Rural hardship: a coalfield in McDowell County, West Virginia buries its pulse. It’s time to find it again.

I generally hesitate before I dive into an article that focuses primarily on blight and disinvestment, in no small part because it carries with it a tenor of exploitation. And there’s evidence to back my claim: an early article I did on the now-demolished, life-after-people hellscape of Camden, New Jersey became not just one of my most popular and commented-upon posts, but the non-copyrighted photos got pinched by other clickbait “Worst Places in America” sites. (I’d say there’s a relation between the online ubiquity of these pics and all those comments for the Camden article, but that would imply those photo-thieves actually credited my work!) Regardless, if my photos depict an area of concentrated poverty and disinvestment, there had better be good reason: I need to justify it with a thoughtful analysis (as with Camden) or some considerable exploratory journalism and background history, as I did with a much more recent article on the Old Town Mall in Baltimore.

IMG_9540 After my travels through McDowell County, West Virginia, I determined I would not scrutinize the obvious, conventional signs of blight. There’s plenty of content online chronicling this region’s challenges. The southernmost county in the state, its historic ties to coal mining resulted in a less diversified economy than the rest of West Virginia, though mining remains a sizable if diminished employer for this state in the heart of Appalachia. For as long as the mines were a bountiful resource, the population surged, with double-digit growth throughout the first half of the 20th century, peaking at just shy of 99,000 in 1950. By 2010 it had plunged to 22,000, a more precipitous drop than Detroit or St. Louis, and more recent Census estimates suggest it is now below 20,000. The county also has the notoriety of being ranked dead last out of 3,142 counties in life expectancy for both men and women, and near the bottom for other vital indicators that contribute to this dubious stat: heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and substance abuse. McDowell County is the textbook definition of a jurisdiction that has not found an alternative source of capital to replace the original industry that attracted people there. So those with the wherewithal to leave have done so.IMG_9541

 

Unlike other parts of Central Appalachia, McDowell County and much of the rest of the Cumberland Mountain region does show all the evidence of advanced settlement. In using this term “advanced”, I distinguish it from, say, the Eastern Kentucky Coalfields about 100 miles to the west, where (at least the visual evidence suggests) the mining industry boomed so quickly that, by and large, mature towns with infrastructure never formed. Camps emerged to serve the mines until they had tapped the mountain of resources. The rural roads in Kentucky due east of McDowell County primarily feature mobile homes and manufactured housing on septic systems. Some, I would imagine, use electric generators; precious may even lack electrical service altogether. By contrast, in McDowell County, septic is probably the norm for homes outside incorporated areas, but actual municipalities are out there: the county has ten of them. Most homes in McDowell (I’d guess at least 75%) are not mobile or manufactured; they sit on permanent foundations. And the county seat, Welch, which I briefly featured last year, is surprisingly dense and urban, given the area’s reputation. It enjoyed prosperity long enough to claim theaters, dry good stores, majestic municipal buildings, and even what one might call a modest skyline. Though only 1,800 people today, Welch had 6,500 at its 1950 peak, and the surviving architecture makes the town appear much larger than it is. Here’s a brief glimpse of downtown Welch:IMG_9565IMG_9568

That said, despite the evidence that McDowell County attracted a population that intended to remain, they have not remained, so evidence of rural abandonment is widespread. But blight is such an obvious sign of economic hardship; the subtler indicators are much more interesting and, in some regards, more harrowing for what they reveal about the challenges facing the few thousand people remaining in an area that subsists on little more than minimum wage jobs. Several miles east of Welch along U.S. 52 (Coal Heritage Road), drivers pass this nondescript building:McDowell County WV subtle hardship

It’s a food bank: Five Loaves and Two Fishes. While not striking in appearance, it’s the reuse that bespeaks the financial challenges of the region: the squat, windowless façade hints at a former grocery store, which apparently didn’t survive. Now the building serves a logistical station to deliver food as a means of charity through a nonprofit entity. And while it’s not the only food retail in McDowell County, it’s among the most prominent: I noted one full-fledged Save-a-Lot grocery store (about the same size as this building) and a few dollar stores. There’s little else outside of gas stations, where the unit prices tend to be terrible. Until January of 2016, McDowell County had a Walmart, but it closed as well: not because another, larger one opened at a smarter location in the area (as has historically been the case), but because, after about a decade in operation, it didn’t get enough business. With its closure came one of the best resources in the county for produce, for durable goods, and for employment—only 140 before it shuttered (down from around 300 at its peak), but still the county’s largest employer. According to the cited Guardian article, the assessed value of the Walmart generated about $68,000 in taxes, which mostly served the school district—all gone, forcing McDowell County employees to take a 10% pay cut.

 

Not much further down, a much more visually striking building perches itself partway up a slope from the roadway that limns the valley.IMG_9549IMG_9550Compared to most other structures in McDowell County, Little Vine Baptist Church is immaculate. No doubt it survives against strong odds; the number of churches in McDowell County has plummeted along with the population. Both the building’s physical condition and its most widely promoted service suggest that Little Vine’s coffers are reasonably confident:IMG_9548It serves a free weekly breakfast to surrounding community between Welch and Kimball, a neighboring town that had 1,580 people at its 1940 and has dropped to below 150. In a region where one out of three people fall below the federal poverty line, it’s likely that Little Vine’s Saturday breakfasts bring people from considerable distances to a community space helping to fill Walmart’s void.

Another clear indicator of the challenges facing a rural community that has shrunk by 80% is the infrastructure for public services. The devastated budget, only exacerbated by Walmart’s closure, doesn’t necessarily manifest parsimony in places like Welch, where government buildings still appear sturdy if unadorned.IMG_9562

The county courthouse remains mighty.IMG_9567No, the better indicator is the outreach along the remote tendrils of highway that stretch out from the more urbanized hub.IMG_9537The Northfork Branch Library can claim nothing more than the equivalent of a two-bedroom manufactured home, which is probably barely 900 square feet to hold all the books that serve a rural community the size of one New York’s larger boroughs, like Brooklyn or Queens. This obviously inapt comparison doesn’t take into account that the library is serving less than 1% of the population of an NYC borough. To be frank, libraries in remote rural areas may actually have a strategic advantage over their urban counterparts: while the satellite branches of the District of Columbia library increasingly cater to digital and educational services more than books, the demand for reading material likely prevails in Welch and surrounding towns. Then again, a library in McDowell County would almost certainly need to cater to the population with computer labs; broadband service is hard to come by in rural areas (my phone didn’t offer 3G or 4G anywhere), but a library should actually supply a vital public service as a free online portal. It’s just a shame it gets relegated to such a humble structure—the fact that it uses a manufactured home suggests that it is ready to roll up and leave with the next budget cut.

 

For my last indicator of rural hardship I choose a characteristic that’s more obviously predicated on blight, but it’s still an odd one.IMG_9587-001This magnificently carceral building has been closed long enough that I cannot find any info online, but not long enough to show considerably evidence of decay. (Given the nature of construction, it’ll probably remain intact for quite some time.) I’m not sure I know what conclusion to form by the closure of Stonehaven Homeless Rehabilitation Services. Is it a positive sign—that enough people can find shelter to preclude the need for such an institution in McDowell County? Did it close for the same reason as Walmart? Did it lose a state subsidy? Or is McDowell County just so remote and sparse that homeless individuals are now seeking assistance at more robust, well-networked areas, such as Beckley or Bluefield, both cities with populations above 10,000 (at least for now) that still offer all the amenities and services one might expect from a small urbanized area—least of all a Walmart?

 

IMG_9584IMG_9571

It’s hard to determine what the future might be for any of these operative businesses scattered throughout McDowell County. Perhaps (if I remember) five years from now I’ll at least visit these websites and Facebook pages, to see if the links remain active. In most cases, I’ll confess that I’m not sanguine. The population loss in McDowell continues unabated; Census estimates suggest it has dropped nearly 20% just since 2010. Callous though it may seem, perhaps it’s better that the coalfields region continues to depopulate. By some metrics, it’s an indicator of upward mobility: given the lack of prospect for any new employer coming to the area, such a steady exodus indicates that many people have moved to areas with better opportunities. But, as is always the case, one must acknowledge the few thousands left behind, suffering among the highest premature death rate in the nation (another contributor to the steady population loss) and that the provision of basic government services—or even the continued operation of the single Save-a-Lot—may be under jeopardy, leaving this breathtaking landscape as disconnected from civilization as one can imagine, given that the nation’s capital is just six hours away.

 

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

10 thoughts on “Rural hardship: a coalfield in McDowell County, West Virginia buries its pulse. It’s time to find it again.

  1. AvatarJ. Adkins

    The old Stonehaven homeless shelter was the old ICompany Store, I am well acquainted with the county. Another structure, almost identical, if not identical, is the old Itmann Company Store, also turned into a homeless shelter, in Wyoming CountybbThe fine Hand cut and laid stone structure was once majestic, and as late as ten years ago, functioned as a homeless shelter. That’s when I moved, and lost track of it. Your shots of a decaying town of Welch, in McDowell County, represent a town decimated by unemployment, abandoned by King Coal, and dying. I when I first saw it in 1975, it boasted 3 women’s shops, a man’s shop, all high end. J.C. Penney, and other good stores called it home. The parking garage you show, was always full. It had two grand theaters. Northfork had one of the highest interest yeilding banks, in the United States, but, sadly, many people all over the country lost money when the feds shut it down and, after trial, the principals were jailed for more charges than I have space to write, McDowell County was also home to CinderBottom, known far and wide for its houses of ill repute, illegal gambling, and, ahem, other things law enforcement turned a blind eye to. But most important, it has always been known as the “ FREE STATE OF MCDOWELL”. Going back to separation from Virginia, and neither state claimed it. You have offered pictorial invites insides into two ghost counties in my home state. I hope you don’t mind a short background. God bless and safe travels

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Thanks so much for the comments. It’s great to get a response on a post that I worried got lost in the shuffle. I just don’t have a big readership in WV I’m afraid. Your story of Welch doesn’t surprise me either, though I have to say, given the population loss, it looks more scrubbed and put together than one might expect.

      If that old Stonehaven building were in a more prosperous and accessible part of West Virginia, I could easily see a developer snagging it and turning it into a resort hotel. It was visually striking. I appreciate your thoughts and readership!

      Reply
  2. AvatarCrystal M

    I came across this article today because I was trying to find out if this county had fared any better under the current administration. The whole situation is really sad. I saw this video before the election, and I could feel their despair. I’ve been looking into coal production statistics, and it seems as though demand has been falling steadily, so production has also been falling steadily since 2008. Thank you for writing this, I guess this serves as the follow-up I was looking for. https://youtu.be/eqceHviNBC4

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Hi Crystal, thanks for writing. My photos from McDowell County and Welch came from about 3 years ago, so less than a year after the Guardian feature that you cited got released. It’s hard to say what, if anything, could improve the socioeconomic conditions in that area, but I’ll say that it reminds me in some respects of the Mississippi Delta. Yes the demographics are quite different–McDowell is mostly but not entirely white (it’s less white than much of the state, with almost 10% African American–but, like the Delta, it had a surging economy at one point thanks to extraction of natural resources. Mississippi Delta’s fertile soils made it a fantastic agricultural region, but ag work needs only a fraction of the labor today that it did a century ago. The Free State of McDowell, like much of WV, owed its growth to a much more ecologically destructive resource extraction (though agribusiness is hardly uniformly kind to the earth).

      I compare McDowell and the Delta because the evidence is still there in both cases of former prosperity: many towns in the Delta like Clarksdale and Greenville have fine old architecture and a small surviving contingent of neatly kept stately old homes. Same in Welch. It was probably a mighty little city at one point, and many buildings still survive. And the “good side of town” in Welch still looks respectable. But the abandonment is also obvious and is only likely to grow over time, and it’s been that way for decades. McDowell caught the attention of President Kennedy for its high unemployment rate.

      I mention these two places and compare them favorably to, say, much of rural Eastern Kentucky. Not so far from McDowell, and just as poor, but it looks much worse in my opinion. While McDowell County has evidence of permanent human settlement, much of eastern Kentucky coalfields look like mining companies drew thousands of people into makeshift camps, they bled those mountains dry, then the companies closed down overnight, leaving people stranded. Outside of the towns (places like Morehead look okay), rural eastern Kentucky’s settlement consists almost entirely of rusted and badly beaten trailers hugging the sides of those lumpy hills. And it goes on and on. Comparatively speaking, McDowell County at least has infrastructure and sturdy buildings. But I can’t imagine what will change the course of things there; it is slated to continue depopulating to nothing. Fortunately other parts of WV–particularly those areas close to the Washington DC metro–are surging, helping to compensate for population loss in much of the state.

      Reply
    2. AvatarD.W.

      I came here for the same reason. I didn’t realize they had taken Clinton out of context and here comes Trump’s gaslighting as usual. I wonder if they guy can go do a follow-up and see how they feel 4 years later.

      Reply
  3. AvatarMJH

    My family is from McDowell County, in the small unincorporated mining town of Berwind. While we moved out many decades ago, I can vividly remember our trips through twisting, mountainside roads, to the ‘Big cities’ in the mid 1970s – Welch, War, Tazewell, or Bluefield. The pictures above reminded of the area in better, or perhaps just simpler times, not only in McDowell County, but in our country. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’m definitely familiar with the town of War, if only because of its memorable name. While driving through McDowell County, I passed through Bluefield, Northfork, and Maitland on my way to Welch, then meandered toward Pineville and ultimately Sophia on my way to Beckley. I definitely noticed how slow-going it was–if the distance between two towns was 10 miles as the crow flies, it would likely take 30 minutes by car, even if driving 45+ mph on average. This very inefficiency and remoteness for travel, while part of the mystique and appeal of McDowell, is also in large part why it is likely to remain a difficult region to attract investment. For most of the time (including in Welch) I had no cell phone signal to speak of. That said, Welch clearly has the bones of a fair-sized, once mighty small city, and I’d still say about one-third of the homes looked immaculately maintained. It’s difficult to know whether massive investment is in fact justified–much like huge sections of Detroit (an urban counterpart) it may be better to simply encourage an elegant, constructive depopulation. That’s often what distinguishes economically deprived areas in the First World from their Third World counterparts: in the US, these areas are usually shrinking because most people who climb the latter economically achieve the wherewithal to get away, whereas in the developing world, the most impoverished areas are often still growing in population.

      Reply
  4. AvatarMelissa

    I grew up in McDowell County, graduated from Northfork High School, home of the Northfork Blue Demons, a basketball team that won 8 AA championships in a row, in 1978, at which time, coal was already on its way out, and the county was already on it’s down. It has continued its downward spiral ever since. I went back to visit once after high school, in 1982, as my family still lived there, in Elkhorn, (known for the creek that bears its name) the blight was apparent then, with the last major flooding of Elkhorn creek in 2015, the community seemed to have just given up; and what was once a solid community of solid hard-working people is now just a shell. The Hatfield and McCoy trails bring out some 4 wheeler enthusiasts in the spring, summer, and fall, but that won’t stop the decline, nothing will, unless a major industry moves into the area, but with poor education, high drop-out numbers, and the ravages of opiate addiction on so much of the population, the chances of that happening are slim to none.

    Reply
    1. AvatarAmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for writing, Melissa, and I largely share your cynicism about the long-term prospects of McDowell County, because you’re right that the odds of a major industry seeing promise in an area with such declining demographics seems bleak, unless it has other intrinsic advantages: natural resources, good transportation routes, proximity to overvalued markets, etc. This isn’t the case in southern West Virginia, and while continued population loss doesn’t seem like a promising indicator, at least it suggests that people are getting out. We must remember that the entire county of >500 sq mi now has fewer than 20,000 people (down from nearly 100,000 in 1950), so the thinning of businesses is inevitable. Callous though it may seem to welcome this population decline, at least it’s a better forecast than a situation where huge numbers of people are born into poverty and population is actually GROWING–precisely what is still happening in the most economically disadvantaged regions throughout the developing world. But not in the US.

      I hate to apply the “benign neglect” scenario because it seems so dismissive of the people who remain in villages like Northfork or Elkhorn, or small cities like Welch. But West Virginia is, to my knowledge, the only state with a net death rate, and the population loss does indicate that most people with wherewithal are able to find greener pastures in either neighboring states or in those areas of WV with economic promise, which most definitely exist. And we have to remember how many mining towns in the Rocky Mountain West surged in population then completely died over the course of 15-20 years, with nothing left than the ghost town curiosity, even while the economies just 50 miles away in states like NV and CO and AZ or even CA remain stable or strong. We simply lacked the resources and intellectual infrastructure to curate or chronicle these ghost towns the way we do now.

      Reply
  5. AvatarDWitkowski

    My neighbor used to organize a truck filled with blankets, food, clothing & toys that traveled from Weirton WV to McDowell County. She did this for many years. She passed away on 12/30/20 & I would like to donate in her name to a place/organization that might need aid. Please let me know.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.