the most productive coal fields in West Virginia, and the industry started early here. Fire Creek was established in 1876 by a man named Joseph Beury of Pennsylvania, who owned a number of mines and town in the gorge, including his own town of Beury, about a half-mile upriver from Fire Creek. As you can see in the picture at the top, the gorge has long since reverted to forest, as the mines were abandoned in the 1920s and 1930s, and diesel train engines meant that trains no longer needed to stop in the gorge to refuel with coal. Using topographical maps, old survey maps of the area, and some historical narratives, I pinned down the target location. The only problem is that it is completely inaccessible, as roads no longer exist in the gorge. So a hike was the only way to find it.

Fortunately at the last minute, my brother Bob and sister Marlene both immediately jumped on the idea of joining us for the hike. They even agreed to get up at 5 am and drive to WV to meet us for the hike. We met up in Oak Hill, then headed for Thurmond, the closest we could drive to our destination. Thurmond is also abandoned, though the rail depot is maintained by the Park Service as a visitors center as part of the New River Gorge National River.

You would never believe by visiting today that it used to be the busiest stop between Richmond and Cincinnati; 7 people live here now. It had 3 hotels, numerous houses of ill-repute, and bars and saloons up and down. Today it is so quiet. My mother spent part of her childhood here in the 1930s.

After discreetly packing our backpacks in the depot parking lot, we set out walking. The only way to get to Fire Creek was to trespass on the C&O right of way, as it's only river to the left and mountain to the right. We told the park ranger we were going to wander around town. Yeah, right.

It was cloudy and raining in spells, but that only added to the sense of moving back in time. For hours, we saw nothing to suggest that this was once the center of the US coal industry. It was so completely empty. But nature of course offered us plenty to admire.

We finally started seeing some signs that man had been about. First it was some stone walls, then we started finding some complete foundations. The stone work was amazing, but then the raw materials were plentiful. Later, back in Thurmond, I noticed a few of the remaining buildings there had this same kind of stone foundation with brick or wood superstructures. Obviously, stone persists.

We then came upon a large foundation area, with even some wood left in the interior frames protected from the elements. The size of the foundation, the stone work, and the size of the frames made it evident that this was probably the old Beury General Store, where coalminers and families would buy all their supplies (usually with scrip money provided by the coal company.). Here's two views:

In 2004:

In 1909:

Further down the tracks, we founded a haunting sight: a lone chimney with an intricately cast design in the upper fireplace. Who lived here? Was it part of the old Beury mansion?

I was also on the lookout for the remains of coke ovens. These beehive-shaped ovens stretched for hundreds of yards along the tracks, and were used to turn coal into coke for use in the production of steel. The coke here was sent to mills near Lexington, VA; these mills are also long gone. The smoke from the ovens used to fill the gorge, making housekeeping difficult. I found several, some collapsed, some intact, but it was raining so hard at the time it was difficult to get a good picture.

In the end, it turns out we never made it to Fire Creek--we were only 1/2 mile short. We first thought these remains were Fire Creek, but after checking the C&O mileage posts against a detailed atlas, it was clear we had only made it to Beury. But that was good enough for this trip. I decided next time I would go in April before the vegetation all emerged, since these remains are so overgrown you would never even notice them passing by unless you were looking for them.

We started trudging the miles back to Thurmond. If only we could have hopped a ride on this coal train that passed us by!

We then proceeded on to Summers Co. and the family reunion. It was really a great time and just wonderful to see everyone again. My sister in Texas even brought her 4 kids, none of whom had been to West Virginia before. It was time to give them acquainted with their roots!

My nephew John and sister Marlene volunteered to go with me on my next quest. This was the old George Bragg cemetery, abandoned since my great-grandfather was buried there in 1954. All I knew was that it was "up Gill Holler (i.e. Hollow, to you non-West Virginians) and straight up the mountain". Indeed it was. After enquiring locally, I found Gill Hollow. This is the path leading up. At this point we literally went straight up the mountain.

At the very crest of the mountain, we did find tombstones overgrown in the forest. We found my great-grandfather and -mother, cleaned up their tombstones and reset them. I also was surprised to find my great-great-great-great uncle Daily Burdette and his wife Mary. I remember my grandmother telling me that when she was a little girl, they used to have a saying about them (no-one apparently liked them very much). It went "Daily and Mary went chinquapin hunting. Mary fell down and Daily seen something". I guess that passed for titillating humor in the early 1900s. Here's the intrepid gang in the cemetery.

The last stop of that day was to hunt down my great-great grandfather Jim Johnson's house on Laurel Creek. It was built in 1887 and I even have the receipt for the wood purchased to build the house. I recall seeing it about 30 years ago after my great-great uncle Frank Johnson died there, but afterwards it was abandoned. It was such a sorry sight. Here is all that remained in 2004.

And here is a picture of the same angle of the house, taken in 1922. My grandmother Alta is the woman with the poofy hair second from right in back. She told me she used to collect hair from her brush to use to stuff under her "do" and make it poof out like that. The old man in the white moustache seated is my great-great grandfather Jim Johnson who built the house and raised 15 children there Such a shame to see it pass, but I was glad to bring my nephew along to see it before it finally returns to the earth.

After the reunion, we headed for DC and our respective flights home. But not without some more cemetery hunting. This was one of my favorites, the old Hallidan Cemetery in Green Sulphur Springs. Like most cemeteries in a place where flat land is at a premium, it's atop a hill. My great-great-great-great grandfather Samuel Withrow, an early settler and miller in the early 1800s is buried here. What a vista!

We took some back roads home. We came around a turn and found this view in front of us, and it really typified West Virginia to me...a field of flowers (Aster novae-angliae everywhere!) and an old barn along a creek bottom.

The boy is far from home now, but I savor every chance I get to return. It's truly a magical place.