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Trail News & Issues
Coal Heritage Trail
By Bill Archer 1/00
Photographs courtesy Melvin Grubb

W. P. Tams, Jr., seemed almost surprised by the fact that Dr. Robert F. Munn, West Virginia University Director of Libraries, asked him to write down his thoughts on the formation of the "Smokeless Coalfields of West Virginia." Tams was an engineer by trade, born in 1883 in Staunton, Va., and educated in his profession at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), where he graduated summa cum laude in 1902.

At the suggestion of one of his uncles, Fayette County coal operator Samuel Dixon hired Tams on October 1, 1904, to work as an engineer developing coal property along the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. After working four years for Dixon, Tams and an associate from Lynchburg, James O. Watts, secured their own lease on the Winding Gulf in Raleigh County. On October 1, 1909, he opened the Tams Mine, and launched Gulf Smokeless Coal Company.

Dr. Munn worked with Tams to make a good book. It was copyrighted in 1963 by the WVU Foundation and printed at McClain Printing Company in Parsons. "I wish to remind any who read this effort that it is based on personal recollections reaching back more than half a century and may well contain errors, especially to personalities. for which I apologize herewith," Tams wrote in the preface to "The Smokeless Coalfields of West Virginia."

"The men who pioneered the coal fields had virtues as imperishable as the rock that overlies the coal seams, and faults that have disappeared like the impurities that are cleaned out of the coal," he added. "I hope the same can be said of this work."

There's nothing much left of Tams anymore. If a motorist used the Beckley Exhibition Mine as a starting point, then the once-thriving coal camp called Tams is 14.4 miles south on State Route 16. A huge reclaimed field extends almost from the top of Tams Mountain and continues to a point just shy of the coal camp named Ury at the foot of the southern slope of Tams Mountain.

A visitor crosses a set of railroad tracks at the southern foot of Tams Mountain in Ury. There are a few buildings and a couple houses. At just a little more than 15 miles from the Beckley Exhibition Mine, a motorist has already passed more coal history than most Americans will experience in a lifetime. However, in one way or another, the coal from those mines has touched the lives of every American.

Tams and Ury, named for land-owner Uriah Cook, are just a pair of stops on an incredible journey through the southern West Virginia coalfields that is gaining national attention as a "Scenic Byway," and is attracting serious state and federal money thanks to its recent designation as the National Coal Heritage Area.

Along with the railroad grade crossing at Ury, there are a half-dozen other points where trail and track combine. Likewise, a visitor has the opportunity to follow the meanderings of the beautiful Guyandotte River, where at any moment, a Great Blue Heron might be perched upon a rock at the next bend.

At the moment, the Federal Highway Administration has designated State Route 16 from Beckley (named for pioneer settler Alfred Beckley) to Welch (named for surveyor Captain I.A. Welch), and U.S. Route 52 from Welch to Bluefield (named by Hattie Hannah and Elizabeth Davidson for the abundant Mountain Chicory) as the Coal Heritage Trail, but the trail's governing body is pushing for national designation that will extend the trail to meet the Midland Trail (U.S. Route 60) in Fayette County.

"That spur has already been added on the state level," Bramwell Mayor Ken Beard said. Beard has been chairman of the Coal Heritage Trail Association since its establishment in 1995. Bramwell, a Mercer County point on the train was named for J. H. Bramwell, an engineer from Staunton, Va., who accompanied Welch on his 1873 survey of the Pocahontas Coalfields. Bramwell later worked as general manager of the Crozier Coal and Coke Company.

"The Fayette County part hasn't been adopted by the Federal Highway Administration yet, but I wouldn't anticipate any problems," Beard said. Fayette County was named in honor of Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de LaFayette. "The main thing this brings to the table is a linking to the Midland Trail. At this point, we're still working out the details of our corridor management plan."

Beard explained that the concept of a coal heritage tourism route started in 1991 when U.S. Senator John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV obtained a grant from the National Parks Service to examine the possibility of developing a coal heritage network in the southern coalfields. Marshall University geology professor Dr. Mack Gillenwater and West Virginia State College history chair Dr. C. Stuart McGehee worked with a Kentucky-based firm to draft a basic plan that evolved into the present Coal Heritage Trail.

"It is slowly coming together," McGehee said. "I realize that it has taken time, but I'm excited by the fact that it's moving. At first, I was not overly excited by the extension into Fayette County, but the benefits of linking up with the National Park Service gives us some real advantages. Also, Congressman [Nick J.] Rahall's [D-W.Va.] efforts to have the entire region designated as the National Coal Heritage Area is the real exciting thing right now."

Beard and the late Bob Barnett, editor/publisher of a monthly newspaper called The Bramwell Aristocrat, developed the actual mechanics of the Coal Heritage Trail Association. Its board is comprised of elected officials from the incorporated communities and counties along the trail plus one at-large member.

At present, there are 15 members including: Beard, Bluefield representative Eva McGuire, Jack Feller of Mullens (named for Andrew J. Mullins, a one-time professional bear hunter who traded the land where the town is located to the Norfolk & Western Railway for the singular price of naming the town for him; the name was misspelled on the original charter), Bob Beasley of Northfork (named for its location at the junction of the north and south forks of Elkhorn Creek), Mayor Billie Cherry of Keystone (named in honor of the role of many Pennsylvania natives in the development of the coalfields; the Keystone State), and Welch Mayor Martha Moore.

Additional members include Tim Ellison of Pineville (named for the pitch-pine forest at the towns original location in 1907), Doug Johnson of Sophia (named for Sophia McGinnis, wife of a pioneer settler), and Renda Morris, Beckley representative and executive director of the Beckley Exhibition Mine. Beard noted that Kimball (named for Frederick J. Kimball, first president of the N&W Railway) has never made an appointment to the board. He added that the McDowell County position is also not filled at the present.

Other members include, Karen Disibbio of Mercer County (1837, named for Revolutionary War hero, General Hugh Mercer, killed in the Battle of Princeton), Jeff Lusk of Wyoming County, (1850 and named for a Delaware Indian word meaning "large plains"), Buford Hartsog of Raleigh County (1850, named for English adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh), and at-large representative D. Grove Moler of Mullens.

Beard said the organization has been successful in attracting state and federal grants. He noted that the Town of Bramwell received a $500,000 grant to rebuild its old passenger station as an interpretative center, and said the Beckley Exhibition Mine was awarded a $400,000 grant to open a new section of the mine. Other grants include funding for remodeling a caboose in Sophia along with other interpretative projects along the corridor.

Beard said that thanks to Rahall's initiative, the Association has received $6 million ($2 million per year for three years) from T-21 funds through the U.S. Department of Transportation. "The potential here is terrific," Beard said. "You can restore buildings, but the important thing to keep in mind is you need to have a use for them. Organizations need to have post-restoration use and an operating and maintenance budget. The money is in there for development all along the corridor."

The National Scenic Byways Map lists the mileage of the Beckley-to-Bluefield portion of the Coal Heritage Trail at 97 miles and estimates about three hours of driving time. The brief description on the map urges motorists to use lower speeds "because the road is narrow and has numerous curves," and points out the obvious: "May encounter coal trucks using the road in some areas." Almost anyone who regularly travels these roads can attest to this fact, especially near Herndon, named after A.M. Herndon, an official with Winding Gulf Colliery Company.

Throughout the course of the trail, there are several reminders of the coal industry from the elaborate company store in Itmann, named for Bramwell banker Isaac T. Mann, and the 1895-vintage McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, site of the August 1, 1921, murders of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers, that touched off the decade-long West Virginia Mine Wars.

But the entire concept of the trail is not intended to limit a visitor's explorations to just the parameters of the routes designated. For example, at the top of Tams Mountain, a right turn will carry the traveler to Slab Fork, birthplace of Bill Withers, one of the nation's most admired R&B singer/song writers. Slab Fork was named after a nearby creek. The tiny coal camp houses of Black Eagle and the 1916-vintage prefab homes of Itmann are just some of the fascinating scenes along the way.

The Helen coal camp, named for a daughter of C&O Railway President G.W. Stevens, has streets named for miners' imagery including Lantern, Scrip and Check alleys. Every coal camp between Welch and Bluefield has a story all its own and they're all more than just "miner attractions." They almost seem to beckon a visitor to stop, visit and search for more.

Like industrial age Hansels and Gretels, coal industry pioneers like Tams left "crumbs," or little tidbits of information along the path of understanding the development of one of the world's most prolific coalfields. In time, that story will emerge as one of the pivotal eras of modern history.

Bill Archer is a reporter for the Bluefield Telegraph and a historian of the southern coalfields in the state.

Copyright 2000 by Wonderful West Virginia magazine and the WV Division of Natural Resources. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Photos are the property of the individual photographer(s) and may not be reprinted or reposted to the web without their permission.
Click here to view the latest edition of Wonderful West Virginia, the official magazine of the Mountain State.

Travel West Virginia Trails Online - Hiking, bike, Ski, Horseback recreation trails and more!
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