West Virginia is coal country. See the seam halfway up the road cut? And all the
rail cars full? Coal seems to be the major industry here.
For us that lumpy ground that you can see above becomes the most interesting roads
to ride on a motorcycle. These are not rolling hills, these are steep mini-mountains
with narrow gaps between them and narrow valleys flowing down their sides. This
gives the roads lots of curves, drops and climbs. Wonderful!
Great for our purposes, but the economy here is low. Many of the processing plants
are closed, valley towns part empty with store fronts boarded up. Some of the towns
are hoping for some tourism money. The area around Williamson has built 80 miles
of ORV trails and they let the quads run down the town streets during the daytime.
We stopped for a potty break there and got blocked into the parking lot by a car
that pulled in front of us. He did that because the local police officer had pulled
him over and he came into the lot because there was no space on the street. No problem,
we drank our soda's, used the toilets and about the time we were done so was he. Then
the officer, Mike, wanted to talk to us. Again no problem, he is also a biker and
was thinking about getting a GoldWing and trailer. So we talked bikes, trailers
and roads for a half hour. I wonder if all the locals that passed us thought we
were getting a ticket. After exchanging calling cards we said good by and headed
on up the narrow canyon road. Go for it Mike! Get your Wing!
Another town, Beckley, has taken an old coal mine and opened it for tours.
The mine first opened in 1891 as a hand dug operation. The coal seam was about 3
and a half feet high. The miners worked the seam on their hand and knees or lying
down. They would, by candlelight or oil lamp, dig a slot at the bottom of the seam
and then drill a series of holes at the top. They could them break off this section
on the "dotted line" of holes.
The miners lived in a company town, received company wages and paid company prices
for their housing, food and store. It was a brutal job and poorly paid. The mine
closed in 1920 because of competition from bigger more efficient mines.
Our tour was in the same location but after the city bought the site in 1960 they
totally renovated it to a more "modern" mine, mid 1900's. They raised the ceilings
in the tunnels, laid the tracks and bought the equipment to use and display. Our
guide, Marvin, is a retired miner and explained things very well, even if, to us,
he had a thick accent.
There is also a museum and a collection of buildings salvaged from mining camps around
the state. And they had a nice little campground up on top of the hill where we
stayed. And this is right in the center of the town of Beckley.
The other big attraction in this area is the "New River Gorge". This picture is
from a picture in the visitor center. We did not rent an airplane. The name comes
not from it being a new river, actually it is one on the oldest in the country, but
from an explorer who told a mapmaker that he had found a new river not currently
on the maps. The name just stuck. During the 1800's and early 1900's this gorge
was stripped of timber, pierced with coal mines and had a coal town every 1/2 mile
down it. Today the railroad tracks are still in use on each side of the bottom but
Mother Nature has reclaimed the slopes and hidden the ruins of towns. The trees
are tall and numerous.
Before the high bridge was built in the 1970's it took 45 minutes to cross the gorge
on a switchback one-lane road through the bottom and across the bridge built in 1889. The
road was first paved in 1928. The road was closed in 1978. The bridge at the bottom
was too decrepit to use until 1998 when the bridge at the bottom was rebuilt and
the road reopened. Now part of the experience is taking the old road, which today
is also only one-way through the bottom.
The new New River Gorge bridge is over 800 feet above the water and about 1700 feet
long. It now takes 45 seconds to cross the gorge, a lot less than the 45 minutes
before it was built. The view from the bridge is nearly non-existent because of
the railings. But the visitor center, its viewpoints and the road down the bottom
give lots of views. Every October, for one day, they close the bridge and open it
to base jumpers, bungee jumpers and rope rapellers.
That takes care of this part of West Virginia for us. We plan to be back in the
northern part but now it is time to head east and finish the Blue Ridge Parkway. Well,
that's quite true. We did the first hundred and fifty miles and now we are going
to do the last fifty miles in Virginia. That will finish the Blue Ridge for us even
if we didn't do all of it. We are on our way to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home
and to visit some friends we met while we were in Europe.